August 13, 2002 2:05 PM PDT

Worlds collide in IBM-VA Software deal

SAN FRANCISCO--VA Software and IBM will announce a software partnership Tuesday, a move that highlights the tricky entanglements of the opposing open-source and proprietary programming philosophies.

VA Software will move its SourceForge repository of open-source software projects to a foundation of proprietary IBM software, the companies plan to announce at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here. At the same time, VA will promote use of IBM's DB2 and WebSphere software for those employing a commercial version of the SourceForge collaborative programming software.

Early Tuesday, VA Software's shares surged by more than 50 percent on the news. The stock closed the day up 31 cents, or 38 percent, to $1.13.

Open-source software--the Linux operating system being the best-known example--may be scrutinized, changed, redistributed with no restriction. The inner workings, or source code, of proprietary software, epitomized by Microsoft products such as Windows or Word, are closely guarded secrets.

The open-source philosophy has moved from the fringe toward the mainstream, where proprietary software prevails, but there are legal and cultural barriers that keep the two separate. That has meant challenges for proprietary software companies that are trying to tap into the market--and enthusiasm--for open-source applications.

Oracle, for example, will announce an open-source Cluster File System on Wednesday that is geared to make its proprietary database software run better on Linux systems.

VA Software and IBM are taking different directions. VA Software, whose roots lie in the open-source world of Linux, is trying to move more toward proprietary software in an effort to boost its revenue. Meanwhile, IBM, which earns considerable revenue from licensing its patents and from selling proprietary software such as DB2 and WebSphere, is embracing open-source projects such as Linux and Apache.

VA Software runs the SourceForge repository, a project launched in January 2000 to try to foster the talent of open-source programmers. SourceForge provides free services such as e-mail lists, bug catalogs and code archives needed to house projects run by developers who are scattered across different parts of the globe and who otherwise would have to build such infrastructure from scratch.

When the company began SourceForge, it was a sidelight to the company's main business, selling Linux servers. But when the server business proved unprofitable and VA Software abandoned it, SourceForge became the centerpiece of the company's business.

SourceForge will use IBM's DB2 database software to keep track of the data in the repository and WebSphere to create the countless Web pages people request as they begin new projects, update software in their projects and perform other tasks.

It's a big job. There are 45,000 open-source projects at the site that is used by hundreds of thousands of people. Though many projects are dormant or dead, others are active and important. One of the open-source projects hosted at SourceForge to use IBM's WebSphere software is JBoss application server that competes with WebSphere. JBoss has dozens of active programmers and thousands of changes have been made through SourceForge to the software.

VA Software said it picked DB2 after evaluating open-source database projects MySQL and PostgreSQL as well as Oracle's proprietary software. In 2000, the Linux company invested in MySQL, a company backing that open-source database.

VA Software released the source code underlying the SourceForge site as an open-source project others help improve it or use it on their own for free. But when the tougher economic times struck VA, it decided to sell enhancements that it wouldn't share as part of a product called SourceForge Enterprise Edition.

Such proprietary moves don't always sit well with the community of open-source programmers, which has a philosophical, political, economic and cultural attachment to the collaborative sharing that characterizes open-source programming. Indeed, the Free Software Foundation--whose work starting in the 1980s led to the open-source movement--has begun its own version of the SourceForge site called Savannah.

 

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