Texas Open Source Symposium

Well, my long lucky streak has ended. I ride on over 75 flights a year, but rarely do I get sick, due to a combination of compulsive hand washing and Zicam. However, after this last trip to Texas I ended up with a cold, so forgive me for taking so long to post this update.

I spent last Saturday at the inaugural Texas Open Source Symposium in San Angelo, Texas. It was a small conference but I had a good time. I love these “grass roots” shindigs because they are so different from the corporate-laden shows such as LinuxWorld.

I sat in on both of Patrick Michaud’s talks, one on the Parrot VM and one on Perl 6. I really enjoyed his lolcode examples in Parrot.

I also sat in on Eric Evans‘ (OGP) Mercurial presentation. Mercurial is a distributed code management system (a la CVS and Subversion). I thought it was interesting, although Eric later admitted he has since switched to git since he submitted the paper topic.

I met some cool people, and learned a few things. Jim Smith, another speaker, was staying at our hotel so he bummed a ride with us, and that was kinda cool. I also met Janet Swisher from Enthought, a company who sponsored the conference as well as a being previously unknown to me. Eric had visited their offices in Austin and found the whole place pretty amazing. I loved the quote from their website “Started with angel funding, it remains free of debt and venture capital.” Heh heh, “free of … venture capital”. Not sure why that line tickles me so much.

Imagine that. A company run by making a profit. Of course, John Willis would say it doesn’t have a chance, but I’m going to keep an eye on them.

The organizer’s took us out for teppanyaki at a local restaurant. Overall, except for my cold, it was a nice time and might worth checking out next year.

No Country for Old Free Software Guys

I am at the edge of “West Texas” in San Angelo in preparation for tomorrow’s Open Source Symposium. I’ve never been to this part of Texas before. It was kinda fun to fly into the airport (SJT) which only has two gates, and I’ll find out on Sunday how well the free wireless works.

I didn’t know it until well after I was asked to speak that Eric Evans (OGP) was also going to be here doing a talk on Mercurial. He’s in the top secret projects section of Rackspace these days so I don’t get to work with him as much as I used to (it is hard to believe that we’ve know each other through OpenNMS for over six years now).

Restaurant in San Angelo

We hit a local Tex-Mex place for dinner, and they had Shiner on draft, which is always a good reason to visit Texas. I’ll update more tomorrow after the Symposium.

The GSoC Process: A Tragedy in One Act

In just a few weeks I will hit the sixth anniversary of the day I became a maintainer of OpenNMS, and the day I started making a living selling services around open source software.

I know a lot of people thought I was crazy and that there was no way I was going to survive “selling free software” but I could see the real power in an open source approach to network management. To this day I can’t explain it to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. I often use the line from The Matrix that it is one thing to know the path, and another thing to walk the path. Not only have I survived, OpenNMS has prospered and grown tremendously over the last 6 years.

Unfortunately, the term “open source” has been so abused that it is being used by any company that makes even a token attempt to expose some of their code. It’s a marketing term used to sell expensive “enterprise” software licenses – licenses that are as closed and locked as anything from, say, Microsoft.

I’m not sure where things went wrong. Recently something happened that caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about it, so I thought I share some of those thoughts.

esr referred to open source as a “gift economy“. It dawned on me that perhaps some of the problem is in that term “gift”.

According to Webster, a gift is “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation”. The key there is “without compensation”. If compensation is required or expected, then it isn’t a gift.

We produce OpenNMS with no expectation of anything in return. When I was at LugRadio I met a number of people using OpenNMS without having purchased any of the commercial services products available for it, and they seemed a little embarrassed about not having paid anything. I told them not to worry about it – if you don’t need our services, don’t buy them. OpenNMS is a gift. Now, if you do buy commercial services then that money goes directly into making the project better, and the more services we sell the faster the product can improve, but there is absolutely no obligation to pay a cent.

(Note: unlike a true gift with no strings, there is one obligation with OpenNMS: honor the license.)

This doesn’t seem to be the case with the people who use “open source” as a marketing term. At SCaLE David talked with one such vendor, and the sales guy said that it really pissed him off when people came up and said they just used the “core” (or free) part of the product – he thought they should feel obligated pay for it. I was talking with the CEO of another similar firm about a controversial change he was proposing and how it would affect the community. He said that since they gave them the product in the first place, if they “didn’t like it, f*** ‘em”.

It’s just so foreign to my experience. Back in 2002 when it was just me, it was the community of strangers around OpenNMS that kept me going. I didn’t have anyone else: no venture capital, no investment, just a project and some people who thought it was worth doing. Their involvement was a gift to me, something given without any expectations in return. I will always be grateful. In recognition of that time I came up with my two rules for OpenNMS:

1) OpenNMS will never suck.
2) OpenNMS will always be free.

So with that long preamble let me get the real meat of this post: Google.

I am an unabashed Google fan. Yeah, they are worth a lot of money and they make a lot of money, but if you look at the first Google page to the current one, not much has changed. It’s still minimalist and clean. They avoided the temptation to clutter it up.

And Google isn’t open source.

While they may use a lot of open source technology, Google is not and has never claimed to be an open source company. Yet with the Google Summer of Code they have done more for open source projects that any other vendor I can name. OpenNMS was lucky enough to become involved this year, mainly due to the efforts of Ben as an admin for our involvement, and we were awarded seven slots – seven people to help make OpenNMS a better product.

To put this into perspective, this is as if Google had given us US$35K.

Unfortunately, there was a downside. There was a person we were really interested in having work with us, but we thought he had been accepted by another project. When we found out that wasn’t the case, it was too late and we were out of slots. The guy was extremely enthusiastic and we thought he’d be a great member of the team, so we sprang into action to see what could be done.

I was on the west coast and was pretty removed from the action, so all I knew to do was to write Chris Dibona, one of the few people I know at Google. Ben, meanwhile, was talking with Leslie Hawthorn, the self-described “Den Mother” for GSoC, to see if something could be done. He was so concerned about getting this straightened out that he was doing this during breaks of Spamalot, a play he was attending.

Unfortunately, the person involved was taking the news poorly. Maybe somewhere along the way the gift of a GSoC slot turned into an expectation. My guess is that anyone as enthusiastic as this guy would quickly channel his disappointment into anger. This anger took the form of lashing out at Google, which was pretty unfair.

Tragically, at the very moment Ben had convinced Leslie to award us an extra slot for this guy, he posted another attack that ruined any chance he had of a slot within GSoC. He claimed to have been “betrayed by open source”. It was as when Romeo plunged in the knife seconds before Juliet woke up. So not only did he not get to be part of GSoC, OpenNMS lost a slot that could have been used to better the project.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is to never forget the gift aspect of open source. It requires a certain amount of patience. Everyone is walking the path, although some are taking a more direct route than others. I hope that this GSoC candidate has learned something from the experience, just as I hope that the clients of the open source poseurs realize that they are paying for proprietary code that is no different, in the end, than commercial software.

By running our organization profitably, OpenNMS will be around for years to come, and thanks to companies like Google and the efforts of Leslie Hawthorn it just keeps getting better all of the time. Many thanks, Leslie, for your gift. We won’t squander it.

Portland and Vancouver

I’m currently writing this from my hotel room in Portland, Oregon. I like this part of the country, and if I didn’t already live in God’s Own Earth I would consider moving here.

I like the climate, the geography and especially the people. I’m here to visit with New Edge Networks (across the river in Vancouver, Washington), who have been using OpenNMS for a long time now. They are collecting data on over 82,000 network interfaces, which amounts to about one million data points every 5 minutes.

And they are doing it on OpenNMS 1.2.

The biggest complaint I hear about OpenNMS is the learning curve. While OpenNMS works for some people right out of the box, we designed it to be an extremely flexible tool, so it is more like a table saw than a toaster. In this case it provides a lot of value that would be hard to duplicate even with expensive commercial products.

I’m here to work on the migration from OpenNMS 1.2 to OpenNMS 1.6 (to be released soon). This will add even more performance and better integration than the existing system, so it will scale as their business grows.

Since I work in support quite a bit, it is always nice to see the positive side of the work we do. And being able to get out and share a pint or three is fun, too. (grin)

The New Edge Gang
Clockwise: Jason, Scott, Me, Robyne, Ruth, James and Tina

LugRadio Live USA

The LugRadio show was pretty cool. There weren’t quite as many people there as I was expecting, but those that did show up were quite interesting. The exhibitors were pretty diverse as well.

OpenSUSE was represented by Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier who I had not seen in awhile, so that was nice, and I got a really cool Banshee T-shirt.

The OpenNMS booth was near Mitch Altman’s table. Mitch co-founded 3Ware as well as inventing both the TV-B-Gone and The Brain Machine, among other things. It was fun to watch people try out the latter.

The Brain Machine
Trying out the Brain Machine

We were next to the Frets on Fire table. This is a Guitar Hero-like game that is 100% open source, and the demo was pretty popular.

Frets on Fire
LugRadio’s Jono Bacon and Erica Brescia, CEO of BitRock

It was also nice to see Jason Aras (OGP) again. He’s working at imeem and he stopped by both days. On Saturday we all went off to Dimaggios for some of the best steaks in the city. It was our own little OpenNMS Rat Pack.

The Rat Pack
Jeff, David, me and Jason