The Power of Commercial Support for Open Core Products: Tata Steel Automotive Engineering

By Nicole Hemsoth

August 22, 2011

Like most business savvy customers, Tata Steel Automotive Engineering continuously monitors operational costs in an effort to guarantee they are receiving quality solutions, at cost-effective prices, for the services and functions necessary to run their business. Therefore, when Tata Steel (i.e., TSAE) originally sought a workload management solution, Grid Engine (at the time offered from Sun Microsystems) was the perfect fit. As an open-source solution, Grid Engine limited initial investment, making it a cost-effective direction. Grid Engine was also selected for a reputation as a very mature, full-featured product, with a long history and proven track record – lending credibility to its reliability. However, self-support solutions, while possessing tremendous advantages, often contain hidden costs and risks, which lead TSAE to evolve from an open source solution to a commercial product with commercial sup­port and an open source core, from Univa Corporation.

Exploring Open Core Solutions
Typically, open source software is viewed as a low cost alternative to commercial software. However, there are often additional costs that accompany an open source model that may not be accounted for in direct comparisons. In order to understand a total cost comparison, support must be taken into account – in the form of installation and configuration, bug fixes and day-to-day care and feeding. In addition to reactive support, a successful model must address feature enhancements (many times referred to as ECOs, or engineering change requests) and integrate with companion products while proactively addressing future demand. This way, features and capabilities are available at day one of delivery for technology innovations that lie outside of the product. Each of these capabilities has an escalating cost, benefit, and quality of service impact.  These additional tasks can be addressed by re-tasking personnel already within the support organization, increasing the support team, or contracting through outside resources. Regardless of the method, there is a clear cost to using open source solutions that directly impacts user support budget.

In today’s market, a business model is emerging that uses open source software as the core of the solution, but charges for the value added above and beyond the basic open source code set. Successful examples include RedHat charging for Linux support or Univa charging for support of Grid Engine. With Univa-branded Grid Engine, access to new features or premium capabilities not yet available in the open source code base is proactively provided. This combines the benefits of an open source solution with the benefits of a commercial solution and mitigates the disadvantages of closed source – all at a cost-effective price.

Who Is Tata Steel Automotive Engineering?
Tata Steel is a top ten global steel maker and the world’s second most geographically diversified steel producer.

TSAE utilizes compute clusters running technical computing applications to allow TSAE engineers to design and virtually test automotive components against product requirements. Significant compute power is required for a number of software applications that simulate the manufacturing processes and performance of finished products at the component, system and whole-vehicle levels. The goals of these simulations are to reduce cost, improve vehicle performance in normal operating conditions and enhance the vehicle. TSAE’s challenge is in maximizing the throughput of their compute cluster to maximize the return on investment in the software licenses employed. To this end, TSAE significantly expanded their technical computing environment approximately 5 years ago, and implemented a commercial user job submission portal to address the increased capacity and complexity the expansion brought. TSAE concluded that SGE was the best all-round package to address their needs; however, the following risks were identified:

• Support provided by 3rd party consultants

• Support more difficult due to the solution integrated with multiple components to create a complete solution

• Given the multi-component nature of the solution, issue resolution could require multi-party cooperation

• Bug fixes would come from the Grid Engine community

• Upgrades would be executed by internal resources and made more difficult

TSAE felt these risks were acceptable because they already had internal resources available to participate in support and they felt SGE was a stable product that would not have many issues. However, although they had already determined that the current, unsupported model was critical to the business, they later realized installing a solution that was adequately supported became a requirement.  Two and a half years later, TSAE decided to move to a Univa-branded solution that offered a SGE solution based on best-in-class open source components integrated by Univa, packaged with Univa-provided support for the entire software stack. This move was a big step forward for TSAE. If an issue arose with any of the components, then, from a business perspective, they understood the resolution would process through Univa. TSAE also stressed importance on streamlining their internal support operation, moving to 100% reliance on Univa for technical support, with internal resources providing front-line support for troubleshooting.

Univa’s Solution Model
TSAE set forth, examining the business requirements and available solutions in order to select a model that met their needs. When Univa announced that they had acquired the SGE team, this made TSAE’s decision fairly easy. The move would keep TSAE with current technology, strengthen the levels of support they were already experiencing and allow them access to an even greater level of expertise than they had previously experienced up to that point.  By maintaining access to the latest software release, they gained performance and stability benefits. They were now fully supported at both a product and integration level, adding additional value. In addition, the licensing/support model and cost structure adopted by Univa was of significant importance in TSAE’s decision process. Based on their past experience, TSAE was very confident in Univa’s ability to deliver on the support aspect of their solution.

TSAE arrived at the conclusion that they could stay with their existing tool (not incurring change costs), re-purpose internal resources that had previously provided SGE support (providing higher value-add to the business), and contract domain experts (i.e., Univa) to provide business critical tool support, integration, and professional services at a very cost effective price. Additionally, the deep knowledge applied by the developers during an integration or upgrade enables significant improvements in performance, reliability, stability, and capability. By applying their intimate understanding of the product, Univa enabled TSAE to implement their desired solution by optimizing configuration options to deliver a workload manager specific to their business requirements. Univa also provided tremendous background knowledge with regard to best practices, proper operational configurations, and customized only what was necessary.

“We upgraded to the first Univa Grid Engine release in May 2011. One of the development teams came to our site to carry out the update, and I would class it as one of the smoothest up­dates we have ever undertaken. In addition to the update, we had a ‘best practice’ review, took time to do some knowledge exchange/training, and were able to implement a number of minor enhancements through a better understand­ing of some of the more detailed configuration options.”
-Mike Twelves, TSAE

Additional Benefits
After purchasing Grid Engine support from Univa, TSAE observed their support relationship with Univa and found that Univa provided timely delivery of requests, with solutions that were well-executed and well-documented. They also observed that consultants from Univa were always available to participate in any special projects with which TSAE required assistance, and grew to rely on the Univa support organization and their trustworthy history of reliability and excellence.

Additionally, TSAE had realized significant benefit in the form of no “finger pointing” when issues arose – as the solution was bundled for end-to-end support. They achieved significant economic advantage over an internal support model with the same capabilities, with access to domain expertise assistance for one-time projects available through Univa.  They also contained their business risk by trusting a commercial entity (Univa) to stand behind their open source solution – receiving prompt support for bug fixes (including prioritization and escalation). Conclusively, TSAE’s relationship with Univa proved very beneficial – the product was well engineered, the consultants knew the different products extremely well, and the support team was very responsive.

“It’s actually not a big step (financially) to go from an open source solution to an open core solution, but the benefits are significant, especially in managing the risk the business is exposed to.”
Mike Twelves, TSAE

Looking Ahead at Future Solutions
Open source solutions offer many advantages over closed source solutions, but may also inflict disadvantages that closed source solutions may not suffer. While an open-source solution always seems like the most inexpensive route, there are many factors that contribute to costs not easily. These costs can be accounted for by looking to commercial support for open source based solutions, allowing the total solution costs to total the same or lower than competitive proprietary solutions. Additionally, a model must weigh the revolutionary changes verses evolutionary changes against the investment required to make those changes.

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