The Open Road Of Open Source

Cignex Technologies, a solution provider and consulting firm in Santa Clara, Calif., has seen open-source technology projects become a major part of its business since the company opened its doors five years ago.

In 2003, about 20 percent of Cignex&'s projects involved open-source deployments.

For the company&'s fiscal year ending in March, Cignex CEO Navin Nagiah estimates that about 80 percent of overall revenue will come from open-source projects.

Cignex wasn&'t created as an open-source development house. The transformation was gradual.

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“Being consultants, our job is to look at the business problem and recommend the most appropriate, the most ideal solution for our clients,” Nagiah said. “We had reached the point where open-source solutions were providing higher value at a lower cost, so the shift was natural.”

As open-source technologies have grown more robust and more pervasive, they have become a greater part of Cignex&'s business.

“A few years ago, there was an element of risk in that open-source technologies were not mature enough. Now, there has been a lot of work done on them. As a result, the technology problem has been solved as far as functionality and stability,” Nagiah said.

Zope, an open-source Web application server development platform primarily written in the Python programming language, is used in conjunction with Plone, a content management system. Cignex also uses Mambo software, its off-shoot Joomla, which is based on Mambo version, and JBoss Portal.

Cignex recently partnered with Alfresco, an open-source enterprise content management software maker.

In 2000, San Jose, Calif.-based Epson Electronics America, the U.S. arm of Seiko Epson&'s electrical devices unit, needed help. The company had hired a solution provider to develop a Web site, but the partnership wasn&'t working out.

Epson had chosen to develop in open source, said Roy DaSilva, executive director at Epson Electronics America. The electronics company wanted to completely reorganize its content and change the way different visitors to its site could access information. For example, casual visitors would have one level of privilege and employees on development teams would have access to more detailed, proprietary information.

“For our revenue and for what we needed, we couldn&'t afford to pay licensing and development fees on top of [development costs],” DaSilva said.

Epson brought in Cignex to finish the site, and in the following years, Cignex oversaw the migration of the site to Zope and CMF, its complementary content management filter.

In 2004, Cignex completed a major redevelopment project for the site, and in early 2005, the company updated its look and feel.

“Cignex had been a Web site developer, but instead of going as a work-for-hire [company], they became a strategic developmental partner,” DaSilva said. “They looked at our business and competitors and then they came out with what was best for the available time and money to get us the biggest bang for our buck.”

In the end, going with Cignex and open source saved Epson money, DaSilva said.

“If I wanted to expand or deliver the Web site to a subsidiary company that does the same thing, I really can&'t do that with a proprietary implementation unless I go through a whole set of licensing fees,” DaSilva said. “And because it was open source, the hardware requirements were much less expensive than having to host it on a proprietary system.”

Cignex has no plans to stray from its open-source practices and what CEO Nagiah calls a “grassroots” open-source movement.

“Increasingly, in situations where companies are smaller to midsize [and] have less than a billion in revenue, they do not have IT budgets that can bring in a [high-end development platform such as] Vignette or a BroadVision. As a result, these people are more highly amenable to implementing open source,” Nagiah said. “In a couple of years, we expect open source to become a player even in large enterprises.”

Harish Ramachandran, a program manager who heads up Cignex&'s relationship with Epson, agrees.

“From my perspective, the reason why open source comes across to me as a better alternative is because it&'s based on meritocracy,” Ramachandran said. “Developers are writing the code while keeping in mind that someone else can look at it and be proud that they wrote that code.”