Accountancy: Companies discover risks in the open systems revolution

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WITHIN four years, most large businesses around the world will have switched to 'open' computer systems from the proprietary, manufacturer-specific mainframes that have dominated. But perceived risks and problems are still prompting some caution.

Open systems were virtually unknown five years ago. Yet a survey of information technology executives by Price Waterhouse showed they represented the main system in one fifth of companies last year. The survey says that by 1998 open systems will dominate in 53 per cent of companies.

In an open computer system, operating software and hardware comply to a common standard. Material from one computer can be transferred to another, regardless of manufacturer, if they conform to the same system standard. In addition, desktop computers can be networked so information can be shared. This potentially reduces costs and gives companies greater flexibility. For these reasons, the end of the mainframe has long been predicted.

But there have been teething problems, mostly hidden costs, less portability than expected, exaggerations by suppliers and system immaturity.

'There are significant benefits to be had, but implementation is not as easy as the vendors would have you believe,' one user said.

More than a third of respondents complained of system immaturity. This indicates dissatisfaction with multiplicity, particularly of the most common system, Unix. Most computer manufacturers now produce Unix system hardware alongside their ranges to tap into this market. But idiosyncracies have crept in. The result has been that Unix systems produced by some manufacturers have been incompatible with those produced by others, undermining the reason for the venture.

This, according to one respondent, is deliberate: 'It is not in the big manufacturers' interests to make truly open systems work, and they will attempt to diversify them to the point at which they are no longer open.'

More generally, however, multiplicity is viewed as a temporary problem: 'In the long term all systems will comply with interconnection and portability standards whether Unix or not,' one IT executive said. 'It is only a question of how fast one gets to the same point and at what cost.'

Apart from these concerns, lack of the skills and experience necessary to build and operate an open system was a key impediment to switching, although notably not in Britain, where the perception of inferior security was more important.

The greatest barrier for more than half of respondents was the investment in their existing system. The value of installed hardware and software worldwide is estimated at up to dollars 3,000bn ( pounds 1,990bn).

Motives for changing were more straightforward in Europe, mainly financial.

In the US, where the change is likely to be more marked, with 64 per cent of companies switching by 1998, the emphasis was on the technical advantages, particularly the ability to link computers.

Jim Foster, senior partner of the Price Waterhouse team, advocates caution. 'Open systems are the way forward for more and more businesses worldwide, but unfortunately the survey shows that without careful planning, they can be a road to hell paved with good intentions,' he says.

'Open systems are all too often a disappointment for those businesses which have not thought through the process and learnt from the experience and best practice of others.'

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