2010 Open Source Business Conference – Day Two

My second day at the OSBC started off pretty hectic. I had a number of work related things to take care of so I missed the morning keynotes. Both of them seemed interesting, but it wasn’t meant to be (on the upside we closed a lot of business today).

I showed up in time for the first set of breakout sessions, and the first one I attended was entitled “Tactics and Metrics for Scaling an Open-Source Company” by Rob Bearden of Benchmark Capital. Now this was what I was expecting from this conference: defining open source business as open core. Having an “enterprise” commercial software version of your open source project was taken as a given. I thought it was a telling sign when the speaker kept introducing people from the VC-backed open core world (one guy from MySQL, another from Alfresco, a couple from Pentaho) but he had to ask Jono Bacon to identify himself.

VC firms are usually not concerned with building lasting companies but instead they focus on building perceived value so that they can exit in five years or less. This talk was much more about downloads and marketing than scaling to meet customer demand. I don’t really have a problem with the VC business model, but it causes my knickers to bunch when they drape the “open source” flag on it. Let’s be honest – the sale of MySQL to Sun did a lot for the investors of MySQL, but was it really worth US$1 billion for the buyer? If the focus hadn’t been so much on the big exit, would the MySQL community be better off and less fractured? That sale is a great thing to tout if you’re making investments, but don’t lecture me on value as a whole.

Of course it didn’t help that the whole discussion was peppered with buzzwords like “e-properties” and “onboarding”. And it consisted of Powerpoint bullets.

I did introduce myself to James Dixon of Pentaho. I like reading his stuff even if I don’t agree with most of it.

I decided to follow Jono over to his presentation on the role of the Community Manager. As the most well-known community manager in all of open source, his presentation was both interesting and insightful. It wasn’t a discussion of how to build a community (for that get his book) but instead focused on the qualities to look for in the person you want to act as the liaison between your company and your community.

One phrase he used that I liked a lot is that your community manager has to be able to “participate faithfully”. I think it is dreadfully important that the community manager of any project should have some sort of credibility with the community. In addition, he stressed the manager’s “ability to do” – meaning that the position can’t just be a figurehead but has to be vested with influence. Awhile ago I overheard one community manager respond to a technical question about his product with “I’m just the guy who orders the T-shirts”. I think he was selling himself short but that is a horrible thing to have to say.

He also introduced me to the term “read vs. write” communities. There are a number of communities that are simply consumers of a particular thing. Take Star Trek fans for example. They can be rabid in their love of the show but they really don’t add anything to it. Open source communities, on the other hand, can influence, sometimes greatly, the project to which they belong. These “write” communities have to be treated differently than their “read” counterparts.

He also stressed that the role of “community” manager has a lot in common with traditional managers. When I managed people my job was to protect and isolate them from the crap from above. I wanted my team to focus on helping customers and solving problems – not worrying about politics. A good community manager should do the same, especially since most open source communities are volunteer. Add a dash of bureaucracy and watch those people flee.

Plus – his talk was free of Powerpoint bullets.

Right after the talk the lady sitting next to me introduced herself. It turns out she was Tara Spalding, the head of marketing for Groundwork Open Source. I was impressed that she treated me so civilly after I really bashed her MonitoringForge efforts. I wanted to stress to her that part of my issues deal with years of baggage over Groundwork (when they started out they represented the worst in fauxpen source) and in part my jealousy that they managed to get and run through tens of millions of dollars in investment (what magic I could work with just a fraction of that money). She stressed to me that their efforts are truly aimed at providing a forum for open source monitoring as independent as possible from Groundwork itself, but like a lot of open source efforts, someone has to foot the bill for the servers, maintenance and site design so they stepped up. My attitude softened quite a bit after our conversation, and although I am not quite ready to endorse it, I’ll be keeping a much less cynical eye on the site.

Jono was talking to some folks from Rackspace, so I butted in to the conversation. They had a group at the OSBC as well as a number of people at the cloud conference going on at the same time across town. We chatted about their new data center going up in Chicago (I, of course, provisioned the OpenNMS servers there) and their amazing growth in general.

Jono and I then went down to lunch and spent an hour talking about a huge number of things. He showed me the new artwork and design in Ubuntu (trés pretty) and at one point his wife, Erica Brescia (CEO of BitRock) stopped by. He pointed out that if you google “Erica Brescia” and click on images, my picture of the two of them at LugRadio Live in San Francisco is like the third hit.

Let’s make it the first hit, shall we? Everyone link to that picture and put “Erica Brescia” next to it.

Erica Brescia, Erica Brescia, Erica Brescia. Take that Google.

Toward the end of the meal I got to meet Stephen Walli. I’d never met the subject of a User Friendly cartoon before. He’s a great guy and if you ever meet him ask him to tell you the “yes, but it’s dark and she’s been drinking” story.

The afternoon session started at two and I decided to see Jay Lyman of the 451 Group talk about the cost benefits of open source. One thing that caused me to raise my eyebrows was a slide about where the perceived cost savings were. Licensing costs were number one, of course, but number two was license management.

I remember from my OpenView days that moving OpenView from one server to another often took a day or two just to navigate the bureaucracy of getting a new server-specific license key. The fact that it was such a concern for organizations, however, came as a surprise.

My next talk was on open source license compatibility given by Karen Sandler of the Software Freedom Law Center. She represented us during our time of troubles, and it is always nice to see her again. As we were talking a friend of hers came up and gave her a hug. I looked down at his badge to find I was standing next to Jeremy Allison.


In the span of four talks I had gone from open core to mainstream open source to free software.

The OSBC had a legal track in its program, and most of the talks were focused on how to defend yourself when the SFLC comes a callin’. It was neat to see the other side of the story presented in an entertaining manner by Karen, with the phrase “free software” repeated over and over again.

Now I am not a lawyer but I have more than a passing acquaintance with open source licensing. One thing people don’t realize is that if you distribute open source software (well, specifically GPL software) you are required to distribute the source at the same time. If you choose not to you are making a promise to provide the source to all comers for the next three years. Seriously – if you hand out Linux CDs at the local computer club you technically have to be willing to hand out source CDs as well. The media has to be the same. You can’t hand out binary CDs and tell people to get the source from a website, since that person may not have access to the web (think of a remote place in Africa as an example). Since we only distribute OpenNMS via the web it is okay that the source is also distributed via the web, but in other cases the binary and source media must match.

Karen pointed out that the best thing to do is to ship the source when you originally distribute the software, since your requirements under the license are satisfied immediately, but the second best thing is to have an easily accessible place for people to get it. In any case it is important that you respond to requests for code in a timely manner (and having a centralized repository makes this much easier).

Speaking of timeliness, she also addressed why the SFLC is quick to investigate license violations. Quite simply, licenses would be useless without enforcement. But she also noted that the creators of free and open software want people to use it, so they are much more focused on compliance than punishment (my words, not hers).

It was a good presentation (and Karen had a splitting headache during it but it didn’t show) but as I was in a room full of lawyers I can’t let go without at least one lawyer joke. In the breakout rooms there were two sets of doors. There was a pair near the speaker podium and a pair at the back of the room. The pair at the back was marked by a sign listing the speakers, and in every room I was in over the two days this worked perfectly (people came in the proper door). During Karen’s talk not one but two people came in the door right in front of her, which I found amusing.

I was pretty much done after her talk. I changed into jeans and headed to the airport, enjoying the unusually warm weather in San Francisco. It was a fun conference, and at the moment I will probably come back next year.

But I don’t expect to be a speaker. (grin)

2010 Open Source Business Conference – Day One

I am currently in San Francisco attending the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC). While the conference has been around for awhile, I have never had a desire to attend before since people have told me it is more like the Open Core Business Conference. Also, it was founded my Matt Asay who nurses a strong dislike for OpenNMS (for proof just check out his negative article on us and our BOSSIE last year which is based on quotes that don’t seem to exist in the original article).

We have a standing rule at the OpenNMS Group that we will pay the expenses for any employee who gets a paper accepted at a conference, so I dutifully submitted two talks. The first was my ever evolving “So You Think You Want to Start and Open Source Business?” presentation, but since I was pretty certain that would be shot down, I also suggested another presentation where two of our “Ultra” support customers, Rackspace and New Edge, could talk about how they use the OpenNMS management application platform in their business.

Both were shot down.

In any case, the number of open source shows is small and the number of people I wanted to meet that were attending this one was large, so I decided to come anyway. Here are my thoughts on day one.

As someone who runs an open source business, I figured that the conference would be aimed at people like me. Instead, looking at the agenda the conference should be renamed the Open Source in Business Conference since, this year at least, it is much more about using open source than basing a company on it.

The first keynote was delivered by Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat. I am an unabashed fan boy of Red Hat, and now it seems I have a slight man crush on Jim.

This was the first time I had seen him in person. I met his predecessor, Matt Szulik, on a number of occasions, and Szulik always struck me as the somber corporate type. Jim, on the other hand, reminds me more of the people I usually meet in open source. He’s very energetic and more importantly, he gets it. Even though he came from Delta Airlines, an industry very different from open source software, he demonstrates a strong understanding of the value it provides.

He doesn’t sell on price, but power. Open source is not about saving money but it is about innovation. His customers have a lot of innovation to do within their own businesses, and open source is the best way to get that done. Of course price is a factor, but it isn’t the main one.

He did point out that Red Hat is the largest “pure-play” open source company. I hate the fact that he even had to say “pure-play,” but there are people that want to blur the definition of an open source company to include the likes of Google and Microsoft, so I was happy he went out of his way to mention it.

He also touched on a theme that I would see throughout the day. It’s this idea of applying open source development concepts to other issues. He ended the talk with a discussion of the new opensource.com site which exists not only to discuss open source software but to apply the “power of participation” to solving other problems.

He won me over by not simply reading a list of Powerpoint bullets off the screen. His slides were images and phrases that complimented the talk but weren’t the center of it. I was impressed.

This was followed by a panel discussion that included Tim Yeaton (CEO of Black Duck), Larry Augustin (The Dark Lord of Open Source), Dries Buytaert (Founder of Drupal) and Jim Whitehurst. It was moderated by Michael Skok of North Bridge Venture Partners, a venture capital firm, and since VCs are the driving force behind open core business models I figured this is where I would start to get my hackles up.

I was wrong.

I hate panel discussions, but this one was pretty good. They reviewed a survey that was sent out that explored various aspects of open source adoption, and they compared it to previous years.

Jim won me over again when, on one slide discussing open source business models, there was quite a difference between it and the year before (and that slide was different than the year before it). He said that this “moving of the bars” represented that people were still experimenting with the best ways to make money on open source and this was a good thing. At OpenNMS our business plan changes quite frequently as we continually tune our offerings to our customer needs, so I agreed with him.

Larry even impressed me when he stated that he hates to compete on price. OpenNMS is not the cheapest solution for everyone, but it is the best solution for many large enterprises and carriers based on power, flexibility, scalability and, yes, total cost of ownership. But if one expects a bargain basement solution they will be disappointed.

Then he lost me when he confused dual licensing with open core licensing. Dual Licensing is when 100% of the code is available under both an open source license and a proprietary one (like our Powered By OpenNMS program) whereas Open Core licensing is where some of the code is open but a good portion of it is not.

One reason I hate panel discussions is that it is hard for the audience to get involved. At one point Dries pointed out that there are over 5000 plugins for Drupal. I think that’s great, but I wanted to ask what is the difference between an open source project and its plugins versus a closed source project with an open API and its plugins (like Facebook). Plugins alone can’t be the reason to choose a solution.

The next to the last slide discussed “cool” open source projects, in that new fancy way where the word with the most attention is larger than the surrounding words (I need to know the technical name for this, so if anyone knows it, drop me a note or comment). Drupal was very large and it was interesting to see Nagios up there, too. OpenNMS was represented, but in the smallest font. I should point out that Apache and Thunderbird were the same font size as us, so I’m not too disappointed.

The last question was phrased “What Percent of Purchased Software Will Be Open in the Next 5 Years?” I thought it was silly to talk about “purchasing” open source software. It still shows the open core mentality that software has to be purchased. Sure, they could mean services purchased around open source software, but it wasn’t phrased that way. Open source is so much more about building an innovative solution than software licenses that I wish they would have recognized that in their question.

The next keynote was delivered by Bob Sutor of IBM. He started off with a disclaimer where the words “ideology” and “philosophy” were surrounded by one of those red “not” circles with the bar across it. Anytime someone tells me I need to ignore open source ideology and philosophy usually means they are about to try to redefine them. My guard was up.

It didn’t need to be. His talk, despite being Powerpoint bullet lists, was good. He pointed out that as a percentage of overall software used, open source is still pretty small. He touched a painful point with our project when he mentioned that the quality of documentation is often a reflection on the quality of the software. I don’t agree with it fully but there is a nugget of truth to it. He then took a stab at the open core crowd by differentiating between open source and “coding in public”.

It was interesting to contrast him with Jim Whitehurst. He definitely has more of a corporate demeanor and a wicked talent for talking about other companies without naming them. He also talked about how companies that modify open source in house should contribute back to the community since the cost of propagating changes to the code over time erodes the value of using it.

He didn’t need the disclaimer.

That was the end of the morning keynotes. My first breakout session was Matt Aslett’s talk on The Evolution of Open Source Business Strategies.

Matt was one of the people I came to the conference to meet, and I enjoyed his talk. He works for the 451 Group which published a report in 2008 entitled “Open Source is Not a Business Model“.

They took a lot of heat from the open source community as the word “not” was perceived as a knock against open source in general. It reminded me of Leonard Nimoy’s book “I Am Not Spock” which got him labeled as a Star Trek hater. Never use the word “not” in a title if you can help it.

At OpenNMS our mission is to help customers, have fun doing it, and make money. Our business model is based on services, and open source is simply a strategy. In his talk he discusses a number of open source strategies, from pure play companies like ours up through open core and the obligatory “cloud” reference.

He did stress the difference between dual licensing and open core, and he used OpenNMS as a case study for both a pure open source services company and dual licensing. It was a good talk and nice to finally meet him in person.

I met a number of other cool people. Jay Lyman, who also works for the 451 Group, is giving a talk on Thursday. I stopped by the Microsoft booth to chat with Brenton Phillips to thank him for our MSDN subscription. We had a nice talk about the difference between open source companies and those that use open source.

Next to their booth was the Red Hat booth. Jason Hibbets was there representing opensource.com. I also met Daniel Chalef, the CEO of KnowledgeTree which is based out of Raleigh as well.

I got introduced to an open source document management company called Nuxeo. It is a pure-play open source company based out of France (the French don’t have any trouble differentiating between open source and open core). I met Cheryl McKinnon, their Chief Marketing Officer, and I need to check out their project (us pure play folks need to stick together).

The final keynote of the day was a presentation by Tim O’Reilly. This is the second time I have seen him speak (the first was as OSCON a few years ago). Tim is so far ahead of the curve it takes me awhile to digest what he says. My initial instinct is often to disagree with him, but then I realize that he tends to be talking about something much different than what I think he is talking about.

This lack of comprehension could be a weakness on my part, but since the first audience question was “hey, could you connect the dots for me?” I wasn’t the only one. Despite that, he is an engaging speaker.

His talk was basically how low cost “sensor” hardware (such as smartphones and other devices) are going to feed raw data up to large, centralized databases (the cloud) where the web will enable us to access rich content applications. He talked about a weight scale he owns that is wi-fi enabled so he can track his weight (about 181 pounds, if you care), as well as a device from Phillips that measures his daily activity.

Then he showed a somewhat darker side of all this data. There is a project in the UK called AMEE that collects energy use data in order to calculate carbon footprints. They have a number of sensors that measure, say, electricity consumption, and it is sensitive enough that they can pinpoint not only when a particular appliance was used, such as a dishwasher, but also the make and model of the appliance. While AMEE’s motives seem benign, it demonstrated how this data can pose a serious threat to privacy (and I should note that their raw data is openly available).

Tim focused on the rise of such databases, and how the bigger the database, the better it works. The owners of this data (such as Google and Facebook) are thus in a pretty powerful position. It severely limits the ability for others to enter the market, and easy entry and exit is a cornerstone of functioning markets.

But I was having a problem understanding how the call for “open data” related to open source. I think open data is one of the more pressing technology issues facing our society today, but I couldn’t see how that was relevant to my business.

Tim kind of brought it together with the concept that these growing data sinks, such as Google, are becoming impossible to compete with. Google has a business advantage to keeping the data closed. With Google having something like 10 million servers, it would take a huge investment just to get started, and a traditional competition model fails.

Thus the only way to prevent putting the best databases in the hands of a few corporations is to adopt an open source attitude. He demonstrated this by searching for the Palace Hotel (the site of the conference) on a number of open source sites, such as OpenStreetMap. He couldn’t find it. However, a site like Yelp has a lot of information on the hotel. Wouldn’t it be nice if Yelp was able to share its location database with OpenStreetMap? Not all of its data, of course. Yelp would keep the reviews, etc., but OpenStreetMap could reciprocate by linking searches back to Yelp.

This idea of reciprocity is core to the open source philosophy, and it is probably the only option available to bring any sort of openness and competition to the data market.

His talk made me think, which is always a good thing.

Speaking of good things, I was pretty happy with the first day of the conference. There was little in the way of people trying to redefine “open source” and a lot of focus on the value that it brings. That doesn’t mean I trust or agree with everyone who spoke, but I was surprised at how the conference didn’t try to hit me over the head with the idea that the only way to be successful in an open source business is to sell software. On a side note, this week our corporate taxes were due and I’m willing to bet I paid more in taxes than most of these VC-backed open core companies made in profits last year.

The day ended with a cocktail reception. As a final note, if you ever attend a conference in California with an open bar, offer to tip your server. While they can’t display a “tip jar” they are allowed to accept tips, and in the spirit of reciprocity a nice tip will get you extra good service. Since it was St. Patrick’s Day, a little Jameson and ginger ale was in order. (grin)


Just a quick post between a lovely weekend at the beach and the Open Source Business Conference.

Last year I managed to visit Dresden where I saw for the first time, in person, the ampelmännchen. These are the rather unique street crossing lights that can be found in the former East Germany. It wasn’t the first time I was introduced to them, however. That was at the house of Jonathan Sartin (OGP) in the UK, where his son Eddie had plastic toy versions of them.

In fact, there are a number of shops dedicated to the symbols.

However, I was unable to find ampelmännchen cufflinks. Since I live in a area that has a high density of artisans, I decided to have a pair made.

I think they turned out rather well. They were made by Sandra McEwen in silver and enamel.

Open for Business

A few weeks ago I wrote about the new “opensource.com” website. I’m pretty happy with it and since they were looking for people to get involved I offered to write a column on running an open source business based on my experiences with OpenNMS.

I’m calling it “Open for Business”.

The first column was published today, and I love the logo they created for it. Please let me know what you think, but better yet, sign up on their site and post comments there.

New Stable and Unstable Releases

The gang has moved up to monthly releases, so hot on the heels of the February updates are two new releases this week.

The latest stable release is OpenNMS 1.6.10. This release contains bug fixes and while not critical, all users of 1.6.x before 1.6.10 should consider upgrading.

The latest development release is OpenNMS 1.7.10. This has a rather large number of bug fixes and features, including the ability to use the remote monitors over HTTP, push collected data out over a TCP port, and the much talked about JasperReports integration.

Ben has included more information in This Week in OpenNMS.