Philippines companies continue to ride open source wave

Von Jenalyn M.

The Philippines continues to ride the open source wave, as both government and educational institutions, as well as several private companies from various industries have either already switched to open source software or are seriously considering to do so.

A number of local companies have embraced open source for their business-critical applications, much earlier than others, and are now seeing the benefits of their decision.

Although Isetann Department Store and Supermarket was founded in 1980, the company?s computerization effort is relatively new. Raymund Cabrera, management information system (MIS) manager at Isetann, shared that since they started late, they were able to deploy Linux servers from the beginning of their computerization drive. Cabrera, who is on top of the project, explained that he had been a Linux advocate and was personally involved in open source development for some time so there was no need to sell the concept to him.

Isetann -- which has its main store at Sta. Cruz, Manila and its outlets scattered throughout Metro Manila, including one in Recto and another in Cubao, Quezon City -- utilizes Linux as their application server for their inventory, accounting, finance, purchasing, as well as point-of-sale (POS) applications. The clients for these applications, however, are a mix of Linux desktops (K Desktop Environment) and proprietary operating systems. Linux makes up 75 percent of this client environment while the remaining 25 percent either use a proprietary system or a proprietary application. ?As some of our desktops use legacy proprietary operating systems that are no longer supported by the suppliers, we intend to port the applications running in these systems to Linux soon,? said Cabrera.

Cabrera cites cost reduction as the primary benefit from the use of open source, noting other benefits like: cheaper licenses; availability of tools provided with Linux that do not have licensing costs like OpenOffice, network tools, Java Compilers; and the free commercial use of databases. He added that they are also in an industry where agility and flexibility is a requirement and so one must be able to react or move towards a new business direction easily. ?I believe open source software provided us with this flexibility. When the organization moves, the systems must be able to move with it, he said.

In the manufacturing industry, Lafarge Cement Services Philippines Inc. is a major producer of cement in the country. A subsidiary of the global company Lafarge Cement which has more than 100 branches throughout the globe, Lafarge Philippines currently has six plants in the country -- five in Luzon and one in Iligan City.

Lafarge, like Isetann, has been using open source from the beginning of their computerization. Lafarge network administrator Ivan Avila said they use open source for very specific applications. The company has deployed Red Hat and Mandrake for their network monitoring system, Intrusion Detection System (IDS), and firewall. Most of the firm?s business-critical applications, however, still run on proprietary systems. ?Although it (open source) definitely has benefits, especially with cost, I think we still lack the confidence to completely migrate to open source,? said Avila.

Possible bugs and the lack of assurance that systems based on open source are foolproof discourage companies like Lafarge from fully migrating to the other side. The lack of available Linux experts is also a problem. Currently, Lafarge has four people handling its Linux systems. Actually, these people primarily look after their Sun Microsystems servers, but because these machines function similarly to Linux, they have been assigned to take care of the Linux boxes as well.

For his part, Cabrera does not consider employee expertise a problem. Although some of Isetann?s employees were used to proprietary systems before joining their organization, learning Linux and other open source applications were a prerequisite during the training period. He added that the recent advancement in KDE and other Linux graphical user interfaces made the transition less difficult for their employees.

The use of open source software is increasingly considered a practical and efficient business move nowadays, with many realizing the benefits of making the switch, either completely at one once or gradually. For Isetann?s Cabrera, every company should always weigh the pros and cons before they make any drastic move to switch.

Cabrera said one valuable lesson that they learned in using open source is that, though a pure open source approach may prove to be effective for many, a hybrid approach should always still be considered. ?Pure proprietary solution and a pure open source solution may not always be the optimum approach; mix and match type should always be considered,? he said.

He also clarified a common misconception: ?Organizations primarily look at open source because of its apparent cheaper cost. In some cases however, industrial or commercial requirements may necessitate the use of software that are not open source but run on open source environments.? In such cases, these systems may cost more, either because of the initial license cost or the support costs. These things should be determined and weighed carefully before joining the open source bandwagon; it may then be the best time to consider a hybrid approach, he said.

Cabrera said that 75 percent of Isetann?s business applications are already on the open source platform and is actually running well. The company is even studying the possibility of porting applications running on proprietary operating systems to Linux, although Cabrera stressed that they still have to evaluate the feasibility of this move.

He added that every organization may have different needs and they must study which applications would run best in open source and which would run better in proprietary systems, or if a pure open source approach is feasible.

Lafarge?s Avila, on the other hand, said that if technical support were improved and there were more available people working on open source, they see no reason for not migrating to open source even for their business-critical applications.

Every day, a rising number of local organizations are starting to seriously look at using open source software and tools. However, there still some companies who remain adamant, citing the need for greater assurance in the stability of open source systems. Common among these companies, however, is the fact that most of them recognize the perceived cost benefits of open source software. Open source development advocates often stress that organizations should look beyond the cost benefits of using open source, and that, although cost is a practical advantage that this system offers, this should not be the only reason for its use. Experts pushing open source development, believe the issue at hand is more a matter of ?liberty, not price? and, more importantly, of giving back to the open source community.