At Your Service: An Interview with JBoss’ Marc Fleury, Scott Stark and Bill Burke

With over two million downloads in 2002, JBoss is arguably the de facto standard for deploying Java-based Web applications. With its advanced features, microkernel architecture, full implementation of the J2EE stack, and an unbeatable price (it's free, available as source code released under the Lesser Gnu Public License), JBoss -- like Linux and Apache -- has been widely adopted by developers and corporate IT departments.

With over two million downloads in 2002, JBoss is arguably the de facto standard for deploying Java-based Web applications. With its advanced features, microkernel architecture, full implementation of the J2EE stack, and an unbeatable price (it’s free, available as source code released under the Lesser Gnu Public License), JBoss — like Linux and Apache — has been widely adopted by developers and corporate IT departments.

But JBoss’ success hasn’t been easy and many challenges remain. Application servers from giants BEA, IBM, Oracle, and Sun compete directly with JBoss. JBoss is “J2EE compliant,” but not “J2EE certified,” reflecting a long-running feud with Sun, which, up until recently, refused to certify open source implementations of the J2EE specification. (JBoss has requested J2EE certification from Sun, but Sun has not yet responded.) While the distinction between “compliant” and “certified” is largely immaterial, JBoss has had to work that much harder to gain the confidence of CIOs and CFOs. And JBoss is more than an open source project: it’s also a business. The JBoss Group, L.L.C., based in Atlanta, Georgia, divides its time, energies, and resources between coding (JBoss 4.0 is scheduled be to released in time for JavaOne 2003), managing close to a hundred contributors, and providing expert consulting services to existing and potential JBoss customers.

JBoss was founded in March 1999 by Marc Fleury, Ph.D., a former Sun Microsystems engineer who saw great potential in server-side Java. Along with chief technology officer Scott Stark, Ph.D., 38, and chief architect Bill Burke, Ph.D., 31, Fleury (age 34, and now president of the JBoss Group) leads a truly global team of developers and consultants (even the management team is distributed: Stark lives in Issaquah, Washington; Burke in Boston, Massachusetts; and Fleury in Atlanta, Georgia). Linux Magazine Editor Martin Streicher and SourceForge.net Site Director Pat McGovern recently caught up with Fleury, Stark, and Burke (via telephone) to discuss the history of the project, the challenges of running a business based on Open Source, and what lies ahead in 2003.

Marc, why the “JBoss Group”?

Marc Fleury: There are three ways you can be an Open Source developer: you can work for a company like Sun or IBM; you can do it in your spare time as a hobby; or you can do it professionally — with an Open Source company.

As an Open Source company, the JBoss Group is unique. We grew bottom up from our developer community. We are interested in a business model that delivers an excellent, free, Open Source application server and high-quality services to our customers.

Rather than focus on venture capital — no venture capitalist gave us the money and the business connections to fiat us into existence — and going public, our focus is on rewarding our developers and customers so that we can continue to grow as a profitable, self-funded company.

Scott, Bill, how did you get started with JBoss?

Scott Stark: After working at Bear Stearns, I was CTO for an Internet startup that wanted to do project management via the Web for retail identity branding. This was during the end of the “dot bomb” when venture capitalists weren’t shelling out money, so it was pointless to look at the overpriced commercial application servers. I also needed to go beyond the declarative J2EE security model. So, I started developing those features for JBoss and ultimately became the lead in the security project. Marc was starting to put together the JBoss Group company, and when we hooked up at the 2001 JavaOne conference, I decided to commit myself to the effort.

Bill Burke: Back in 2001, I was using JBoss and was getting quite active on the JBoss development lists. I had submitted a few bug patches when I received a peculiar email from Marc. The email had one sentence: “Do you want to take the Red Pill?” A shiver ran down my spine because I felt like [The Matrix's] Neo when Morpheus asks Neo to choose the red pill or blue pill. I just had to see where this rabbit hole would lead. The rest is history. (By the way, Marc had code named JBoss 3.0 “Rabbit Hole”).

What makes JBoss unique?

Burke: Although it’s known for its implementation of the J2EE specification, JBoss is, at its core, a small microkernel based on the Java Management eXtentions (JMX). This microkernel is actually our lightweight component model, providing component dependencies, lifecycle events (create, start, stop, destroy), deployment, management, and distribution.

Two million downloads last year is impressive. What makes JBoss so attractive?

Fleury: Applications servers are an increasingly important part of corporate IT infrastructure. The fact that we’re written in Java, and are therefore portable across operating systems, has been key to our corporate IT adoption.

Stark: The extensibility of the JBoss architecture is the reason. Standards compliance, forward thinking architecture, stability. It’s also great that JBoss is free. Just as one has come to expect TCP/IP for free, J2EE and its successor are an extension of the Internet protocol to enterprise computing — you expect to have the J2EE API on any web operating system.

Burke: I also believe we’re succeeding because the J2EE community is sick of spending millions of dollars on empty software licenses. I think our marketing slogan says it all, “What if the best application server were free?”

What gave you an indication that JBoss was starting to take off?

Stark: The number of downloads. Nowadays, we average something like 150,000 downloads per month. The increased sales of documentation, the interest from the developer community. My guess is that anybody who wants to learn J2EE, or is planning to use J2EE, or is using J2EE is taking a look at us.

Fleury: The demand for training.

Burke: Winning “Best Application Server” at the 2001 JavaWorld’s Editors’ Choice awards. We beat out billion dollar companies like BEA and IBM for the award.

Other Open Source project leaders that we’ve interviewed have mentioned how difficult it is to attract and retain contributors. Do you have the same problems?

Fleury: It’s difficult to get people to do things when you don’t pay them. Luckily, that isn’t much of a problem for us because once a developer becomes a serious and significant core contributor, we reward him or her with JBoss services work, either as a subcontractor or an employee. When people do work for us pretty much full-time, we are careful to maintain a balance of 50% time allocation on the JBoss codebase and 50% of time on JBoss services, which is our way of doing “professional open source.”

We are in the process of finalizing our first compensation plan allocation, where we hope to distribute stock options in JBoss Group to the core JBoss developers, regardless of whether they work for us full-time or not.

Who are the lead JBoss developers?

Burke: In addition to Marc, Scott, and myself, the other lead developers are Adrian Brock, Sacha Labourey, Dain Sundstrum, David Jencks, Juha Lindfors, Alex Loubyansky, Nathan Phelps, Julien Viet, Bela Ban, Jeremy Boynes, Jason Dillon, and 66 other developers worldwide.

How can a developer become part of the JBoss team?

Burke: We’re very lenient about granting CVS access. Show us some initiative, show us that you understand the code base, and we’re happy to bring you on board. If you look at http://www.jboss.org, you can find links to bug and task lists, as well as development forums for each individual subproject of JBoss.

What’s been your greatest challenge?

Stark: For me, the greatest challenge has been managing a distributed software project and a group of developers that exert a little more independence than you get in the typical employer/employee relationship.

Burke: My biggest challenge was remembering that JBoss developers were volunteers. You just can’t manage them like you’d manage a team at a traditional software company. Open Source developers do this stuff for fun and do the work in their free time. Now that many of the core developers are working full-time, earning a living from JBoss, managing things is getting easier.

What’s in store for JBoss in 2003?

Stark: We’re really excited about JBoss 4. We’ve implemented an aspect-oriented framework so that we can bring J2EE services to plain, old Java classes. What that means is that you’ll be able to write simple Java classes, without the need for cumbersome APIs like EJB, and still be able to take advantage of most J2EE functionality.

Burke: 2003 is going to be a great year for us. I think we’ll accomplish what the distributed computing industry has been trying to do for decades: totally detach and abstract out distributed computing infrastructure from business logic.

Fleury: As part of our outreach programs, we’ll be hosting the “JBoss Technology Salon” about every two weeks or so. In each Salon, we schedule our developers to be online at a certain time to field questions on various topics. We also have plans to continue our “JBoss Bootcamps,” where we bring our developers together to give presentations on their JBoss work in an intensive format. So far we’ve done this twice. When you work in Open Source, it’s very energizing to meet the other project developers face to face, as well as meet the end-users.

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