Open Source and the Press

I really like reading Dana Blankenhorn‘s blog on ZDNet, and I felt a special resonance with his recent “The open source way to truth” post.

The mainstream industry press has a weird relationship to open source. At best it comes across as aloofness, almost like a parent admiring a small child who has learned how to tie his shoelaces – “Awwww, look what he did! Isn’t that cute?” At worst it is downright arrogant, as in the latest open source management tool “review” on Network World.

Of course, OpenNMS was left out of the comparison, as were a number of other open source projects. The only ones reviewed have received between $4 million and $24 million in venture funding, and thus obviously can afford decent marketing firms. This is important, as Dana writes “Tech journalists are uniquely susceptible to spin.” The author of the Network World review apparently did his research by leafing through his press inbox.

In today’s world any research probably starts with a Google search. Seriously, give a fifth grader the task of writing a paper on King Arthur, and his first action will be to go to Google and search on “King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.” Go to Google and search on “open source network management” and OpenNMS is the number one hit (and has been for years). We don’t do anything special to get this ranking, it has just happened.

I’m actually glad that we were excluded from this review, because I am sure in the eyes of this author we would have been found lacking. OpenNMS is not designed to be a “pointy-clicky” out of the box application but a powerful tool, and like any tool it takes an investment in time to learn how to use properly. This bake-off appears to be extremely superficial. There is no mention of the actual requirements, or details of the scale of the network that is being monitored. There is a vague “It displays a map of the discovered nodes. It checks for connectivity problems and it notices performance problems. It alerts you via e-mail or pager” … it rubs the lotion on its skin, etc.

The arrogance part comes in the results, which Network World calls its “Clear Choice”. Clear choice? First, there was a 10% difference between the number one and number two products, hardly a clear choice. Second, as someone who has spent a lifetime managing networks, no application, including OpenNMS, is the clear choice for every situation. It would take me less than 30 seconds to come up with a situation where any of the three products reviewed would be the best choice, if that long. That’s why requirements are so important, and why OpenNMS choses flexibility over ease of use.

Dana writes “What that means for journalists is we should probably cover you more closely and vendors less so.” Perhaps when covering open source a little more research effort is required, since the vendor doesn’t always come to you. I look to Sourceforge as a great place to start when researching open source applications. Despite its faults, it is still the closest place to a comprehensive open source bazaar we have. That is why I am very excited to see OpenNMS nominated for “Best Project for the Enterprise” and “Best Tool or Utility for SysAdmins” in their Community Choice Awards (and remember to vote if you haven’t already). None of the three open source management tools reviewed, although they are active on Sourceforge, where nominated in these categories. These nominees were determined by the community, not by who had the most downloads, the most money, or the best press releases. Like our Gold Award from Tech Target where we beat out HP and IBM, this came from the people who actually use the application, and not some marketing firm.

I’ll take that over the “clear choice” any day.