DIY-IT: How Linux and Open Source Are Bringing Do-It-Yourself to Information Technology

Follow the conventional IT media and you'll miss the new level of self-reliance and participation in Linux at companies large and small. Executives from Ernie Ball, Morgan Stanley and Ticketmaster explain the shift to “do-it-yourself”.
Valuing Talent

To Craig McLane, open-source human resources are collective as well as individual. To explain, he quotes T. S. Elliot: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone”. He adds:

By providing really robust tools to our people and by pulling in more people who are interested in solving problems, who can work autonomously, but who like to have the benefit of a larger community while they're working....

[People like] Stas Beckman are doing core work for us...mod_perl 2.0. [He's] doing a lot of the work that will benefit the community, which benefits us. He's also working on database connection pooling....So we get to take the lead on doing some things that have broad general benefits for everybody. Geoffrey Young is going to start working with us. He's going to be working on things that can be done autonomously, that benefit the community but also provide immediate benefit for our business when deployed in very specific ways.

Our teams have ownership over their tools. They also don't have an excuse. They can't say that a vendor doesn't have an answer or isn't getting back on the phone. Because everybody knows that there's a community out there and you have access to the source. Everything is in front of you. So there's an accountability that's reinforced when you have source code and a community that knows so much and is so willing to respond.

You're also more motivated. When people pick their tools, the work invariably makes sense to them. They're also working side by side with the people creating the tools that we're using day by day. You can't get that anywhere else.

Once again, a company gets smart and saves money by aligning itself with its own smart employees and the development communities to which they belong.

What's different between now and 10 or 20 years ago? McLane says it's “the amplifying effects of the Internet on the power of the individual”, adding, “only a fool would ignore that”.

Where We Stand

We read about IT brass going gaga for Linux almost every day. Ken Harris, CIO of Gap Corp., recently said he's in favor of “Anything touching Linux”. Emea Harris of Lehman Brothers said, “We're very aggressive around migrating to Linux.”

When I spoke about DIY-IT at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in July 2003, the majority of those attending the talk (about 100 in the room) was rank-and-file IT guys, mostly from large companies. Phil Moore was one of them. One audience member said some companies feel that their own open-source developments give them a competitive edge, and they don't want to talk about it for that reason. “They don't want their competitors to know how they do it faster and cheaper”, she said.

Untold Stories

What other kinds of stories are we not hearing, then? Here are a few, in no particular order:

  • Debian: “I'm seeing far more Debian than any report gives it credit for”, says one technologist working for a large vendor that has partnerships with Red Hat and SuSE. “Red Hat and SuSE may sell more, so they show up on surveys that follow sales. But in terms of actual implementation, Debian is pretty big.”

  • Education: at different periods during the past 30 years, companies like Digital, Apple, IBM and Microsoft have had successful programs for getting students hooked on their goods. Now those students are swimming in a sea of free software and old or cheap PCs on which to run it. Web services consultant and author Doug Kaye says “High schools and colleges are now all about open source....It's LAMP everywhere.”

  • The power of gravy: a number of IT people have told me that vendor relationships are valued highly, period, and always will be. “You get freebies. Tickets to games. Free dinners. Trips to conferences. A lot of people love that gravy train.”

  • Small consultant opportunities: one IT guy at a large company told me:

The do-it-yourself movement inside IT is lowering the barriers to entry for small contractors too. Thirty years ago, big companies went to big vendors for big solutions. That's not the case anymore. You've got small vendors and consultants with 15, 20 or 40 people going in and delivering hugely successful solutions to Fortune 50 companies.

Phil Moore adds:

When you contract for an open-source solution, all the middle layers of the contracting nightmare you get when you go through big vendors are gone. If you contract for a simple change from a big vendor, you can be in for spending a lot of money. The cheapest vendor contract I've ever been involved with is a half-million dollars. At the very least you've got two gigantic legal departments involved to begin with, just to negotiate the contract. Yet I've gone and got similar order-of-magnitude technology changes on open-source products for below five figures. This is a gold mine. This frees up a huge part of my budget. And time-wise the process is highly streamlined.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal