Commercial open source is more than old stuff for free

Alfresco CTO John Newton on balancing the commercial and community aspects of being an open source company

Commercial open source is more than old stuff for free (CC BY-SA 2.0)

February saw open source turn 20 years old. Or the OSI definition at least. According to the OSI, the term was coined in Palo Alto by nanotechnologist Christine Peterson during a meeting on February 3, 1998, shortly after the announcement of the release of Netscape’s source code.

In those 20 years, a lot has changed. Major technology shifts are now driven by open aource technologies: big data (Hadoop, Spark), AI (TensorFlow, Caffe), and containers (Docker, Kubernetes) are all open source projects. Massive companies including Google, Facebook, and even Lyft regularly release open source tools for the world to use. Microsoft—a company that once described Linux as a cancer—now embraces the concept. And commercial open source is not just a niche idea operated at the fringes of the technology landscape but a common and successful business model for companies to adopt.

One such organization is Alfresco Software. Founded in 2005, the San Mateo, Calif.-headquartered enterprise content management (ECM) and business process management (BPM) company has spent the last 13 years balancing commercial requirements with keeping its open source-loving community happy. (Recenty, private equity firm THL announced it was acquiring Alfresco.)

“Patents and intellectual property rights are not necessarily the best way to protect your leadership. The best way to protect your leadership is [to stay ahead of] the curve, to constantly innovate,” says Alfresco founder and CTO John Newton. “And it actually ends up that the more you put it out [to the community], the faster you’ll innovate and the more you add stuff [back onto the product]. And it’s not always because other people are contributing, but because they’re looking at what you’re doing and are more likely to comment on it. So, it’s just a very powerful innovation engine.”

Open source is more than just old stuff for free

Commercial open source usually comes in three flavours: Support and services around an open source technology (à la Red Hat), a freemium model offering incremental paid upgrades as you need them, or offering a free standalone “Community” product as a lure and then offer a separate commercial “Enterprise” edition with more features and add-ons.

Alfresco takes the third approach. The Community Edition is free and available to all, while certain features—for example scaling and clustering capabilities—are packaged into the paid Enterprise Editions for larger customers.

 “Companies that are just purely open source and then just try to live off the support alone generally don’t grow to be that big,” says Newton. “You get open source purists saying, ‘Anything that isn’t 100 percent open source is fake.’ But the people built successful models originally—MySQL and JBoss, which we learned quite a bit from—you have to take a pragmatic approach.”

Alfresco is actually Newton’s second bite at the ECM market. He founded Documentum in 1990 as a proprietary company, but left in 2001. After being acquired in 2003 by EMC, OpenText bought the company in 2016.

At the time of the OpenText deal, Newton said Documentum was going to suffer: “[Opentext] bring it [new IP] in, they do minimum maintenance on the product, and then they kind of milk the installed base. … This will lead to OpenText to try and force customers onto that platform or just let the Documentum customer base attrite and collect maintenance in the process.”

When asked if he thinks Documentum’s fortunes could be revived by taking a more Alfresco-like approach and embracing the open source model, Newton is skeptical. “Often, people going from proprietary to open source are doing it as a measure of desperation,” he says. “’Our sales are not doing well and it’s costing us a lot, maybe we’ll open source it.’ “But ‘old stuff for free’ just doesn’t work.”

Community vs. Enterprise: What should be paid for, what should be free

Obviously Alfresco isn’t the only company adopting this model. Numerous companies including Nutanix, Docker, DataBricks, and the Oracle-owned MySQL all offer Community Editions of their software. But just offering a free version of your software doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a successful commercial open source company.

“[With open source] you need to have a potential critical mass of users. There are millions of copies of Alfresco out world right now and we can measure our customers in thousands,” explains Newton. “If we can convert a few percent engaging with the Community Edition and trying it out—you need either the features that we provide a top or you need the insurance policy of running this in a mission critical basis—that’s the critical mass. It’s just trying to make that that balance is as clear as possible. If you’re running this in a very large organization and need the tools to be able to scale up to that level, the administration tools to be able to run that should be Enterprise.”

Rather than see the Community Edirion version as some sort of enemy—and akin to CentOS cannibalizing sales of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)—Newton sees the free version of his company’s product as more of a “try before you buy” test for the paid version. “In the end the more people using Alfresco, whether it’s Community or Enterprise, is going to be good for us. What you really want to worry about is when you’re losing to the competition, and Community is not the competition.”

Doug Johnson, director of product management at Alfresco, adds that the Community Edition expands the relationship it has with its customers—both paid and unpaid—by driving improvements in both products. “We get a much broader set of feedback around the product, and that actually it helps us a lot because we then can cover a broader set of use cases. We see other use cases [we wouldn’t see in Enterprise Edition] and we can we can look at what other kind of offerings we might want to have on that that adds value as we look to add that value on top.”

As previously mentioned, much of the uniqueness of the current Enterprise Edition runs around clustering and scaling capabilities. However, as ‎senior product manager Richard Esplin pointed out during this year’s DevCon conference, those features aren’t as valuable in a future where Docker- and Kubernetes-based containers become increasingly common, and so the differentiation between the Community and Enterprise editions will have to change.

“We’ll see [how they change],” says Newton, saying that certain configurations and templates might be used as differentiators, as might some serverless capabilities. “When you look at artificial intelligence, there’s going to be general-purpose models that we might make as part of the open source stuff—open source models or something like that—but there may be domain-specific models or application-specific models that we might make Enterprise.”

Community keeps commercial open source honest

Alfresco Commjnity Edition is still maintained and developed by Alfresco itself. Of course, the company has to constantly reevaluate the two products and decide which features should be paid for privileges, and which should be Open and free, and try and keep the both the balance-sheet-impacting customers and the wider community happy.

“Every certain number of years I renew and review the principles upon which we make stuff open source. What you want to do is present things that are fair. If you’re super clear about what you’re making open source and not making open source, then that helps a lot. One principle that seems totally fair is if you are using a proprietary piece of software and we are connected to that then it’s only fair that if you pay them you should also pay us. So that’s an example of something that becomes Enterprise. However, connecting to open source stuff or if we provide a connect to open source stuff, then that should be Community.”

Nothing lasts forever, however, and Community Edition versions of things can quickly disappear or face abandonment. A Community Edition of SugarCRM is still available but there’s been no updates from the company since 2013. Pentaho’s Community Edition has been quiet since its acquisition by Hitachi. Obviously, the community can keep up development for the Community Edition version of any software, but without the support of the parent company the product can quickly fall by the wayside.

To prevent this happening with Alfresco, a splinter group named The Order of the Bee was formed. Named after Pentaho founder James Dixon’s theory of The Beekeeper Model of Commercial open source Software—the idea that bees (the developer community) and the beekeeper (the company) can both benefit from the relationship—the order was founded  in 2013 to ensure that there was always a Community Edition of Alfresco.

“In 2013 the community was plenty of individuals doing stuff and Jeff [Potts, Alfresco’s then chief community officer] was coordinating all this,” says Order of the Bee founding member Boriss Mejias. “We started feeling as a community that the direction of the company was less as open source [focused] as it was in the beginning; you could see in the keynotes the words ‘open source’ and ‘community’ were not present any more.”

The replacement of founder and CEO John Powell with Doug Dennerline was also a cause of concern to the community. Despite stints at SuccessFactors, Salesforce, Cisco, and WebEx, Alfresco was Powell’s first role at an open source company, leading the community to fear that he might move the company away from that ethos.

“We felt that maybe we should help in this role; they are the beekeepers we are the bees, if we organize ourselves the community is going to have a better chance to survive,” Mejias says.

During Alfresco’s 2018 developer conference, it’s clear the relationship between the Order and the company is a good one.

“I think when the group was first formed there was scepticism and maybe fear within the company,” says Alfresco’s former chief community officer, Jeff Potts. Though the timing was coincidental, Potts left the company just weeks before the order was founded, and his previous role lead to him being added to the board. “What I understand was that there were people going ‘what is this, is there going to be a fork of the product, are they forming some alternative group?’ And I think over time they realized we’re just more like guardians of the community, and we’re not a threat, they’re not a threat to us, and it’s been a good collaborative relationship.”

As well as putting on the developer conference under the BeeCon moniker for several years until Alfresco took back over, the order helps organize the conference, engage with new developers, vet community-created add-ons to the product, and of course provide feedback to what should go into the Community Edition offering.

“We rely on them to provide a lot of resources, they do havr a love of investment, most of the committers work for Alfresco, so we need them,” says Potts. “And we feel like they need us because the new people come into the community and don’t necessarily know the best way to contribute, we help find ways for them to do that and get involved. We feel like community is super important and it’s just not just the software that we want to ensure, it’s the community we want to make sure [it exists].”

The relationship is more than just about community engagement, the Order of the Bee can act as almost a funnel for Alfresco to become bigger and more successful. “It’s a symbiotic relationship honestly,” says Thomas De Meo, VP of product management. “It’s collaborative: We’re the host; the Order of the Bee takes us into other markets where as an organization doesn’t make sense.”

De Meo explains there are examples of smaller businesses in markets the company isn’t focused on initially using the Community product, and expanding until they decide they need the Enterprise product. “We can focus on large multinationals, governments around the world, big market, Order of the Bee guys can take the open source product and they build businesses for a real estate company in some parts of the world that frankly isn’t big enough for us. But it still gets people building on the platform, understanding the technology, getting certified. I’ve actually hired some Order of the Bee members myself.”

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This story, "Commercial open source is more than old stuff for free" was originally published by IDG Connect.

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