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What is open core licensing (and what isn’t) UPDATEDMatthew Aslett, October 20, 2010 @ 5:00 am ET
This is an updated version of a post that was originally published in July 2009. It has been updated in response to ongoing confusion about open core licensing.
There remains considerable confusion about exactly what the open core licensing strategy is, however, which is strange since the term arrived fully packaged with a specific definition, courtesy of Andrew. Recently I have begun to wonder whether many of the people that use the term open core regularly have even read Andrew’s post.
I feel somewhat responsible for this given that our Open Source is Not a Business Model report was partly responsible for the increased use of the term open core, and since I remembered that it was this post about commercial open source strategies that prompted Andrew to define open core in the first place.
Additionally, since business models related to open source are evolving constantly, I thought it was worth revisiting the definition of open core and putting it in some context.
What is open core?
According to Andrew’s original post it is a licensing strategy whereby a vendor combines proprietary code with open source code, where “the commercial license is a super-set of the open source product, i.e., it offers premium product features that you will not see in the GPL license”.
At first Andrew was very specific about the use of the GPL license and a development model dominated by a single vendor. However, it quickly became clear that a company like EnterpriseDB, which provides proprietary extensions on top of the community-developed, BSD-licensed PostgreSQL database, also fits the general model.
Therefore, Andrew clarified that there were Vendor Controlled (VC) and Community Controlled (CC) variants on open core.
Incidentally, Andrew did not create the open core strategy. As he himself admitted, he “invented nothing, just articulated it”. Credit goes to Barry Klawans and Paul Doscher (Jaspersoft co-founders), as Andrew noted.
In fact our research indicates that the formation of companies using the open core licensing strategy had already peaked by the time the term was coined – but more on that another day.
What isn’t open core
Sometimes it is easier to define what something is by explaining what it isn’t. Open core is a commercial open source strategy, but just as “all of Alma Cogan is dead, but only some of the class of dead people are Alma Cogan”, not all commercial open source strategies are open core (and more specifically, given recent statements, not all strategies that involve copyright agreements are open core – more on that another day as well).
So, to clear up some apparent confusion:
- Red Hat’s strategy is not open core
Red Hat reserves support and features for paying customers, but it does not do so using closed source licensing (a prerequisite of open core). Instead Red Hat gives away the source code but withholds the compiled, binary version for paying customers.
(N.B. Beware companies claiming to be following “The Red Hat model” as they invariably aren’t – most often I find they mean that they use a subscription revenue model. Very few companies have copied Red Hat’s model for a variety of reasons – a subject I’ll leave for another post.)
- Dual licensing is not open core
In fact, as Andrew Lampitt explained in his definition, open core is a variant of dual licensing (or proprietary relicesing, as some like to call it, or indeed “selling exceptions”). The important thing to note is that in the dual license strategy a single code base is available under an open source or closed license, while with open core the closed source licensed code is a superset of the open source code. Both result in closed source software, but only in the open core strategy is the closed source version functionally different from the open source version.
- The MySQL strategy is not open core (yet)
One of the reasons for the confusion is that MySQL originally started out with a dual license model but changed over time to the subscription revenue model, and flirted with open core. At this point the strategy for MySQL remains dual licensing. It remains to be seen whether the MySQL Server code for Enterprise Edition 5.5 will be different from Community Edition with the inclusion of MySQL Enterprise Backup (which would make it open core) or if the new capabilities will be delivered as a subscription service.
- Subscription strategies are not open core
Although they are a step in that direction. The subscription model provides vendors with a mechanism to distribute value-added features to paying customers. Until now the additional capabilities in MySQL Enterprise (such as Enterprise Monitor) have been delivered as a service via the MySQL Enterprise subscription. Although the code for Enterprise Monitor has not been made available, we would see this strategy as distinct from open core since open core results in a product with a different code base, where as the MySQL Server code in Enterprise and Community is the same. To differentiate from regular support subscriptions I have used the term value-added subscription to refer to this type of subscription. Other examples include Canonical’s Ubuntu Advantage and Nuxeo’s Connect. I would also put Red Hat Network and JBoss Operations Network in this category, although the source code for those value-added services was originally closed, it has now been made available as open source (as previously discussed).
- Open foundation is not open core
Vendors such as IBM, Cisco, Oracle and SAP (in fact just about every software vendor) include open source code within larger closed source software packages and hardware products. There is a fine line between the two, but as I previously explained while open core involves offering proprietary extensions targeted at a segment of the open source project user base, open foundation involves using open source software to create entirely new products, targeted at a different user base.
- Microsoft’s open source strategy is not open core
Microsoft is undoubtedly making use of more open source and encouraging open source development on its platforms, but its strategy is by definition not open core since it is extremely unlikely the core will ever be open source. In fact, as previously discussed, Microsoft’s strategy turns the open core strategy on its head by encouraging open source development around a commercial core, and has been described by Microsoft as open edge, and by Andrew Lampitt (more amusingly) as open crust. We have adopted the term open edge to describe this strategy and have seen it adopted by a small number of players beyond Microsoft.
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