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Open Source Is Alive and Well with Commercial Developers

Open-source programming, a concept started nearly a decade ago by developers seeking an alternative marketing outlet, is becoming a staple for many software companies. Open-source code is now the basis of many popular products, some of which are distributed for free.

An open-source environment enables programmers to read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) is a clearinghouse for license and marketing agreements involving open-source programs.

Alan Shimel, chief strategy officer for StillSecure, said his company is a huge supporter of open source. "This kind of software brings a much-needed grassroots movement that is pushing the software envelope. We try to leverage this in our products," he said.

The appeal of open source to software developers is that it allows them to improve, modify, or adopt according to their own needs, saving time that might be wasted on the paths traditionally used by commercial developers.

"The trend is for a company like ours to take an open-source engine and build a proprietary product around it," Shimel said.

Open-source products have spanned the three main software categories: operating systems, Internet browsers, and programming tools. Some of these products are so well known that computer users do not associate them with open-source technology.

OS Core Code

Consider, for instance, the operating system Linux. It is found in devices from handheld computers to standard PCs. Linux is the most-used Unix-like operating system available, according to the OSI.

There are several versions of Linux, many of them modified and packaged with specific enhancements. Perhaps the most well-known version of Linux is Red Hat (Nasdaq: RHAT - news).

Other popular open-source systems are FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD, which are all based on the Berkeley Systems Distribution of Unix developed at the University of California at Berkeley. Another BSD-based open-source project, Darwin, was developed for Apple Computer's (Nasdaq: AAPL - news) OS X.

Open-source coding is built into many of the router boxes and root Domain Name Servers (DNS) that power the Internet. A majority of these programs are rooted in a version of BSD or Linux. BIND is the open-source software providing the DNS service for the Internet.

Internet and Programming Tools

Open-source programs also are found running on top of many operating systems. The open-source based Apache, for instance, runs over half of the world's Web servers.

One prominent e-mail delivery system, Sendmail, is an open-source product. Even Mozilla Organization's Firefox Web browser, which has eroded more than 10-percent of Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT - news) Internet Explorer user base, is open-source programming.

Many companies use OpenSSL to handle encrypted communications over the Internet. The bulk of TCP/IP DNS, SSL, and e-mail servers are products drawn from open-source coding as well. The most popular open-source programming languages for Internet applications include Perl, Zope, Python, Ruby, and Tcl/Tk.

GNU and tools such as GCC, Make, Autoconf, and Automake are among the most flexible and popular open-source compilers developed. OSI claims most programmers use them as their primary development tools.

Shimel stressed the distinction between open source and open standards: The former is the use of nonproprietary programming available for anyone, while the latter is viewed best as an industry-wide coding practice.

Using open standards enables program components to communicate with other programs, he said. Examples of open-standard, or industry-recognized programming, include XML, Java, and PHP.

Free Is Not the Point

Shimel noted that using open-source products is not about getting something for nothing. "It's about getting interoperability," he said.

"Unlike commercial software, there is no one owner who controls the program. With open-source programming, more than one person is involved with the program's concept," he said.

That has advantages, Shimel said. Buying a commercial product always comes with the risk of the company going out of business, but there is less of a risk with open source because the code is developed by a community of programmers who keep the product intact, he said.


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