♫ The Lunatic is on My Web ♫

The TL;DR of it is that I needed to create a new forum called OpenNMS Connect. This will be a place for Luna. So far I’ve been happy.

When I first started my quest for forum software a couple of month ago, I did what most geeks do and did a search for it. I found a very helpful Wikipedia page (‘natch).

After dismissing the non-open source options, I started looking at the programming language. Now I know I really shouldn’t be a PHP snob (this blog is presented using PHP software) but having been burned in the past with security issues my first inclination is to avoid it.

Now the guys in the office are trying to get me to think all “agile-ly” and so I need a “user story”. For any forum we use it has to support LDAP, for which the story could be “User must be able to access forum using directory services” or better yet “Admin needs a central way of controlling forum access”. We implement LDAP via the FreeIPA project, and it will just be so much easier if we can add and remove people from a particular group and just have it work.

The first project I looked at was Discourse. I was especially interested in a hosted version if I could tie it into our IPA instance. Discourse is kind of the “new hotness” at the moment, but I didn’t see an easy way to implement LDAP. There is a Single Sign On (SSO) option but it would require writing our own authentication page, and it wouldn’t work if we hosted it with them anyway.

The next project that caught my eye was the eXo Platform. It’s written in Java (as is OpenNMS) and it seems to have a ton of features. Perhaps too many. In any case I put the team on it and asked them to get it working with LDAP.

They succeeded in getting LDAP authentication to work, but then hit a ton of other snags. The authenticated users couldn’t access the default /portal/intranet site no matter how often we tweaked the permissions. They could reach the /portal/meridian site but we couldn’t figure out how to change the default portal. And in all cases we couldn’t get the top menu bar to load with an LDAP user which meant you couldn’t log out, etc.

On Friday I decided to see what I could do about it. Friday was a long day.

eXo is one of those companies that produces an open source version of their software as well as a paid version. My three readers know how I feel about that business model, and it made it kind of frustrating to figure out things since I couldn’t tell if the documentation would actually work on the “community” version. Also, to access the forums you need to register, which gets you a couple of spam-y e-mails trying to sell you on their paid version. Not too obnoxious and I can understand why they do it, but it was a little annoying.

It can also be hard to administer. A lot of the configuration is buried in .war files. For example, in order to set the default portal above, you have to unpack portal.war, change it and repack it. In playing around with the system, I decided that while the LDAP authentication is nice, the platform itself is way overkill for what we need. It is huge and on our system took several minutes to start up and would often spike the load with limited users.

So I spent a lot of time looking for alternatives. Unfortunately, the only option I found that had easy to understand LDAP integration was phpBB. When I mentioned that to the team, Jeff threw up in his mouth a little and I wasn’t too happy about that choice either. I don’t have the same prejudices as some, but I felt that its style was a little dated and there have been some serious security issues in the past associated with it.

But for grins I installed phpBB anyway. It was rather easy to do, which made me happy, but then I noticed that it was not easy to make the forum itself private. Another user story is that “Admin requires that only authorized users see the forum”. You can make certain parts of phpBB private, but I kind of wanted the same thing as eXo – an initial log in screen you have to use before accessing the site.

Then it dawned on me that we could just put it in a directory by itself in the web root, say /forum, and then make a pretty splash page on on the site with a link to it. Apache LDAP authentication is something we already figured out and knew worked and I could just require a valid login to access /forum.

This caused another lightbulb to go off. If we are going to do it that way, then why not just put any forum we like behind an LDAP authenticated directory?

The downside would be that users would need to create a forum-specific user if they wanted to add content, but on the upside they could choose their own usernames, thus obfuscating their identities for people who work at sensitive organizations. Thus we could have an LDAP user tied to, say, obama@whitehouse.gov and their forum name could be something totally different, like “Hot Cocoa”.

Yes, I know it is dressing up a bug as a feature, but to me it did seem useful.

Then I thought, hey, let’s revisit Discourse. That turned out to be harder than it would seem

Well, the only way to install Discourse on CentOS is as a Docker container, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to work.

The first time I tried to install it, it died complaining about lack of access to an SMTP server. No where in the instructions did it say you had to modify the app.yml and put in a valid mail server. In any case, I did that and restarted the install.

At one point during the install process I get this:

-- 0:  unicorn (4.8.3) from
/var/www/discourse/vendor/bundle/ruby/2.0.0/specifications/unicorn-4.8.3.gemspec
Bundle complete! 92 Gemfile dependencies, 189 gems now installed.
Gems in the group development were not installed.
Bundled gems are installed into ./vendor/bundle.

I, [2015-04-04T04:49:47.161747 #38]  INFO -- : > cd /var/www/discourse
&& su discourse -c 'bundle exec rake db:migrate'
2015-04-04 04:49:55 UTC [339-1] discourse@discourse ERROR:  relation "users" does not exist at character 323
2015-04-04 04:49:55 UTC [339-2] discourse@discourse STATEMENT:      SELECT a.attname, format_type(a.atttypid, a.atttypmod),	                     pg_get_expr(d.adbin, d.adrelid), a.attnotnull, a.atttypid, a.atttypmod
	                FROM pg_attribute a LEFT JOIN pg_attrdef d
	                  ON a.attrelid = d.adrelid AND a.attnum = d.adnum
	               WHERE a.attrelid = '"users"'::regclass
	                 AND a.attnum > 0 AND NOT a.attisdropped
	               ORDER BY a.attnum

which a Google search says to ignore, but then a little while later the install fails with:

FAILED
--------------------
RuntimeError: cd /var/www/discourse && su discourse -c 'bundle exec rake db:migrate' failed with return #
Location of failure: /pups/lib/pups/exec_command.rb:105:in `spawn' exec failed with the params {"cd"=>"$home", "hook"=>"bundle_exec", "cmd"=>["su discourse -c 'bundle install --deployment --verbose --without test --without development'", "su discourse -c 'bundle exec rake db:migrate'", "su discourse -c 'bundle exec rake assets:precompile'"]}
68a9a49f29ad74d9ab042bcaadfb06e02ff526104fefd82039eae1588bbb6e43
FAILED TO BOOTSTRAP

on which Google is much less helpful. No matter what I did I couldn’t get past it.

This kind of brings up an issue I have with Docker. Now let’s get this out of the way: I am jealous of the Docker project. We’ve been around for 15 years and gotten little notice whereas they have become huge in a short time. It would be nice if, say, I could get up to four readers on my blog.

But I really, really, really hated how hidden this whole process was. You install software on your system and then load “magic bits” from the Internet and hope it works. I think this is great on a intranet when you need to deploy lots of the same things, but without developing it internally first it was a little scary. When it doesn’t work it is incredibly hard to diagnose. Because the app wouldn’t build I couldn’t play with the database or really do anything, so I just uninstalled and reinstalled numerous times to try to fix this.

Plus, by running in a container, we would then need to modify nginx to use our LDAP configuration and that seems to be much harder than with Apache. I didn’t think it would be easy to just forward requests to the Docker instance, but since I couldn’t get it to work I’ll never know.

By this time I said, screw it, reinstalled phpBB and went home. It’s now about 8pm and I’ve been at it 11 hours.

Well, I have a mild form of OCD, or maybe it’s just being a geek, but I couldn’t let it rest. So early this morning (as in soon after midnight) I discovered a project called Luna (an active project from the aforementioned Wikimedia page).

Luna is the next iteration of the ModernBB project which is in turn is a fork of FluxBB. It’s simple, does almost everything I could want, and was incredibly easy to install. No Docker containers, no large Java app, just some PHP that you drop in your web root. Plus the webUI is built on bootstrap just like OpenNMS.

In about an hour I had it running, had changed the style to match our color palette, and fixed an issue where jquery wasn’t getting loaded by copying it down as a local file.

OpenNMS Luna Website

The downside is that it isn’t production yet. I installed 0.7 and earlier this morning they released 0.8. Jesse fixed an issue with the internal mail system and I have a couple of more issues that I’d like to see fixed, but overall I’m very happy with it. They are aiming to release 1.0 on 13 April.

And I really like their attitude and philosophy. They are self-funded and I love Yannick’s tag line of “You Can Do Anything.”

To help that I sent them 100€. (grin)

Anyway, sorry for the long post. I’ll let you know how it goes.

OpenNMS on Bad Voltage

I had to go back through my notes, but I first met Jono Bacon on April 12th, 2008 at a LugRadio Live show in San Francisco. Jeremy Garcia, the founder of LinuxQuestions.org, I didn’t meet until this year’s SCaLE conference, but I had been following that site since at least 2009 (or at least that the oldest e-mail I still have from it). Those two guys make up half of the team behind the Bad Voltage podcast.

The other half consists of Stuart “No Fruit in Beer” Langridge and Bryan “Puffy Nipples” Lunduke, both nicknames earned at SCaLE (where they did their first live show). Stuart, the more social and less-sickly of the pair, joined us for a few drinks one evening during the conference, but I have yet to meet Bryan face to face.

Which is probably a good thing, because the few seconds I saw said face on a Google hangout this week, well, it wasn’t pretty. Ebola is nothing to joke about so I shall leave it at that, but let’s just say he was under the weather.

I was on the Hangout because the guys asked me to come on Bad Voltage. The first time I was invited was a couple of weeks ago when the taping was on a Thursday. I couldn’t make that one, so considering the history of this crew I was a little suspicious when they asked me to chat on April Fool’s Day.

Of course, this is when I found out that Bryan was deathly ill and wouldn’t be joining us, and even my thick brain can detect a pattern. Dodges me at SCaLE even with the promise of free booze. Ditches me during the one time I’m on his show. I know when I’m not wanted.

The string of “coincidences” continued during the taping when Jono’s app crashed a few minutes into our chat. In 38 shows it had never happened before and so we had to start over, and the guys were good sports and laughed at all the right moments as I repeated my stories. April Fool’s Day is also my wedding anniversary, so they got a small slice of what it is to live with me and have to suffer through my stories over and over (she’s stuck with me for 22+ years so I guess that is one miracle for her sainthood, two to go).

Anyway, after the technical glitches were sorted and Bryan was done snubbing me, I thought the chat went pretty well. It’s hard for me to fit anything into ~10 minutes and I left stuff out that I would have liked to say, but I hope it gets people interested in OpenNMS. In any case, even without my bit (or should I say especially without my bit) the show is always entertaining and you should check it out. You’ll get the occasional F-bomb and sometimes references to moose genitalia, but overall it is pretty safe for work.

Anyhoo – check it out and let me know what you think:

Bad Voltage 1×39: Ambitious but Rubbish

OpenNMS at Fifteen

It was fifteen years ago today that the OpenNMS Project was registered on Sourceforge.

OpenNMS Sourceforge Summary

The project itself was started sometime in 1999, but I wasn’t around then as I didn’t get involved until 2001. I’ve been told that it started in July of that year, but since an open source project really doesn’t exist until something gets shared, it seems that March 30, 2000, is as good a day as any to mark the birth of OpenNMS.

I went poking around on the site and wasn’t able to find the very first thing posted there. I believe it was a mockup of an administration console using the Java Swing toolkit that never actually made it into the product. While I believe the code is still in there somewhere, in switching from CVS to SVN to git, dates do get a little corrupted and I couldn’t find it.

Anniversaries don’t really mean that much in practical terms. In moving from Sunday, March 29th, to Monday, March 30th there was no substantial change in OpenNMS at all. But it does lend itself to a bit of reflection, and fifteen years is a lot of time on which to reflect.

While I have been working on OpenNMS most of my professional career, I didn’t start it. People much smarter than me did, and that has pretty much been the story of my life. My only true talent is getting intelligent and creative people to work with me, and the rest of my career is just basking in their reflected glory. In 2002, the original founders decided to stop working on the project, but I saw its potential and was able to become its maintainer.

My original plan was to simply remain a company of one and provide consulting services around OpenNMS. That didn’t work out so well, as I soon realized that it could be much bigger than one person. In September of 2004, The OpenNMS Group was born in part to insure that the OpenNMS platform would always be around. We wanted to build something amazing, and this was reflected in our goal “to make OpenNMS the de facto management platform of choice.”

Being pretty much a group of technical people, we didn’t know we were doing things wrong. For a business plan we chose “Spend less money than you earn.” For a mission statement we liked “Help Customers – Have Fun – Make Money”. I put forth my two desires that OpenNMS should never suck and that OpenNMS should always be free software. We just took it from there.

This is not to say that we haven’t met with frustration. Gartner likes to diagram companies on two axes: “Vision” and “Ability to Execute that Vision”. We have a lot of vision, but our business model doesn’t give us a lot of resources to execute that vision quickly.

In order to change this, I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley looking for an investor. Silicon Valley is pretty much the center of the technology industry, and one would assume that they would know the best way to run a technology based business. But I was pretty much told that you can’t be anyone unless you work in the Valley, you’re too old, and most importantly, you are doing it wrong.

There seems to be a formula they like out there. You raise a bunch of money. You hire as many people as fast as you can. You get as many users as possible and you hope that some larger company will buy you out. They call this an “exit strategy”, and this is supposed to be the focus of the business. Once you “exit” you can do it all again.

The problem, as I see it, is that a lot of companies have to exit before they get bought out. They run out of money, the investors run out of interest or patience, and then they just shutter the endeavor. Sure, you have your prominent billion dollar acquisitions, but in the scheme of things they are a very, very small percentage.

Plus, I’m already doing what I love to do. I really don’t want to do anything else. My chosen field, network management, is huge and I can always find something interesting in it, such as figuring out the best way to deal with the Internet of Things.

Sure, I believe that there are companies out there that would complement what we do. Ones that have the capital to help OpenNMS grow in a way that doesn’t go against our corporate culture. And while our involvement with such a company would probably be through an acquisition, I don’t see that as much as an “exit” as an evolution. I wouldn’t do the deal if I didn’t think I’d want to continue to work on the project, so I wouldn’t be going anywhere.

I see this post has become more about the business side of OpenNMS than the project itself, but I felt it was important to think about how our business philosophy permeates the project. Thus I thought it was serendipitous that Ben sent me a link to an article about an alternative to the “exit strategy” called the “exist strategy”.

The Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is the world’s oldest business. It is a hot springs hotel in Japan that was founded in 705 and has been run by fifty-two generations of the same family. They have survived and even thrived for 1300+ years by having a relentless focus on their customers. Even though they have only 40 rooms, by any measure you have to call their undertaking a success.

I think there is a huge problem with the tech industry’s focus on the exit. It’s such a short term goal. I expect the goal we set for OpenNMS to take the rest of my life and maybe some time after that. By focusing on an exit the people who usually end up paying for it are your customers, and that just doesn’t strike me as a way to run a business. I’m certain that if the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan had focused on growth over service they would have died out a long time ago. Heck, even the company that started OpenNMS closed its doors in 2004. When they weren’t moving fast enough toward their goal for the investors, the did what today we would call “a pivot” and it didn’t work out, even thought that’s what anyone in the Valley would have said was the right decision.

Look, I don’t want to come across as some sort of holier than thou “money is evil” kind of person. I run a business, not a charity. But as a businessman, and not a gambler, I truly believe that our best chance at financial success is to find a way for us deliver the best value we can to our customers. Period. That’s our focus, and any type of “exit” is way down on the list. Heck, the current management team at The OpenNMS Group is ten years older than the rest of the guys, and we’ve even thought of selling the business to them when we wish to retire. Not sure we can do it 52 times, but that is one form of exit that is still in line with an “exist strategy”.

And that’s the thought I want to take into the next fifteen years of OpenNMS. We have a covenant with our users and they have paid us back in kind with their support. This has resulted in a number of other impressive numbers. The OpenNMS Group has prospered for more than a decade. We are getting ready for our tenth OpenNMS Developers Conference, Dev-Jam. We’ve had almost the same number of OpenNMS User Conferences, the next one is in September and hosted by the independent OpenNMS Foundation.

We still have quite a few years to go to match the numbers of the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, but I think that focusing on an “exist strategy” is the way to go. We still have the greatest team of people ever assembled to work on a software project, and while the faces and names have changed over the years, I still feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.

And the view is great from up here.

Welcome to 2015

I don’t know why I like the new year so much. It’s a pretty arbitrary holiday. I mean, yeah, the Earth has circled the Sun one more time, but is there really any difference between December 31st and January 1?

I think I like it because, no matter what happened in the previous year, the slate (to a large degree) has been wiped clean. You get a fresh start, and after 2014 I am excited to have one.

For the OpenNMS Group 2014 was bookended by two departures. The first came in January when the man we had hired to take over as CEO decided to leave us for a very senior position at Blackberry. Now considering the compensation Blackberry bestows upon its major executives, I really can’t blame him for taking the job. I am certain, however, that he could have handled the situation better. His departure was so sudden and we had a number of things going on that depended on him that it left us spinning for several months and put me in a bit of a depression.

The second departure was that of Matt Brozowski, our CTO and one of the three founders of the company. This hit me much more than Ron’s departure, because when a founder leaves any company it has to be seen as a vote of no confidence and at a minimum is a failure to meet expectations. I do understand his reasons for leaving, however. Being an entrepreneur is not for everyone. What we are trying to do is hard. People who have never attempted it must think it is a life of leisure – being your own boss, calling all the shots and taking vacation whenever you want. What I’ve found is that I spend most of my time acting as an umbrella to keep the crap from falling on the rest of the team so they can do the real work, and I’m tied to obligations that aren’t mine to control. I end my day by checking my e-mail and start it the same way. Only in the last few years has OpenNMS gotten to the point that I feel comfortable in taking a vacation, and even then I have a system for getting notified if something needs my attention.

Now I thrive on that, but not everyone does. I understand the lure of the safety and security of a big organization. Every so often I find myself wanting to swap places with some of my clients who make a lot more money than me and work in large corporations. But I know that, ultimately, it wouldn’t make me happy. We spend a third of our adult lives at work, and it is a shame if you aren’t doing something that makes you happy. We all wish the best for Matt and hope he finds happiness in his new position.

While both of these events were serious downers, there was a lot of good in 2014. We had the best Dev Jam ever, I think. We’ve been doing these for a long time and I think the whole team just gelled this year (plus, the Twins won). We released OpenNMS 14, which marked a new philosophy with releases with an emphasis on “early and often” and I think it’s great. I constantly discover new things in it that I didn’t realize I needed.

From a financial standpoint, the company lost money in 2014 for the first time. It took us awhile to get our focus back, but the last quarter was awesome, with revenue in December, always our strongest month, setting a new record and being up over 40% for the same month in 2013. We have a number of major announcements in the next six months that should get us back on track for an awesome 2015.

So, my parting thought to my three readers is this: if you had a great 2014, here’s hoping that 2015 is even better. If 2014 knocked you down, pick yourself up, brush yourself off and leave it in the dust. It’s a new year.

Go do great things.

Meeting the J-Team at opensource.com

This week I was able to visit the Red Hat corporate headquarters in downtown Raleigh for the first time. While I had been on their other campuses in the past, this was my first time in Red Hat Tower, a tall building that they leased from Progress Energy a few years ago to turn into their HQ. While I was using Google Maps to get there (downtown Raleigh has a lot of one way streets that confuse me) it was pretty obvious where I was headed once I turned off the highway and saw the Red Hat logo on the top of a building off in the distance.

I am a huge Red Hat fanboy. First, I love where I live in North Carolina, and this is an NC company. Second, they truly understand open source and are able to help others realize the value it can bring to their business while making money at it. With a market cap greater than US$11.5 billion, this is a real company that is also doing a lot of good (for comparison, note that as I write this CA has a market cap of US$14 billion).

Red Hat gets a lot of disrespect in certain circles because it isn’t headquartered in Silicon Valley. There is a huge “not invented here” complex out west, and I think it is in part because the Valley has been unable to duplicate Red Hat’s success with open source.

When you visit the campus you get a sense of how the idea of open source pervades every aspect of company culture. Open source is about sharing and working together, and that can be applied to many things in addition to software.

Part of that is exemplified in the website opensource.com. I believe it was started in 2010 (prior to that, the URL pointed to Red Hat’s corporate page) as a method for promoting the “open source way“. It is sponsored by Red Hat but does a great job of not being Red Hat centric. This isn’t a marketing platform for Red Hat’s products as much as a platform for marketing the Red Hat philosophy.

Despite being less than an hour away, I don’t get to see the people behind opensource.com often. I used to write for them pretty regularly in the beginning until time constraints made that harder, but we have a healthy e-mail correspondence. I do run into Jason Hibbets (author of The Foundation for an Open Source City) at conferences, but this was the first time I got to meet almost everyone in person.

The J-Team: Jason Baker, Jeff Mackanic, Jen Wike and Jason Hibbets

I didn’t notice until later that a lot of people I know at Red Hat have names that start with the letter “J” – even the CEO is named Jim.

I ended up spending about two hours there and had a great time talking about technology and open source society. Red Hat looks like a great place to work, and the red fedora is pretty much everywhere.

Thanks to a swag trade with my friend Kevin Sonney many years ago (at least a decade), I have an authentic Red Hat fedora and I learned that it is truly “old skool” due to its having a gold Red Hat logo on the inside. Cool.

I am hoping that my schedule will free up enough in 2015 that I can write for them some more. As I was telling stories, Jason B. or Jen would jump in with “that could be an article”.

In any case, with over 400,000 page views per month at opensource.com they are obviously doing something right, and it has earned a prominent place in my RSS feed. I look forward to visiting the Red Hat HQ and seeing them again soon.

Shameless Promotion

Just a heads up that I have a couple of new websites that aren’t open source or OpenNMS related.

The first is tarus.io where I plan to put all of the geeky things that really don’t belong here, and because all of the cool kids seem to be getting .io addresses.

The second is forgottencocktails.com which is a blog where I’m trying to make all of the drinks in the seminal Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails book. You might notice a trend in the frequency of posts there versus here (grin).

I figure at least one of my three readers might be interested in such things, but not to worry as I’ll still be providing open source insight and reckless commentary here for your enjoyment.

Can a Service Outage be Fraud?

I’m in Germany for the always excellent Open Source Monitoring Conference (review coming) and I wanted to have data for my mobile phone. At the airport we stopped at a Relay store and bought an Ortel SIM card for 20 euros (well, €19.90). Since Ronny was with me I just let him activate the card (the process was mainly in German) and we got on the train to Nürnberg.

During the two hour trip I must have exhausted the small amount of default data that came with it, and thus began an odyssey that took over 24 hours to get resolved.

First we tried to go to the “Mein Ortel” site, but it was down.

Then, we downloaded the “Mein Ortel” app from Google Play. It loaded but we could never authenticate.

This lasted for hours.

After we had arrived at the hotel, we noticed that the website, at least, had become available. But at any point when we tried to purchase more time we’d get still another error.

They do have a customer service number, but they charge €0.49 per minute to use it. In desperation we called it but they had closed for the day, so there was no resolution to be had on the first night.

The next day we tried, unsuccessfully, to get the web site and the app to work. Finally Ronny called, was put on hold (!) and then told that they were having issues with their payment system. Why a total lack in the ability to accept payments would require so much time to determine that you would have to be put on hold is beyond me, but my guess is that Ortel just wanted to ratchet up a few more euros from me.

At lunch we went in search of another provider. We found a Base store that sold Ortel and Blau SIMs, but we were told that Blau may take up to 24 hours to activate. We then found a Vodafone store but they wanted €45 for a SIM. In the end, we decided to buy an Ortel voucher (the SIM was activated at least) for €15 and with the help of the lady at the Base store managed to get the credit applied, and I should have service for the reminder of my stay.

My question is: isn’t is fraud to take money for a service and then fail to deliver that service? I’m only here for three days and I was without data on my phone for more than a third of the trip, all due to the fact that Ortel can’t be bothered to implement network management.

I’m doubly surprised that this happened in Germany, since they tend to be more strict on these things than most countries.

Yeah, I know “first world problems”, but as someone who is in this country with nearly 300 other professionals to discuss monitoring it seems like Ortel could benefit from sending some people to this conference. As commercial network-services become even more prevalent and important, I do expect to see the implementation of fines for outages.

Anyway, if you are ever offered the option to get mobile service from Ortel, run the other way.

Net Neutrality and Enron

Yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz from Texas tweeted the following:

It was in response to President Obama making a statement in support of Net Neutrality by wanting to classify broadband Internet as a utility. Despite the fact that it was about six years too late, I had to roll my eyes because I knew that if Obama came out in support of something, the Republicans would feel required to take the opposite stance.

Treating broadband as a utility is a no-brainer. It is basically an extension of the telephone system which has done very well as a utility, and it has become so important to most people and businesses that creating barriers to access would be a huge step backward. The OpenNMS Group would not have been able to survive in a world where we would have to pay to compete for access at levels that HP and IBM can afford, and there are thousands of other small businesses and entrepreneurs in the same boat.

But Senator Cruz and others have received a large amount of money from cable companies, especially Comcast, who stand to benefit the most if they can charge different rates to different content providers. This isn’t an new argument, Jon Stewart discussed it on his show back in 2006:

But now with Obama’s stance and the newly minted Republican-controlled Congress wanting to flex its muscles, expect it to become a hotter topic.

I was made aware of this through The Oatmeal, and while Matt Inman is dead on as usual, his language and analogies are, hmm, shall we say, not often for gentle ears. So while he makes his point he is basically preaching to the choir, and we need to frame the discussion in something that may actually shame the Republicans into doing the right thing.

Then I remembered Enron.

If broadband is not a utility, but seems like one, what could happen if we put control into private hands? That’s exactly what California did in 1996 by partially deregulating its energy market. This let to an energy crisis in 2000 and 2001, that according to Wikipedia was “caused by market manipulations, illegal shutdowns of pipelines by the Texas energy consortium Enron, and capped retail electricity prices”.

It’s eerie that Comcast’s shutdown of Netflix traffic is so similar to “illegal shutdowns of pipelines”. It’s already happening.

So, when faced with irrational statements like those from Senator Cruz, remain calm and just point out “so you think we need an Enron of the Internet?”. Keep saying it, over and over again.

Perhaps they’ll get the message.

Why There Will Never Be Another Red Hat

My friend Nick sent me a link to a post called “Why There Will Never Be Another Red Hat: The Economics Of Open Source“. It immediately pushed a bunch of my buttons before I read the first word of the article.

First, it was from TechCrunch. I have nothing against TechCrunch and I respect a lot of their work, but they are Silicon Valley-centric, if not the main mouthpiece, and thus I have to take that bias into account when reading their articles. What works in the Valley doesn’t necessarily translate to the world as a whole, which is why a lot of Valley companies seem to quickly plateau after an initial success.

Second, continuing the theme of Valley biases, I strongly believe Red Hat doesn’t get the respect it deserves because it is headquartered down the road from us in North Carolina and not California. There is a strong sense of “you can’t make it if you aren’t here” in the Valley and that extends to a somewhat dismissive view of Red Hat. Plus, I have a big ol’ man-crush on Jim Whitehurst as he is the most successful tech CEO I know that really, really “gets” open source and thus anyone trying to tell me about the “economics of open source” without respecting Red Hat starts off on my bad side.

Finally, the author is currently at the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, or A16Z as those of us in the know refer to it. In last year’s investment tour I met with a large number of people in the Valley, and the guy I met from A16Z was easily the worst of the bunch. He made the caricatures of the Silicon Valley TV show look mild. He had no interest in us since we weren’t in California and he was more concerned with who we knew than what we did. I left that popularity crap behind in high school. Granted, we only rated an audience with the lower levels of the company, which overall does have a pretty solid reputation on Sand Hill Road, but still it was almost insulting.

Let’s just say my bullshit meter was halfway to pegged before I started the first sentence.

However, I found most of the article to be spot on. In my “Is Open Source Dead?” post I talked about how open source is both greatly increasing while the classic ideals of open source (i.e. free software for everyone) seem to be going away.

My own philosophy is that, at least for certain large and complex (i.e. expensive) software, the proprietary software model is doomed. Customer needs are changing so fast that no closed system can really keep up, and we’ve seen that in the biggest OpenNMS customers. I spent the last week in Ireland and the client was complaining that before they started using OpenNMS, whenever they needed some new functionality in their management solution the proprietary vendor took too long, cost too much and delivered too little to be worth it. Using a free platform like OpenNMS made it much easier to adapt the tool to their business workflow, instead of having to change it to meet the workflow of the management software. There is value in that – value that can be monetized.

Peter Levine started to win me over with “Red Hat is a fantastic company” (grin) and I as I read on I found my head nodding in agreement. He states

Unless a company employs a majority of the inventors of a particular open source project, there is a high likelihood that the project never gains traction or another company decides to create a fork of the technology.

While I estimate OpenNMS has around 40 to 50 active contributors, at least 15 of those are on my payroll, either directly or indirectly as contractors. While I definitely would like to increase the overall number, we are growing fast enough that we can usually hire someone who contributes a lot to the project, and then, since they can spend their full time on it, we as a group continue to contribute greater and greater amounts of the overall code. When I started out on my own back in 2002, I think at least half of the code came from outside of the .com side of things. Now it is probably closer to 5% or less. It has managed to let us focus on our direction for the application.

Then Levine continues:

To make matters worse, the more successful an open source project, the more large companies want to co-opt the code base. I experienced this first-hand as CEO at XenSource, where every major software and hardware company leveraged our code base with nearly zero revenue coming back to us. We had made the product so easy to use and so important, that we had out-engineered ourselves. Great for the open source community, not so great for us.

I’ve heard this tale from a number of people. Become successful and someone like IBM could dump 100 developers on your project and take it over. While we haven’t experienced it directly (rarely do people tell me OpenNMS is “easy to use”), we are constantly finding out about companies who have either based products on OpenNMS or used OpenNMS to provide services for profit. I think this is great, but it would be nice to capture some of that effort back into the project, either in the form of contributions or cash. It is one reason that the next major release of OpenNMS will be published under the Affero GPL.

So, with all this doom and gloom, what is the solution? Levine’s answer is “sell open source as a service”. I couldn’t agree more. This is exactly what we pitched to A16N. It’s something of a “win/win”.

This recipe – combining open source with a service or appliance model – is producing staggering results across the software landscape. Cloud and SaaS adoption is accelerating at an order of magnitude faster than on-premise deployments, and open source has been the enabler of this transformation.

If you have the in house development staff to leverage open source, it makes sense to become active in the community. David just finished a five stop roadshow in both the US and Europe describing the OpenNMS roadmap over the next year as we position the product for the Internet of Things. He met with our largest customers and all of them are eager to get involved, many pledging, OpenDaylight style, to provide the project with developers. They get input into the direction of the product and we get great open source code.

But what if you aren’t a large medical information company or a worldwide financial institution? You may need what OpenNMS can provide but don’t have the time to build in the workflow or customize it. We will have a solution for you.

The only issue I ended up having with the article was when he compared Red Hat to Microsoft, Oracle, Amazon, etc. Sure there might not be another Red Hat, but I don’t expect to see another Microsoft (operating systems and office suites), Oracle (enterprise software), or Amazon (online product distribution) either. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be new mega-companies. In ten years I expect there will be some huge companies that no one today knows about, probably in the areas of 3D printing and biotech (specifically integrating tech into the human body). Enterprise software companies will be represented by a number of large-ish but nimble companies leveraging open source, and I wouldn’t count out Red Hat just yet as they too are pivoting to follow this new business model.

I want to close with one little story. I spent last week in Ireland where I just happened to be in Dublin where the band Wheatus was touring with my friend Damian (MC Frontalot) opening. They had a grueling schedule (shows almost every night) but I managed to see their concert and talk with them afterward.

Damian has just released a new album (it’s excellent, buy it) and he closed his set with “Charity Case” which includes the lyric:

It’s true:
Frontalot’s destitute.
I need you
to buy my CD so I can buy food.

He often pokes fun on the changing nature of the music business (his song “Captains of Industry” suggests that he is not a musician but instead is in the T-shirt business), and we talked about various business models. I pointed out that acts like Elton John are living the high life from work that basically peaked in the 1970s, and that sort of “royalties for life” model is gone. In its place are artists who sell directly to their fans, often including personalized premiums for a higher price, and touring. The band Phish tours extensively and they make millions, all the while encouraging their fans to bootleg their music, something old school musicians wouldn’t think to do.

At this point Brendan, the founder and front man of Wheatus, joined us and stated “there is nothing an old musician can teach a young one about the music business”. That quote really resonated with me.

In summary, I really enjoyed this article. It mirrored a lot of our thoughts over the last year as we seek to make OpenNMS successful. Remember, our plan is for OpenNMS to be *the* de facto management solution of choice and for that to happen will take a lot of work as well as money. But one thing that we will continue to do to emulate Red Hat is to keep publishing as much software as possible under an OSI-approved open source license.

That is still a key to our success: OpenNMS will always be free and OpenNMS will never suck.