The state of open source: Andy Astor

The EnterpriseDB CEO sees harmony between developers and capitalists as essential to moving open source forward

As CEO of EnterpriseDB, Andy Astor endeavors to raise the profile of the PostgresQL open source database to the level of prominence he believes it deserves. But when it comes to capitalizing on an open source project's potential, there is much debate regarding the appropriate business model to employ.

InfoWorld spoke with Astor about the open source's business opportunities as part of its roundtable on the state of open source. Here's how Astor sees the possibility of coexistence between developers and capitalists unfolding.


Andy Astor


InfoWorld: What do you see as the more pressing challenges and opportunities for open source given the current tech climate?

Astor: The chief challenge open source faces is the need to tease apart the development and community model from the distribution and business model. Open source is used as a label for two very different things. First, as a way to develop software, and second, as a way to distribute and make money on software. Because the label is used interchangeably, the two get confused fairly often. As open source development and open source capitalists, like me, become more prevalent, the great challenge will be to recognize that there are two very different currents in the open source movement, each with its own particular requirements to succeed.

IW: Where do you see open source heading in the next five years, especially with regard to development, community, and market opportunities?

Astor: First of all, much greater transparency is where I see us heading. In the early days of commerical open source, people would say "commerical open source," with a smile and a wink -- meaning that they were using open source as a way to get people to pay attention to them. The marketplace stood for that for about a year or two. I think that time is over. OSI's definition of open source will rule. And if it's not an OSI-approved license, it won't be able to be called "open source." Fundamentally, we will see more maturity and transparency in the way people think and talk about open source.

IW: Does widespread adoption and commercialization of open source software create new challenges or pressures for open source projects?

Astor: The greatest challenge for open source projects is to stay smart and passionate. The earliest open source projects were by and large built relatively small groups of people who were excited about a particular idea. And they were built, quite frankly, independent of any monetary award. But as the open source movement grows, practitioners will have to be careful. Somebody once said to me, "As organizations grow bigger, they get dumber." And I think that applies to any new technology or trend in the marketplace. So, what open source projects need to do is to stay smart and retain their edge, and not appeal to the lowest common denominator.

IW: What are the next steps needed for open source as a software production methodology to reach the next level?

Astor: If open source is going to become mainstream, then we are going to need guidelines, standards, and best practices around how to make and create a successful open source project. And yet whenever you put too many guidelines, standards, and best practices on projects, they tend to lose their edge. Figuring out how to reconcile this contradiction is essential to moving open source forward.

IW: Open source now enjoys a rich and complex history, which is largely the result of trial and error over the years. What would you say have been the open source community's greatest missteps, or lessons learned?

Astor: It's the same lesson that proprietary vendors have learned over the years, and that is that great software is not enough. I looked on SourceForge earlier today, and there are over 170,000 projects, and most of them are dead. Successful software, whether it's open soruce or proprietary, needs a combination of great development and features -- and distribution, marketing, salesmanship, and so forth. Linux would not be a mainstream operating system without Red Hat, and I'm sure that some of my good friends with disagree with me on that. I don't think we'd get too much disagreement that JBoss would be nowhere without the JBoss corporation, or MySQL without MySQL, and Sugar without Sugar. But I think it's true for independent organizations, too. In spite of being a fantastic database, PostgreSQL has had only modest success because it hasn't had a company behind it. We're working to make EnterpriseDB that company. It's more than a matter of building great software. You need marketing, service, salesmanship, support, and documentation -- all the things that open source projects don't necessarily want to do. And that's what capitalists do with software.

IW: If you could wave your wand and create the perfect software "universe," what would it look like?

Astor: I actually think we're watching it unfold right now: motivated, independent open source developers in coexistence with capitalists, where the developers are reaping the rewards of doing great work that they want to do, alongside business people who want to create capital rewards for that work and share those rewards with the people who created them. The models for how that works are maturing, and are getting better all the time.

IW: There has been a fair amount of controversy, competition, and dissent within the various open source communities. Does this lack of agreement damage the long-term goals of open source, or would you like to see more of this?

Astor: I want to see more of it. Conflict is always tough on communities, but it also always drives better results in the long run. In this, conflict is akin to competition, which drives better performance, speaking from a capitalist's perspective. Most of the competition and dissent within open source communities happens around questions of what to build and how to build it, both of which are essential to spurring innovation. As for tensions between commercial and noncommerical approaches to open source, I think the aversion to business interests are fading. Serious developers are generally very interested in seeing their work become successful. And in this age, success means widespread use, which is very much tied to the need for the kinds of services, documentation, and support business interests can provide.

Roundtable home: The state of open source

Other roundtable participants
Matt Asay
Vice president of business development, Alfresco
Chris DiBona
Open source programs manager, Google
Bruce Perens
Creator of the Open Source Definition and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative
Sam Ramji
Senior director of platform technology strategy, Microsoft
Eric S. Raymond
Programmer, author, and open source software advocate
Dave Rosenberg
CEO and co-founder, Mulesource
Javier Soltero
CEO, Hyperic
Mark Spencer
Founder and CTO, Digium
Robert Sutor
Vice president of open source and standards, IBM
Zack Urlocker
Vice president of products, MySQL

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.