The last mile – making open source software accessible
In the communications industry the “last mile” is the final leg connecting a customer to the global information and communications network. The last mile is often the most difficult and costly part of the infrastructure to make robust connectivity accessible to everyone.
Like the global information and communications infrastructure, open source communities and the software they produce are important global resources. And similarly there is a “last mile” problem making sure these resources are accessible to everyone. While it’s easy to get the software, most organizations don’t have the capabilities or the culture to succeed with it on their own. This is especially true of complex and mission-critical enterprise software, and why companies like Red Hat and IBM have been so important to the adoption of Linux: engineering that last mile to connect more users to open source.
It looks like Red Hat will be the first open source company to top $1B annually—a milestone only a handful of software firms have attained. As the first open source company to realize this level of success, Red Hat is an important example that demonstrates the magnitude of the potential in the last mile. And their approach to serving their customers addresses the last mile in a way that aligns with and grows contribution to the Linux community.
So what’s in the last mile?
- The last mile for open source applications provides the pathway to enable any organization, regardless of their culture or technical capabilities, to:
- discover the application
- evaluate fit with the institution’s objectives
- deploy and configure the software in a production architecture that will support anticipated use
- integrate with other campus systems and 3rd party tools
- manage the application in production
- optimize performance and reliability with the latest updates and patches
- train users to get the most out of it
- troubleshoot and resolve issues
- understand and build their own balanced engagement with open source communities
Travelling the last mile
There are three ways organizations travel the last mile, running the gamut from build to buy, each finding a different balance between control, costs, resources, and responsibilities.
Build: Some organizations have the culture and capability to build the last mile on their own. This approach requires a fair number of people and skills. It is generally a more costly approach, but it affords an organization with a great deal of control as I’ve written about before. Organizations that take this approach are often major contributors to open source communities, adding everything from code to governance.
Borrow: Another group of organizations have the culture and some of the capability to successfully adopt open source applications and have been able to engage consulting firms to help by adding expertise and experience to augment their own capabilities. These institutions are nearly self-sufficient in steady state, but may continue to engage consultants from time to time, ceding some level of control.
Buy: There’s a third, far larger group of organizations that don’t have the culture or capabilities to engage with an open source community or effectively harness community products. For these institutions, assembling all of the pieces is a daunting proposition that would require hiring or reallocating staff. And, if this kind of investment isn’t a fit with the organizational culture or priorities for the application being considered, then—daunting or not—the approach isn’t a good strategic fit. Too often for this reason, some institutions rule out or don’t even consider open source.
From my perspective it is this last “buy” group that has a “last mile” problem with open source. And to address the last mile for them, we need to make open source as easy to discover, evaluate, deploy, and support as the proprietary, licensed alternatives.
Red Hat has done a great job of addressing the last mile for the Linux community. The company I work for, rSmart, works to solve the last mile problem for Sakai and Kuali—two global communities serving education by developing innovative enterprise software for academics, administration, and finance. Our aim is to make sure that the software these communities produce is accessible to every school, college, university, and training organization in the world.