Like FOSS fog, cloud confusion may not matter

The general public knows little about the true technology fundamentals of cloud computing, suggests a recent survey commissioned by IT vendor Citrix. Almost a third of the roughly 1,000 U.S. adults polled thought cloud computing was related to weather.

However, the ascendance of Linux and open source software 10 years ago demonstrated that everyday people do not have to understand, appreciate or knowingly participate in a technology in order to leverage it in their lives.

Read the full article at LinuxInsider.

Economy up or down, can open source come out on top?

We’ve written about how a bad economy is indeed good for open source software. We’ve also recognized that with open source software’s maturity and place at the enterprise software table, a bad economy can be a double-edged sword for open source since the failure or fade of large enterprise customers, say big banks, hurts open source vendors right alongside traditional software providers.

What is interesting is that after a couple of years of economic rebuilding, we’ve seen recently how open source is being driven by innovation, particularly in cloud computing, where open source is prevalent and disruptive, and also mobile computing, which continues to be impacted by openness.

Given recent economic developments around the globe, I’m wondering whether we may see a return of cost as the main driver and benefit of open source software in the enterprise. Recent conversations with vendors and customers illustrates the fact that the motivation for adopting open source is not always the main benefit from open source. For example, open source users and customers identified cost as the main reason for adopting open source when we asked more than 1,700 of them two years ago. However, when the same group was asked what was the main benefit from open source, the top pick was flexibility. We also saw dramatic increases in factors such as performance and reliability when comparing drivers for adoption and benefits from adoption. Still, just as we’ve seen unpaid community Linux lead to paid subscription Linux and also paid Linux lead to more unpaid community Linux use, it can go both ways with open source advantages, as well. One recent conversation with an up-and-coming, open source-centered vendor in the NoSQL space highlighted how many large enterprise customers are deploying open source in divisional, departmental, pilot and other limited form to replace traditional databases primarily for flexibility, performance and similar reasons, but finding the cost savings to be significant and worthy of wider deployment.

This begs the question whether open source software, driven by its myriad of advantages for different contexts, finds a way to win regardless of whether economic conditions are good or bad? There’s no question open source has displayed staying power throughout both. We should also point out that these advantages and factors end up putting a lot of pressure on open source software development and projects, given there are inherent expectations of cost-savings, flexibility, speed, performance, scalability, etc. As we’ve highlighted recently, open source is not always the correct route for enterprise ogranizations. However, we do believe that if done properly, open source projects and communities can and do deliver benefits that enable both providers and consumers of technology.

Similar to sales and marketing, longevity, economic and developer opportunity, open core, etc., it all boils down to the community, which in a good economy tends to drive innovation and value or in a bad economy serves as a source of cost efficiency, savings and survival. That is, of course, if the community is properly supported in code, cash, contributions and stewardship that still allows open source to do its thing.

And the best open source license is …

UPDATE: The final vote is in and a winner has been declared, with Matt Asay and his arguments for the GPL taking the prize. You can see the debate or follow links to the other judges’ votes and thoughts here.

This is my assessment as a judge of the recent open source license debate held by the FOSS Learning Centre. We’ll have to begin with some qualifications and definitions, starting with the fact that there is no ‘best’ open source software license. Still, a star-studded open source software panel provided a lively, informative debate on the merits of some top open source licenses. For that, I congratulate and thank the panelists, Mike Milinkovich from the Eclipse Foundation arguing for the Eclipse Public License, Matt Asay of Alfresco arguing in favor of the GPL and David Maxwell from Coverity arguing for BSD. All three put forth some of the most important attributes and shortcomings of the three open source licenses, as well as other, related open source licenses. However, using a complex, proprietary formula awarding points for goodness and minuses for badness, I was able to deem a winner: Mike Milinkovich and the EPL. Perhaps fitting that the license that can best be described as the middle of the spectrum should be the winner. Here’s why:

Matt Asay kicked off the discussion, which became more of a debate as it developed, with a consistent message about GPL’s dominance among open source software projects, which is 70% or more based on most accounts (and considering GPLv2 and GPLv3). He also referred to monetization and the fact that GPL serves as the basis for successful support and services models, such as Red Hat. However, Matt did not initially mention the strategic and defensive benefits of GPL, which is often chosen because it mitigates the threat of a fork that someone can make proprietary. I was also hoping for him to address how GPL can deliver benefits of open source without having to share as in the spirit of the license, based on whether and how the software is distributed. Nevertheless, Matt made his most compelling arguments around the fact that GPL is the primary open source model and the license that developers understand and trust most. He furthered his argument later by agreeing EPL may be better for lawyers, but GPL is better for developers. Matt reinforced these ideas with his reference to large companies using GPL software, such as Google or TiVO, that gets it to vast numbers of users.

Mike Milinkovich spoke second with some background on EPL, its origin as a ‘legal document’ and how it links open source software to commercial products. He also hit on the fact that EPL covers patent rights, which is certainly important to vendors and developers. He later referred to the meaninglessness of Matt’s 70% GPL figure, based on the idea that software on repository is something different than software in use (where other licenses do have greater representation). However, our research indicates that the most popular open source licenses among hosted code are consistent with the most popular open source licenses among code in use, with GPL, BSD and EPL all in the top. Mike also referred to commercialization and money, which is certainly important to commercial open source, but did not give equal mention to community until later. Still, Mike earned back a point when he referred to monetization of open source software among traditional vendors and organizations beyond VC-funded, open source startups, where we are seeing significant growth for open source software. While I would have liked to have heard an argument in favor of EPL based on compatibility, Mike also made a good case for EPL in government — another consistent theme of the discussion — where code would belong to the public with commercial opportunity on top.

David Maxwell signaled a more rebuttal-type response and gave it in his arguments for the BSD license, which he introduced as the oldest license given its roots to Unix and the ’80s. David scored a point for simplicity and straightforwardness when he read the actual license, something his peers would’ve had a hard time doing. David did somewhat jump the gun, though, on rebutting with his counterpoints about GPL’s strict copyleft requirements, which he called ‘enforcement-based.’ Still, David recovered with an argument for BSD based on its emulation, which he credited for other popoular licenses such as the Apache Public License and Artistic License.

The debate portion was followed by some good discussion of business models, open core and proliferation with questions from the live and Web audiences. So why does my vote for the winner go to Mike and the EPL? While it was certainly close on my card and all three made compelling arguments, Mike and his portrayal of the EPL were the most realistic and pragmatic to today’s open source software in the enterprise. Communities, copyleft and the sharing that allows developers and projects to sustain effective, productive open source efforts must be balanced with commercial interests, endeavors and aspiration. Neither open source communities nor open source commercialization would be nearly as significant without one another, and Mike’s arguments and statements seemed most closely attuned to that.

Thanks again to the panelists, participants and FOSS Learning Centre for putting on the event. Please get involved in the discussion and watch the debate, comment here or elsewhere.

Define ‘free software vendor’

George Greve, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, has written an interesting post on the topic of defining what it means to be a Free Software vendor, furthering the conversation on business strategies related to free and open source software.

I have recently posted about defining what constitutes an “open source vendor” for our reports. It is a complex problem that highlights philosophical and strategic differences between approaches to open source.

The issue, as it relates to Free Software, is less complex. As George writes: “The critical differentiator is provision of Free Software downstream to customers. In other words: Free Software companies are companies that have adopted business models in which the revenue streams are not tied to proprietary software model licensing conditions.”

In coming to this conclusion George discusses the importance of considering a vendor’s strategy in relation to three aspects: the software model, the development model, and the business model.

Interestingly this is very similar to the approach we took when assessing vendor strategies as part of Open Source is Not a Business Model, where we examined the development, vendor licensing and revenue generation strategies.

It would appear at first glance that our “vendor licensing” category is similar to George’s “software model” in that it relates to the control placed on the software by licensing rights.

George also seems to be in agreement with the way in which we used our three categories to calculate that there are hundreds of potential business model combinations:

“It should be noted that the overlap of possible business models on top of the different software models is much larger than usually understood,” he writes. “The number of possible combinations is almost endless, and the choices made will determine the individual character and competitive strengths and weaknesses of each company. Thinking clearly about these parameters is key to a successful business strategy.”

I wrote last May that there appeared “to be a strengthening commitment in some quarters to the ideals of the Free Software Foundation in rejection of the commercial opportunities provided by the Open Source Initiative.”

UPDATE – I didn’t phrase that last sentence very well. What I meant was that people (and companies) that consider themselves “open source” rather than “Free” are more inclined towards proprietary licensing as a means to generate revenue from open source software since they don’t necessarily share the Free Software philosophy that all software should be free – UPDATE.

I wonder if we will see more vendors flying the Free software flag, rather than attempting to wrestle ownership of the term “open source” from those with a penchant for proprietary licenses.

In the meantime George is promising “to show how differentiators used by Free Software companies can be as strong as those of proprietary companies” in a later post. Should be worth a read.

Open Solutions Alliance – not off-course for open source

As chance would have it, just after briefing with new Open Solutions Alliance President Anthony Gold, who also serves as VP and general manager of open source business at Unisys, I read a fairly critical blog about Gold and the OSA from Glyn Moody. I believe that Moody raises some valid points and offers Gold the opportunity to clarify the OSA’s dedication to truly open standards and openness in enterprise software later in the comments. However, I must disagree that the talk of including proprietary players in the work of making open source software more integrated and acceptable in the enterprise is something new or attributable to Gold. In fact, it was at OSCON 2007 when I talked with former Jaspersoft CTO and then OSA spokesman Barry Klawans about the changing direction of open source, much of which involved more effectively getting into the enterprise alongside and working with preponderant, proprietary software.

While I wanted to point out that I was hearing about this direction from the OSA long ago, I don’t fault Moody for questioning what this increased involvement and influence from proprietary players will mean for open source software. Still (and much of this may be attributable to the pure mention of Microsoft), I don’t think the OSA is straying from its mission of making sure the enterprise open source coals stay hot by looking to integrate with proprietary software.

Another example of where we may see more of a ‘proprietary’ or traditional influence on open source: (as brought to us by 451 CAOS colleague Matt Aslett), the new U.S. President Barack Obama administration’s request for perspective on government use of open source and its advantage from Sun co-founder and former CEO Scott McNealy. It seems some FOSS supporters would prefer Uncle Sam turn to a more pure open source executive than the prior head of the formerly more proprietary Sun Microsystems. However, it does make some sense to seek counsel from someone such as McNealy on adopting open source from a legacy and history of more traditional, proprietary software adoption, which exists in government. Similarly, Anthony Gold and Unisys have a unique perspective on what customers are asking for: open source, proprietary, both or other. It’s also worth noting here that in its member predictions for 2009, OSA executives highlight the impact and opportunities of a new U.S. administration and its incorporation of open source thinking.

During my discussion with the OSA, we talked about the changing motivations driving enterprise organizations to use open source software at all levels of their IT. While cost certainly remains a huge draw from customers, particularly in current conditions, we’ve seen other considerations high on the list of customers: interoperability with existing, legacy, often proprietary software and continuity of support; access to a community of experts; and the ability to combine open source tools. All of these are pertinent to open source vendors, including OSA members and the organization as a whole. While there is certainly opportunity in making open source software tools work well together, there is equal, if not more opportunity in making open source software tools work well with existing, proprietary tools.

A few years ago, this was typically an immense challenge for open source vendors since proprietary vendors were hardly receptive to such interoperability. Things are different today, however, and as Gold confirmed and as evident by greater interoperability among different operating systems, systems management software and applications, proprietary vendors are increasingly seeing the open source light and seeing the benefit of supporting open source components: it brings in customers.

Moody and others that sound the signals of caution and concern have good reason to do so and we do need to ensure that open standards are truly open, but again, the fact is that there is more opportunity than risk in making open source software work with whatever currently sits in enterprise IT shops, much of it proprietary.

Will mobile open source learn from closed?

I’ve been talking to mobile OS, mobile middleware and mobile application vendors over the last few weeks as part of my research for another CAOS special report on open source in the mobile market. At the same time, the news has been full of headlines about the first Google Android phone, the outlook for an open-sourced Symbian and of course, Apple’s iPhone.

The timing seems interesting to me, as Google attempts to leverage a mobile Linux OS and open source to garner its usual developer strength, and Apple works to control its mobile OS and the applications that may or may not run on it.

No question Android is aimed primarily at extending Google’s own applications to mobile devices. I’ve also covered some of the issues with Google’s Chrome browser and overall open source strategy. However, compared to Apple, which has increasingly been the focus of skepticism from FOSS supporters, Google seems to be much more open, both in the sense of code and to the idea of third-party development. Google and Android are also getting some help from members of the Open Handset Alliance (HTC, Samsung, Motorola, Intel, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and others). Despite a previous lack of mobile operator on board, T-Mobile has of course stepped up to sell services for the first Android phone, HTC’s G1. Google’s partnership with Amazon for Android support in its music store and a more open Android Market are also significant for Apple and the market.

If Google and OHA are not learning from Apple’s moves, both good and bad, there are others who may be able to take advantage of a more open approach. In fact, the two with perhaps the most to learn, Nokia’s open sourced Symbian and the larger LiMO consortium, are most likely to compete with one another given their strength and presence in markets outside of North America — mainly Asia and Europe. Interesting developments here include the recent inclusion of Open Kernel Labs and its embedded hypervisor technology in the Symbian Partner Network. As for LiMO, the mobile Linux consortium that includes membership from a number of hardware, software and mobile operator players, just announced a Panasonic phone that is the 23rd LiMO-compliant handset in the market.

Are Google open source gates opening up?

Google recently open sourced code for its protocol buffers, a data encoding format which company staffers describe as superior and more efficient than XML for its purposes. It is interesting to see Google back the protocol buffer approach, but the more interesting part of this to FOSS fans is that Google also appears to be laying the groundwork to release more open source software.

Google also this week open sourced an application security testing tool, Ratproxy, which is also available under the Apache License 2.0.

I’ve indicated that Google, along with competitors such as Facebook, may be overlooking opportunities in their aversion to more restrictive, yet often more effective, open source licenses. However, I think in this case, Google realizes the potential of open source software development and is wisely seeking to harness it. The protocol buffers are available for download and use under the open source Apache License 2.0.

We will be following Google with a good deal of anticipation given indications that, according to its FAQ on the recently open sourced protocol buffers, it plans to release more open source. “Protocol buffers are used by practically everyone inside Google,” it says. “We have many other projects we would like to release as open source that use protocol buffers, so to do this, we needed to release protocol buffers first.”

Google’s guys add that some of the protocol buffer code may already be out in the open in Google software such as its AppEngine. The key objective and driver for Google here is obviously to promote acceptance and use of protocol buffers in addition to and alongside XML. By looking to open source software developers and communities, I think Google is on the right path to get it. I also think the more open source software Google creates and contributes back to the greater community, the more effective its open source efforts will be.

Microsoft IS targeting open source users

Much of the reaction from FOSS folks to news that Microsoft is joining the Open Source Census centers on concern that Microsoft is out to find open source users and what open source software they’re using. I think that may be exactly right.

However, I don’t think Microsoft has embarked on a SCO-style hunt for open source users it can cajole, threaten or sue for unnamed patent infringements. No, I think Microsoft has genuine interest in finding out how many open source software users are candidates for open source on Windows. I believe the company, which has changed, is aware of the scrutiny on it and its strategy with open source. Does Microsoft want to know exactly which open source software packages are most popular in datacenters? Wouldn’t you if you were provider of the most popular server/desktop OS in the world? Certainly Microsoft would rather see growth of its own products rather than growth of open source, but I believe it has accepted that it also has opportunity in open source that will be taken by others if it does not step up.

Microsoft is indeed targeting open source software users. However, being in the cross hairs means being a customer and I highly doubt any of those customers will ever find themselves defendants against Microsoft. Will Microsoft use Open Source Census data to sharpen its focus on its own products that compete with open source? Sure, but whether Redmond is aware or not, the bigger opportunity lies in Microsoft’s own support of open source. Should Microsoft be precluded from obtaining information about how much and which open source is being used? That doesn’t sound like open source to me. Once again, we see that open source is increasingly being viewed not as a hobbyist fad, cheap alternative, or enterprise-limited. No, instead open source is being viewed and handled by Microsoft and most other vendors as a source of real rivalry and real opportunity.

Red Hat-Ubuntu pairing would have potential

I’m starting to see some big potential for symbiosis between two Linux and open source leaders: Red Hat and Ubuntu. Red Hat’s departure from the consumer desktop Linux market comes at the same time Ubuntu continues rolling in the same market with the release of Ubuntu 8.04 Hardy Heron this week. The latest Ubuntu also comes in a server version that continues distributor Canonical’s aspirations for enterprise servers. While it has been a struggle to sign OEMs for pre-installation, Canonical appears to be on the right track with regard to certification from the biggies. Still, Ubuntu’s server challenge is a big one, and it comes in a Linux market where Red Hat rules the roost.

All of this is happening at a time when the use and management of server and desktop computers is coming together through virtualization and continued mixing of operating systems and server/desktop deployment. This makes me wonder if Red Hat could help Ubuntu on the server with greater support and integration of the ‘other’ Linux. Why would Red Hat do such a thing? We already see the company, wisely, offering deeper integration and support for Windows — why would they do that? The answer is reality. Enterprise datacenters and even divisions rarely run one OS, let alone Linux. There are typically Windows and others in play and there is also much greater acceptance and use of Linux, which has become less exotic and more like any other OS in the datacenter. Let’s remember too that choice and flexibility are no longer customer requests, they are expectations, and every major server vendor supports at least some OS variety.

Red Hat could also benefit from greater integration with and support for Ubuntu desktops. While Ubuntu leads among Linux consumers, it is also gaining more significance for the enterprise desktop. I believe Red Hat may be underestimating the impact of consumer desktop choices when it says it wants to leave that market alone. Ubuntu is thriving there, and it is also leveraging its desktop popularity and prowess to push further into enterprise desktops. By partnering with Canonical and building ties between Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Ubuntu desktops, Red Hat could harness Ubuntu’s popularity among technical fans (admins anyone?), consumers and enterprise users. This would only help Ubuntu’s uptake in the enterprise desktop market, and I believe there is potential for enterprise and consumer desktop success to feed off each other. I also believe this would bolster Ubuntu’s server efforts, paricularly as desktop management moves from the help desk to the datacenter.

These factors — plus the fact that a Red Hat-Ubuntu relationship is far more palatable to the larger FOSS community than say, a similar arrangement with Microsoft — lead me to believe the two Linux organizations have opportunity in banding together. Sure, they’ve differed in the past and even more recently, but I would argue Red Hat and Canonical are similar enough to produce some synergy and round out their respective open source offerings.

Red Hat and Ubuntu also have a striking similarity that could be integral to any kind of relationship, whether focused on the server, the desktop, management, virtualization or all of the above. That similarity is community. The community development of Red Hat’s Linux is often cited by those inside open source as a key to the company’s success. It has kept the community relatively happy with direction and development, and has kept them busy producing features and functionality in enterprise demand. It is Ubuntu’s community development that is often credited not only with the Linux flavor’s technical and feature advancement, but also its popularity among FOSS fans. The combination of these two communities is perhaps the most compelling argument for collaboration between them.

Maybe it’s just that I wrote a couple of reports back-to-back on the two companies and their opportunities and challenges, but I do believe Red Hat and Ubuntu could help one another and, in doing so, strengthen one another, Linux and open source in the enterprise.