The growing appeal of open source in the enterprise

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Today’s CIOs absolutely must be considering open source software in their enterprises. Even if the Wild West still comes to mind when you hear the term, it honestly has been changing the way I think about technology and how CIOs run their organizations.

Like many of you, I would not have looked at open source only a few years ago. I would have struggled with three typical hot buttons:

  1. The talent war for open source programmers
  2. The comfort factor that you can always go to a vendor who truly “owns” the code and understands it if you choose proprietary solutions
  3. The perception that open source has security issues

I’ve seen many of these perceptions proven wrong. Open source security is light years ahead of where it used to be, and open source code has been proven to have fewer defects than proprietary software code. The speed of innovation in open source is something else that’s attractive to me.

Innovation changes the equation, because CIOs must be leaders of innovation today. That means moving at "consumerized" speed. Which is challenging, especially with legacy organizations (and commensurate technologies) that haven’t adjusted to the speed of innovation, or to the speed of the marketplace. The “shared development” nature of open source naturally accelerates the pace of innovation when compared to proprietary suppliers.

Next stop: mission-critical open

The American Cancer Society is now considering open source for our mission-critical IT. We’re doing that because of the maturity of the market and because, from a feature perspective, open source is extremely competitive. In some cases, I feel that open source is ahead of the more traditional big box vendors. The freedom and flexibility that CIOs have with open source is attractive, especially if you’ve had a bad experience with a more traditional vendor.

Another point is that if you’re in a cost management mode, you can depend on the open source community. It’s collaborative and passionate, and we have yet to run into a situation where we haven’t been able to find an expert, a group, or a community that doesn’t have some thoughts about what we’re trying to accomplish. They may even have figured it out already! That’s a huge advantage. And working this way is far more flexible than some of the more structured, user network communities that big box software companies tend to want to put you through.

I arrived at this perspective not because my team was openly resisting open source in any way, but because we saw it as an ideal solution to the huge modernization and transformation work we had to do in IT at the American Cancer Society. That’s why we are moving some very critical systems over to a Linux platform from a legacy UNIX environment – and already we’re seeing huge performance gains. This translates to lower cost with better user experience.

Better IT productivity – and more confidence in IT

Will this new open-enabled speed and performance end the war on cancer tomorrow? Of course not. But does it provide for a better user experience and less frustration for the people who are very much making a difference in the impact against cancer? Yes, and the multiplier effect is huge. If I get a few minutes back for each individual working in this environment every single day and multiply it, there is a productivity impact.

Just as importantly to me, however, we are building faith that IT is making significant progress. That means that when it comes time to ask for big things or engage associates, they are genuinely saying, “Gosh, you guys are really making a big difference in my day-to-day life.” It may not be strategic things, either. It may fall into the 80 percent of IT that defines most of what people do day to day. As CIOs we tend to forget that. But for 80 percent of my staff, it’s email, the intranet, our CRM, a couple of in-house reporting and operational tools, and a handful of other things. And if those things hum, it just makes our lives a lot easier. It builds you a lot of organizational credibility.

It also allows me as a CIO to live in multiple worlds: the here and now of continuous improvement and legacy systems, the new projects on the horizon that can impact our organization, and the next generation of projects for things that we haven’t even seen yet.

Jay Ferro is currently Chief Information Officer for the American Cancer Society (ACS), a nationwide,community-based voluntary health organization dedicated to eliminating cancer as a major health problem. Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, the American Cancer Society has hundreds of local offices nationwide and presence in more than 5,000 communities. Jay is responsible for the people, strategy and operations of the Global Information Technology organization. Additionally, Jay has been a leader in ACS’s historic transformation, which includes the consolidation of 12 independent divisions into one agile and focused global entity dedicated to saving more lives and curing cancer.

Jay Ferro
Jay Ferro is currently EVP, Chief Information, Technology, and Product Officer for Clario, a global data and technology company that minimizes risk and uncertainty in clinical trials, so that organizations can move ahead quickly – and with confidence.