It was 6 am and Apache Software Foundation President Brian Behlendorf had been up all night writing a chapter for the book Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution. Behlendorf was burning the midnight oil because the book was to go to the printer that very day and his was the last chapter to be submitted. Behlendorf had made a name for himself as one of the lead developers on the Apache Web server project and the chapter was a spontaneous outpouring of his thoughts on how technology companies should go about open sourcing software.
Apache is an incredibly successful example of open source software development, and Behlendorf was sure that the lessons he learned working on Apache could be useful to traditional technology companies. After having his wife proof his writing, Behlendorf e-mailed his chapter to his frantic editors at O’Reilly & Associates. It must have been well-received because a few months later — on January 25, 1999 — Brian Behlendorf began working for his publisher, Tim O’Reilly. His mission: to develop new open source business models.
“I couldn’t afford to just work on Apache for the rest of my life,” recalls Behlendorf, “I wanted to do something like this commercially…I realized that it’s beyond a Web server, beyond Linux. It’s about the development process; it’s about the mores and protocols and ethics…in this kind of community.”
The open source development process that Behlendorf refers to is actually a natural outgrowth of the Internet. The Internet gave individual developers access to a worldwide network of peers, and this enabled a whole new kind of software development. This new model was founded upon certain basic principles: First, keep communication and code open, and second, encourage collaboration.
In order to stay true to those principles, open source developers have created a number of tools: Things like mailing lists, CVS (Concurrent Versions System), bug-tracking systems and FTP servers. Of course, each open source project would tend to develop in its own way, and not all of them use the same tools — the Linux kernel, for example, does not use CVS (or any version-control software, for that matter). By creating a set of standard development tools, Behlendorf hoped to make life easier and more rewarding for open source developers.
In the old days, maybe the customers were willing to say, ‘I’ll ask for a feature and maybe it’ll be 18-20 months before anything even remotely close comes.’ Today you can’t get away with that. — Eric Allman
Not that the open source development model was doing badly before all of this — its success is hard to dispute: It has provided the market-leading Web server, the fastest-growing OS, and the most widely used mail server. According to the developer behind that mail server, Eric Allman, open source development has been extremely successful because it fundamentally restructures the flow of information between users and developers.
In the traditional commercial software development model there is a strict separation between software users and developers: Customers would talk to sales people, who would interface with marketing, which would then compile a feature set along with engineering management that would make its way to the development team. “In the old days, maybe the customers were willing to say, ‘I’ll ask for a feature and maybe it’ll be 18-20 months before anything even remotely close comes.’ Today you can’t get away with that.”
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Behlendorf was developing a new business model based on open source, while simultaneously developing a set of tools that have the potential to change the software industry. In the 18 months since his move to O’Reilly, a number of companies, including Behlendorf’s start-up, Collab.Net, have begun building businesses based on providing services and marketplaces that will enable a new kind of animal: the professional open source developer.
While Behlendorf was developing the business model that would eventually become Collab.Net, Hewlett Packard’s Open Source Solutions Manager Wayne Caccamo approached him looking for a way to better work with the open source development community. Behlendorf took HP up on the idea and the result was SourceXchange, Collab.net’s first attempt at creating an online marketplace for open source projects.
Launched in May 1999 (before Collab.Net officially existed), SourceXchange provides both a marketplace where companies can hook up with developers, as well as a supervised environment where development projects can be shepherded to fruition. At its core, SourceXchange is about connecting individual developers with one-off projects — it is the place where you might get a specialized Apache module developed to help your company’s e-commerce site. It’s not where you would develop the next Linux OS.
RIVER OF CODE: Tigris.org is where development work on Collab.Net’s engine is being done.
In February of this year, Collab.Net unveiled its next project, the Tigris hosting platform, and the first company to use it, Hewlett-Packard, which hired Collab.Net to create a community around its E-Speak voice recognition software. With Tigris, Collab.Net has glued together a number of common open source development tools using Java servlets, but the real value of Tigris, according to Behlendorf, is the hosting and consulting services that Collab.Net brings to the table. “The business model is to provide Tigris as a hosted platform,” says Behlendorf, “to go in to companies and say, ‘If you want to have an open source project like HP’s E-Speak technology, we will provide that. We will host it for you on our servers rather than you having to pay for an administrator and bandwidth and machinery and all that kind of stuff.”
If you want to have an open source project like HP’s E-Speak technology, we will provide that. We will host it for you on our servers rather than you having to pay for an administrator and bandwidth and machinery and all that kind of stuff. — Brian Behlendorf
Already the open source methodology has attracted a lot of attention and virtually all of the major Linux companies — VA, Red Hat, and Linuxcare — have been approached by companies struggling with the decision of whether or not to open source their software. Collab.Net is unique in that it is the first company to identify this as a market and to create a product line aimed at servicing this space. “We’re being paid to help walk companies through a new world,” says Collab.Net CEO Bill Portelli. According to him, Collab.Net will work with a technology company, helping them to evaluate whether or not to open source their code and then guiding them through the steps of not just posting the code and development tools, but of creating a living development community. “It’s not Field of Dreams” says Portelli. “You have to do some things to attract the fans. You can’t just post your software on an FTP site and say, ‘Here you go.’”
PILLAR OF THE COMMUNITY: Anyone with an Open Source project can have it hosted on SourceForge.net.
VA Linux Systems’ Vice President of Professional Services John Hall concurs. His company has been extremely successful in creating a community of open source developers with its SourceForge project hosting site. While Collab.Net extracts a transaction fee from each project brokered on its SourceXchange marketplace and charges companies to set up and host communities using Tigris, VA does not directly generate any revenue from SourceForge.
According to Hall, VA wasn’t so much looking to develop a new business model as to solve a pragmatic problem. Since its inception, the Sunnyvale, CA-based company had gone out of its way to host as many open source projects as possible, and by early 1999 the sheer volume was becoming noticeable. With each project using its own unique toolset, administering the growing number of open source projects hosted at VA was becoming expensive, and Hall realized that by standardizing and automating some of the administrative work, his company could host more projects for less money. In August 1999, VA launched a service called Cold Storage, which was designed to archive old versions of open source software, but after talking to developers, they realized they could do a lot more. Three months later, SourceForge was born.
In its short life, SourceForge has managed to attract a remarkable number of projects, including marquee development efforts like KDE (Linux’s K Desktop Environment), Mesa (an open source implementation of OpenGL), and Aladdin Ghostscript (an open source version of Adobe’s PostScript). The site registered more than 25,000 developers and 4,000 projects in the first six months of its life.
SourceForge has a lot of appeal for small projects. For free, any project releasing code under an Open Source Initiative-approved license can get 100 MB of server space, Web hosting, FTP, CVS, mailing lists, tech-support software, and most important, a presence among the growing community of SourceForge developers. “Part of the strength of the site is not just in the technical infrastructure that it provides” says VA Internet Marketing Manager Dan Bressler. “The true pillar feature of the site is the community that they’ve created.” SourceForge has a variety of features that leverage the community of developers working there — from lists of most popular downloads, to project news, to a topical index of projects.
This growing community may just hold the answer to the money question. According to VA’s Bressler, “companies have approached us about moving to open source and providing them with some consulting services and assessment services to help them build communities around their projects.”
When Hewlett-Packard approached VA’s professional services group about developing open source printer drivers for Linux, VA was able point to the thriving SourceForge community and convince HP — a Collab.Net customer — to host its driver development on the VA site.
But when it comes time to open source high-profile technology, it seems unlikely that companies will want to host their projects on SourceForge, essentially helping VA to build its own brand. IBM, for example, has open sourced a number of its technologies, including its journaling filesystem, but Big Blue decided against hosting any of its technologies on SourceForge, according to the program director for IBM’s Linux Technology Center, Daniel Frye.
“We want to do it ourselves,” says Frye. “We want to learn.” Frye says that, for the moment, his company will not be using the Tigris technology, either, preferring instead to build the community-building competencies in-house. “When we get more confident,” says Frye, “we will use things like Collab.Net more often.”
And when IBM does become more confident, it seems likely that it will be able to approach VA Linux as well for a complete IBM-branded community-building service. VA Vice President of Professional Services Jon Hall says that his company is working now to be able to offer the SourceForge hosting engine as part of its professional-services offering, so like Collab.Net it too will be able to build communities outside of the SourceForge.net domain.
Opening Up Big Blue
IBM is a good example of the kind of customer that VA and Collab.Net are no doubt itching to acquire. Wealthy, technology-rich, and a neophyte in the open source world, IBM realizes that it has a lot to gain from the commoditizing influence of open source technology like Linux, but equally realizes that it may not know how best to work with the open source community. When analyst firm DH Brown slighted Linux last year for not having a mature journaling filesystem, Frye’s group answered the call. IBM consulted with Stephen Tweedie and Hans Reiser, two Linux journaling filesystem developers, to ensure that the release of their code would, in fact, be useful to all parties involved, and then developed a plan that culminated in the open source code being released in February of this year.
IBM did it right. But other companies have released technology with lesser degrees of success: Sun’s Jini, with its unpopular Community Source License, Apple’s Darwin code, and — most infamous of all — AOL/Netscape’s Mozilla project.
Of course, any company that creates technology — not just vendors — could be a potential customer for Collab.Net or VA. Cisco Systems, for example, open sourced some printer management software it had developed in-house and now can get bug fixes, patches, and even new features from the world at large — theoretically saving Cisco money in software development.
The problem is that there are not a lot of open source converts that stand out as shining success stories. “I don’t think anybody knows for certain that these projects will work,” says International Data Corp. Program Vice President of System Software Dan Kuznetzky. As to whether there is money to be made in this, “That’s the big question,” observes Kuznetzky, “and I’m not sure that anybody has an answer.”
Launched at the same time as SourceXchange, and since snapped up by office suite vendor Applix,Inc.,Cosourceisa marketplace for smaller-scale development projects where a large number of users (say BeOS users) can pool their cash together to entice an open source developer into writing some code (say a port of FreeCiv).
Got a major development project you’d like to throw out to the open source community? Looking for serious development work? SourceXchange hooks up open source developers with fairly big-budget projects and guides them through a series of supervised milestones to ensure the work gets done to everybody’s satisfaction.
Bring us your software and we’ll do the rest, seems to be Asynchrony’s model. They will host either proprietary or open source projects and if the software meets Asynchrony’s approval, they will market and sell it, offering the developer a cut in the profits.
Founded by two former Borland developers, Open Avenue aims to be a combination of hosting platform and marketplace for developers. They hope to do that by providing top-quality developer tools, integrated bug tracking, and source code indexing software.
VA Linux’s open source wonderland offers free hosting to any open source project that’s looking for a CVS server, bug tracking, Web hosting, mailing lists, and a growing list of smaller, but nifty features.
Collab.Net’s engine for collaborative development. The Tigris.org Web site is where development on this engine takes place, but if you want to use Tigris to host your project, you have to either pay Collab.Net, or download the soon-to-be-available Tigris code and run it on your own machine.
Robert McMillan is executive editor for Linux Magazine. He can be reached at bob@ linux-mag.com.
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