Open source directions: IBM’s Bob Sutor on best practices

Comments on Microsoft-Novell lovefest, Oracle’s recent open source moves

Bob Sutor, vice president of open source and standards at IBM, sat down with Network World Senior Editor Deni Connor to discuss the relationship between intellectual property and open source. The discussion ranged from how a company can balance open source and proprietary software development to what Novell and Microsoft are doing.

Editor's Note: According to his blog site, Sutor is the IBM executive responsible for driving and executing the cross-company business and technical strategy for open standards and open source as they relate to software, hardware, services, vertical industries and emerging markets. In particular, he's helping to move IBM from its traditional technical and intellectual property approach to one where business exploitation of standards and open source for greater customer value is paramount, especially in vertical industries and emerging markets.

You gave the keynote at the Frontiers of Intellectual Property conference at the University of Texas in Austin last week. What was the gist of that talk?

IBM is the world patent leader -- the patents cover everything from software to hardware and everything in between. We have over 40,000 global patents, yet simultaneously we are the leader in open standards and a corporate leader around open source. We've done things like releasing 500 patents to open source last year. The big question today is, how does a company balance these? In the business climate today, how do you make decisions about what you keep and what you let other people use? That's a big change for IBM.

For a long time we looked at licensing -- if you want to use our stuff, then come pay us. That worked for a long time. We make about a billion [dollars] a year from our intellectual property. We realized several years ago that that wasn't going to be enough, that if we wanted to look at growth in the long term in markets we were interested in moving into, we had to loosen up and start building a foundation around open standards for connecting systems over the Internet and driving a service-oriented architecture.

How does a company balance open source and proprietary software development? What is the right combination?

It depends on the physical organization within the company. At IBM, we have three separate, but closely related, structures -- standards and open source, intellectual property licensing and the legal staff. I'm in charge of giving stuff away; the licensing guys are in charge of getting people to pay us money for things; and, the legal staff is there to help us assess risk and write contracts. To begin with you have to have an internal structure whereby you don't have someone who just automatically says no. You have to understand that if things are going to be strategic for you, the organization has to assess that and have an open mind about what might give you some short-term income vs. what will really generate money in the future. Regarding software, you further need a more enlightened software organization that, rather than thinking about open source, thinks about the opportunity -- that thinks, that of everything I could build, what is it I should be building, versus letting someone else build.

The best example is what IBM has been doing with Linux -- we've been involved with Linux since the late 1990s. If we look at our customers, all we do is geared at making things better for them. Obviously the world is composed of hardware from many different sources; how do you put the right class of application on the right type of hardware and do it efficiently? For many people, this means putting Linux on all these different operating systems. It gives you a consistency of the programming model, it makes it much easier to expend software development skills from one place to another.

We early on saw that Linux is extremely valuable for getting our hardware in place, but it also gave us the ability to build applications that run on top of Linux on a number of hardware platforms. We have hundreds of programs that run every day on open source Linux. There is so much about open source that is psychological -- people have to get over their classic way of looking at "this is the way software is sold" and open their eyes and say, 'If I do this right, I might have a very good chance of offering to my customers something that is very special."

We've seen a number of product categories, such as network and systems management and databases, go open source. What type of product categories are the next candidates for open source? CRM, ERP?

There are some open source CRM applications already -- SugarCRM, which has been around for a couple of years and was started by some folks that came out of Siebel. It's going to be in the category of what I call processware -- the ERP, CRM, whatever. We have quite a bit of middleware. We're working our way up from the bottom. We have quite a few open source operating systems, databases and application servers. It's not new by any means, but people are going to turn a lot of their attention toward open source programming languages -- things like [PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor]. We'll see an expansion of [Asynchronous JavaScript + XML] for use in highly interactive Web applications. AJAX is fundamentally built on technology that is a decade old. In the last couple of years we've seen a lot of really nice software that runs in a browser. Applications are going to be running in browsers.

People are looking at office-suite applications -- I think that is a market that is going to collapse over the next decade. If we look at the pressures on that market, which is now overwhelmingly proprietary, there are open source alternatives now. There is a very good open standard called the Open Document Format. There's a whole dynamic on the creation of information and how it is changing. Younger kids are not desktop-based -- my sixteen-year-old uses a word processor when she writes a paper and the entire rest of her life exists in an interactive online environment -- she uses Wikipedia, those types of things. Kids are so computer-focused. In five years they may not even be using PowerPoint.

Is open source IP hostile?

It comes down to the notion of software patents and to what degree can open source exist in the world where there are also software patents. Where, for example, standards get implemented and used in the same way. First of all, there are lots of different ways to implement a software package. How is that information stored in the program? Some are good and some bad. Because of the incredible breadth of ways of implementing things, there's lots of ways in the world for having open source implementations and proprietary ones as well. There's plenty of room for both.

How do you view the Novell-Microsoft agreement on open source licensing?

It was kind of sprung on a lot of people. It looks like a lot of the deal is about virtualization -- letting SUSE Linux run as a guest operating system under Windows. The deal was much less about intellectual property and much more of a business arrangement with Microsoft.

Oracle has announced that it will start providing Linux support. Do you think that other companies will do the same type of thing?

There have been a lot of companies that provide support for Linux. IBM does. There's a little bit of shock that Oracle would announce that. It’s one aspect of open source software, that anyone can support it in different ways. It is even more than a support question -- it is much more of a validation of Linux. Linux has come of age. Linux is a serious contender.

Saying that, what do you see as the barriers to open source adoption?

For Linux on the server, there are no barriers at this point. For software development, it is extremely widely implemented. People are seeing that open source is slipping in as the foundation layer for a lot of software. In databases, IBM's DB2, there is room for open source -- that's the Apache Derby -- that gives you a small, fast database.

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Bob Sutor's Open Blog

This story, "Open source directions: IBM’s Bob Sutor on best practices" was originally published by Network World.