Iona takes a chance on open source

30 Jun 2005

Iona Technologies has become the latest major software name to throw its hat into the open source software (OSS) ring. The Nasdaq-quoted Irish software firm has announced, in tandem with a wide community of developers, it is to develop open source middleware that can tie different strands of middleware together.

A product performing this function is known as an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) and is most likely to be used in complex transaction environments, such as telcos and financial services firms. Iona already has a proprietary ESB product called Artix, which it successfully launched last year. The development of the new product, to be named Celtix, will be spearheaded by an open source community called ObjectWeb, which specialises in developing open source middleware systems. The first release of Celtix is expected to be available by the end of 2005.

Seán Baker, Iona’s chief technology officer and co-founder (pictured), emphasises that working with a community of software developers is the best way to develop OSS.

“Iona wanted to work through a consortium so this wouldn’t be a project that was controlled by one individual company. The majority of successful open source projects are done through consortia. The project becomes owned by ObjectWeb while Iona is the industry sponsor.”

Open source is defined as a program in which the source code is available to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design free of charge. The opposite to open source is closed source, also known as proprietary software — the traditional model of software development and one generally favoured by commercial software firms, most notably Microsoft, which sees OSS as a threat to its business model. OSS has been growing in popularity in recent years, particularly in the public sector, driven by local and central governments looking to cut technology costs by injecting some competition into the software supply market.

Baker says Iona’s move into open source reflected the new realities of the software market where both approaches are now firmly established. “We’ve gone from a situation 15 years ago where there was only one software model — the licence-based model — to where we have two models, open source and licence based, and they are both here to stay. What you want is a mixture of the two.”
Iona is at pains to point out Celtix will not simply be an open source version of Artix because if that was the case why would customers pay for Artix when they could get Celtix for nothing? Instead, Iona is hoping software development firms such as systems integrators and independent software vendors will try out Celtix to start with and then upgrade to Artix. The key to the success of Iona’s open source foray therefore is that customers can clearly differentiate between what Celtix and Artix both offer — and are willing to pay for Artix.
“Customers who want to develop using Celtix because it may address a particular need they’ve got may find there are situations where they need to use Artix. So we’re going to make sure there’s a clean upgrade path from Celtix to Artix,” says Baker.

Although it is the first time Iona has committed itself to developing a fully open source product, it has gone part of the way in the past with Orbicus, a version of its Orbix middleware in which the source code was made available to software developers to work with. Celtix will take this further in that the product will itself be developed by a community of developers working on the source code provided by Iona.

“The motivation behind us doing it is to grow the ESB space. If you do release an open source version, you’ll build up a new set of users who are attracted by that approach and this will help grow the ESB space overall,” says Baker.

This view is shared by Gartner, which in a recent research note predicted “a revitalised Iona could lead the nascent ESB market”. The industry analyst warned, however, that the software firm faced an uphill struggle. “Iona will have to develop an active open source community, build a reputation for technical quality and attract partners to distribute, support and extend the Celtix core. This will present a challenge, considering Iona’s limited resources.”

In developing an open source product, Iona is taking a calculated risk. It knows Artix will remain a niche product unless a lot more companies experiment with ESB technology. However, if Celtix is too successful, it could undermine the commercial viability of Artix. Only time will tell if it is a risk worth taking.

By Brian Skelly