Adios 2008

In a few short hours 2008 will be history. To paraphrase Dickens, it wasn’t the best of times, and it wasn’t the worst of times.

For the OpenNMS project, it was a good year. We got a new stable release out and we had a great Dev-Jam in Atlanta.

For the OpenNMS Group, it was a decent year. Sales were up slightly (our usually robust fourth quarter was pretty flat this year), but we managed to start new work with a couple of very large telecom clients.

I traveled about 95,000 miles on airplanes, and visited 8 countries. I stayed 53 nights in Marriott hotels. Next year my goal is to hit Platinum status on American with exactly 50,001 miles and come nowhere close to Gold status at Marriott.

I love the new year. For me, 2009 stretches out like a clean slate, full of possibilities. And I for one am hoping it will be much, much better than the advanced reviews.

Here’s my heartfelt wish that you have had a marvelous 2008 and may the most that you wish for in 2009 be the least you receive.

The War for Open Source

Starting about the time that Bill Gates wrote his infamous Letter to Hobbyists, the commercial software industry has sought to control and restrict access to source code. Before that time, code wasn’t explicitly free, but it was often freely exchanged. The rise of the commercial software industry put an end to that.

When the modern open source software movement was formalized by Bruce Perens and Eric S. Raymond, the commercial software establishment pretty much ignored it. There was no way that useful software could be created for free. Then along came the Linux kernel, the GNU operating system and applications like the Apache web server, and suddenly open source software was not only useful, its adoption started growing phenomenally.

Since it is hard to say software isn’t useful when millions use it, the commercial software industry changed its tactics. A campaign of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt was started. Can you trust software made by a bunch of anonymous hippies? Who will support it? Who can you hold accountable?

In response came companies like Red Hat, who said “hey, I’ll support it, and I’ll give you better, more responsive service than you get from the commercial software guys.” Slowly, the FUD argument started to fade.

Now I’ve seen the next front on the war for open source. Commercial software companies are attacking the term itself. They are trying to say that commercial software and open source are actually the same thing, even though there is a huge difference between companies that garner most of their income from the support of software and those that earn most of their revenue from the sale of proprietary software licenses.

Words are important. One of my favorite philosophers, the late George Carlin, based much of his work on the examination of how words are used to control people. Take the invasion of Iraq by the United States. Following on the heels of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, the US government sought to justify it by associating Iraq, even though not a single terrorist charged in the attacks was from Iraq and studies showed no link between Saddam Hussein and those terrorists. Yet in 2007 a Newsweek poll showed that 41% of Americans thought that Iraq was responsible, which was actually an increase of 5% from September 2004.

Now it is not the purpose of this post to start a debate about the war, but I wanted to demonstrate that if you say something enough times, even if it is false, people start to believe it. The commercial software companies know this.

For example, let me pick on Matt Asay (I could probably pick on Dave Rosenberg but I don’t read his blog). On December 22nd he ran a blog post with the paragraph:

Five years from now, I’m not even sure what it will mean to talk about “open source” and “commercial software” as if they are two separate and distinct things.

See, Matt works for an open core company that makes their money from selling commercial software licenses on top of a core piece of software that is published under an open source license [Note: see comments below – after researching it, it seems that Alfresco is not “open core” but neither is Alfresco Enterprise “open source”]. To drive value to his company he has to make the argument that while open source is good, it can’t produce value unless someone pays for it, thus there must be a commercial software component. I disagree.

He follows this up on Christmas Day with a post about an InfoWorld article on the future of open source:

Dave Rosenberg writes that 2009 will be the year when open source becomes paid software, but I think we’re already there. We’ve been there for at least two years, in fact. We just didn’t know it.

Once again the association that open source and commercial (paid) software are one and the same.

Now I have no doubt that commercial software companies will have to become more open. They’ll have to provide better and more free APIs and they will have to work hard to build communities around their products, but that doesn’t make them open source.

Finally, the next day Asay follows up with a very paternalistic post on the struggles that the data portability field is having on defining what is “open”. I say “paternalistic” because he comes across as if the whole topic is boring and beneath consideration.

See, we in open source have been through this (attribution/badgeware debate, anyone?), and we resolved it by throwing up our hands in despair and moving on.

Oddly enough, that was probably the right thing to do, as the only people that really care about such things are the vendors involved. Customers don’t care

I claim that customers don’t care because they don’t understand. It’s posts like Matt’s that really blur the lines between open source and commercial software. They didn’t care about Linux when no one used Linux, but suddenly less than a decade later Linux is doing well. Now as open source moves up the stack it’s the same situation. Once true free and open source software becomes a viable alternative it will cause customers to care.

But it’s comments like this that make the process take longer. I’ve helped build a business around OpenNMS, which remains 100% open source software, and as I try to explain the value to potential customers I can no longer rely on “it’s open source” to mean what it used to mean. We still get replies like “yes, it’s open source, so how much is the enterprise version?” It’s “free food” all over again.

Now some of my detractors will say that I just make up terms to suit me, and that my understanding of “open source” is not valid. I get mine from The Open Source Definition by the Open Software Initiative. If anyone says that it is not valid, I’d love to hear the reasons why. What I love about it is that it starts off with “Open source doesn’t just mean access to the source code” (emphasis mine). The commercial/open core/hybrid/shareware folks would love for people to believe that’s all it means.

I can’t say that I blame them. I’ve seen the power of open source in action and if I ran a commercial software company it would be in the best interests of my shareholders to leverage anything I could, including even the most tenuous association with it. But likewise it is in my best interests to point out how wrong they are.

I’m not going to have any effect on those companies, and I realize this. Heck, Matt has his bully pulpit on cnet and my three readers get to visit my rants on an old Dell server with donated bandwidth. But who I really want to reach are those that might consider buying these companies. As Matt says the clients don’t care about open source so the investors shouldn’t either. They need to judge the value of a commercial software company against other commercial software companies.

And they need to keep in mind that projects like OpenNMS are growing stronger every day. While our open core competition might have prettier interfaces and more features, we’re catching up. We’re also focusing directly on the needs of our community, and not the buzz-word du jour. How much value does a piece of commercial software have when we might be able to replace it in six months? Customers might not care about truly open source software in large numbers now, but I’m willing to bet they will. I’m wondering who’s betting they won’t?

Why We Don’t Have “Per Incident” Support

We were contacted this week by a company in Sweden asking about “per incident” support. We don’t offer per incident support and I thought this would serve as a good example to explain why.

OpenNMS is free and open source software, so we make no revenue on software licenses. Thus there is no financial incentive for us to spend time installing it and trying to convince people to use it. Commercial (and open core) companies sell software licenses, so they can afford to send people out for non-paid “proof of concept” engagements since there is a calculated chance they would make the money back when and if the software was purchased. We can’t.

We view ourselves more along the lines of doctors. Everywhere I’ve lived the local physicians were some of the most affluent people around, but no one walks around saying that doctors can’t make any money since they don’t sell the medicine they prescribe. Likewise, no one would go to a doctor and say, hey, why don’t you treat me for this ailment and if I like the degree and speed by which I get better I’ll pay you.

We charge around US$1750 for a day of consulting, so this is the yardstick by which I have to measure our time. With our support subscriptions this is pretty simple. We spend a lot of time with the customer for the first few weeks, but it quickly drops off as their OpenNMS installation is completed and moved to production. Since it renews each year, the investment we make in Year One pays off in later years.

This doesn’t happen with per incident support.

While we encourage our clients to become well versed in how OpenNMS works (one reason for both COVER and our training programs) we also want them to rely on us for questions. There is no reason to spend two days searching the list archives for a solution that we can provide in a few minutes. This benefits the client by having their question answered quickly, but it also benefits us by demonstrating our value.

Now, when someone wants per incident support this usually means that they have spent time exhausting the free resources of the wiki and the mailing lists. Chances are that they have uncovered a real problem.

Let’s say that the average bug takes us two man-days to fix. At US$1750/day I would have to charge US$3500 per incident to break even. That seems a little extreme, but let’s say that I do it. The client might be happy if it solves there problem.

However, suppose someone calls up, buys an incident and the answer is “Oh, just change that flag from ‘true’ to ‘false’ – that’ll be $3500 please”. They’re going to be angry. With a support subscription we love questions like these, which actually make up a good portion of our trouble tickets. But you can bet that per incident support clients wouldn’t like it – they’ll only be happy if they have reported an issue that is difficult to resolve. Those issues cost us a lot in terms of time and it is hard to turn that effort into a recurring revenue stream.

So we only offer support subscriptions. For us, it is the best balance of being able to help our clients as well as to stay in business.

This week we got a call from a company in Sweden asking about per incident support. As expected, they had posted their question on the mailing lists but had not received a satisfactory response. They were sure it was just a configuration issue and it shouldn’t take us much time to resolve. Famous last words.

We’d determined that the problem was a bug that had been addressed in OpenNMS 1.6.1 and suggested they upgrade. They were under a time pressure and so we sold them a day of consulting where we would ssh in to their system and upgrade it.

It was a good thing we were there. Not only was the upgrade difficult (it was from 1.5.90) another problem had been introduced in the process. The client had made some changes to their firewall and it was slamming the OpenNMS system with a tremendous number of traps. While OpenNMS can handle a large number of traps, this was about 17,000 traps every 5 seconds. OpenNMS was running on a lower-end system that just couldn’t handle the load, but it wasn’t immediately apparent why the OpenNMS performance was so poor.

Like a doctor, we have the experience to troubleshoot such things and once Jeff identified the issue we were able to configure OpenNMS to discard many of the uninteresting traps. Once OpenNMS was performing well again he spent a lot of time cleaning up the configuration files to make sure all of the customer’s issues were addressed. It took most of the day.

Thus the reason we don’t have per incident support can be summarized with it is too hard to price fairly and most “incidents” are more than a single problem.

Since this was a paid engagement we can add Sweden to the list of countries where The OpenNMS Group has clients – bringing the total to 18. I know of many more countries where OpenNMS is used, so perhaps in early 2009 we’ll break 20 or more. The client in Sweden seemed real happy with our services so I’m hoping that they’ll consider a support contract, and now with COVER you couldn’t find a better time to sign up.

Forget TARP, Take COVER

Here at OpenNMS World Headquarters we like to keep up with all that there business stuff. We use terms like “paradigm shift” and “synergy” like we actually know what they mean – things like that. Heck, I even had a suit and tie on yesterday. Seriously.

With the US officially in a recession and the rest of the world in a similar situation, we’ve been trying to do our part to make things better. For a start, OpenNMS provides a viable alternative to many OpenView and Tivoli products, resulting in a lower cost of ownership.

Education is the core to any successful economy, and while we can’t do any “quantitative easing” when it comes to the money supply at large, we can help out in the “learnin'” department.

From now until the end of the year, any new support customer is eligible for COVER. Like the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) we’ve created COVER: the Christmastime OpenNMS Valuable Education Rebate.

For every Basic Support Subscription purchased, we’ll provide a voucher good for a seat in any of our Basic Training Classes over the next year. For every Enterprise Support Subscription purchased, or upgrade from Basic to Enterprise, we’ll include a free seat in the combined Basic and Advanced course.

This reflects a savings of at least US$1500 to almost twice that amount, depending on where you take the training.

It’s a stimulus package you can believe in – just in time to use up any of that last minute budget money or as a gift for that special someone to show them that you really care.

Drop a note if you are interested.

Mark Estill (1954-2008)

My friend Mark Estill died today.

I won’t pretend to have known Mark well. He had never been to my house, nor I to his. I knew him mostly through his brother Lyle and the fact that his company is in the same building with mine.

But Mark was one of those rare individuals who you could consider a friend pretty much upon meeting him. He was incredibly down to earth. Growing up in a family with three brothers, each of whom was really successful in their own way, Mark could hold his own.

He would sometimes come to the office in the late afternoon, with me neck deep in work, and say “let’s go get a beer.” His timing was always perfect, as I was usually stressing about work to the point where I wasn’t very productive. So I’d turn off the laptop and we’d head out to the General Store.

We’d just sit and talk about pretty much anything that came to mind. One beer would turn into two. I’d call my wife to tell her I’d be late for supper. Sometimes I’d call my wife to have her come pick me up – our quick beer having turned into a chat several hours (and beers) long.

Out of the past four weeks I’ve been gone for three. When I left, Mark seemed fine (I learned that he wasn’t, but he didn’t let on). During that time he was diagnosed with lung cancer (even though he is a non-smoker) and now he’s gone.

It just goes to show you how quickly things can change, and that you can’t take anything for granted.

Woody Allen once said he wanted to achieve immortality, not through his work, but through “not dying”. Unfortunately, we don’t have that option, so what we do and how we behave may be the only things left when we’re gone.

It’s one of the reasons we work on OpenNMS the way we do. We’ve had opportunities to take different directions with the business, but our goal is to build something lasting, to change the world, and not to focus on short term financial gains for a few people. Doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do is something Mark demonstrated every day.

When someone like Mark makes an impact on your life they never really go away. They help make you a better person, and by being a better person you affect those around you, and in turn they improve the people they know.

It’s the heart of “community”, and by that measure Mark will be around for a long, long time.