Okay, it’s time for something totally off topic and, I hope, fun. I just finished watching this week’s Heroes. I’ll try not to spoil it, but if you haven’t seen it feel free to stop reading now.

It was Matt who got me hooked on the show during Season 1, and I was a little upset that the writer’s strike cancelled the second half of Season 2. Part of me was jaded going into Season 3 because of it.

But so far it has been great. They’ve closed some plot lines and managed to start some new ones. The best part has been the handling of Sylar. I like my superheroes to have a specialty and a weakness, and so I dislike “all powerful” characters like Sylar and Peter Petrelli. But the writers are having fun with him this year, and next week looks even better. I’m looking forward to seeing Zachary Quinto in next year’s Star Trek movie as Spock (excellent casting).

Oh, on the lead in show, Chuck, I thought all the Apple product placements were funny, from Chuck’s iPhone to the Apple monitor in his bedroom to using a Mac SE as the interface to the new, all powerful Intersect II computer. I mean, the Mac SE was cool, but …

Greed (Rant)

I like money. Money buys a certain amount of security, and security buys freedom.

But Gordon Gekko was wrong: greed is not good. Trying to make money for money’s sake is usually the wrong thing to do. Build a product, help your customers, and take care of your employees and the money will come. Shortcuts often lead to heartache.

Take today for example. The Dow Jones Industrial Average had the lowest single point drop in its history, due to the fact that a bunch of people got greedy and for once Congress decided not to write a blank check. And for those of you who think the sky is going to fall if something isn’t done right now, I agree with these guys.

But on to other news that’s more directly related to open source, it looks like Ringside Networks is closing shop.

I really hate it when things like this happen. Now, I’m not worried about Bob Bickel. I’ve met him a couple of times and he’s pretty smart so he’ll be fine. But my guess is that he worked with a lot of cool, smart people who haven’t quite had his level of success. They probably put a lot into their product and now, due to some bad decisions, it seems to be over.

Bob blames it on bad luck (well, the lack of good luck which is the same thing). It sounds a lot like the problems with the current financial markets – ooops, it was just bad luck that the sub-prime mortgages we made to people who couldn’t pay, well, didn’t get paid.

I’m being a bit cruel and I’m definitely oversimplifying, but if you read his description of the failure from my point of view, it does seem a bit like sour grapes.

Although he doesn’t name them, it appears that while Ringside Networks was trying to raise money from VCs, they were approached by Google who wanted to acquire them. He writes “we decided that the larger company would enable us to get our technology to market sooner and with more impact.”

I read that as “w00t! We can cash out early!”.

When Google changed their minds and the acquisition didn’t happen, Bob said they were unable to get any money since “we kind of burned the VCs”.

Bah. You don’t “burn” VCs. VCs are soulless, pure businessmen. The best are unemotional. “You don’t want our money? Fine. See ya”. They could care less about not being able to fund Ringside. If their technology was so good, “the very best VC firms” would have been fighting to fund them.

What they did care about was that Google decided to pass on Ringside. Google is a company known for integrating some of the best technology out there as well as incubating new, small companies, so if Google didn’t want your product, there must have been a reason.

Bob doesn’t tend to work with crap, so my guess is that Ringside probably had a pretty good project going, but that greed got in the way. Bad decisions were made. It wasn’t luck. For instance, they could have taken the best term sheet offer they could and then sold to Google at a later date, but that would have diluted the company considerably. It might have made them less appealing (but then the deal never happened anyway) but they would still be around.

It is real easy for me to sit back and armchair quarterback this story, and like many things I probably have it wrong, but since this purpose of this blog is to provide a reference for others who might want to start an open source business there is one other thing I want to point out.

Bob says, “our development had stalled because of our desires to build stuff aligned with our new direction in the non-evil company.”

Back in the early part of 2007 we were approached by a company that wanted to acquire our company. We were pretty excited, but as things moved along we began to have doubts. I have a very strong idea of what an “open source” company should be, and unfortunately that doesn’t always agree with the guys on Sand Hill Road. Walking away from that deal was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I think one of the best.

During this process OpenNMS development damn near stopped. Thank goodness the community was able to step up and keep things going, because we were worthless. It is very easy to get caught up in the process and to let drop the things that made you attractive in the first place.

So that’s today’s small nugget of wisdom. Stay focused on your product, focused on your customers and focused on your team – no matter what – and you’ll make your own luck.

[Note: Ben had a lot to do with some of the thoughts behind this post]

Cloud Computing: What is it? It's complete gibberish. It's insane. When is this idiocy going to stop?

Well, I guess there are worse people to be compared to than Larry Ellison. There is a short article on his views on cloud computing on CNET:

The problem is that every tech company now wants to be associated with cloud computing, no matter if their products and services meet the basic criteria. At least Ellison isn’t afraid to address the hijacking of the phrase by marketers, including Oracle’s.

I complained about this, although much less eloquently, on Coté’s podcast.

OpenNMS 1.5.94 Released

Yesterday, after Ben and Matt overcame some issues with getting our deployment tool to work, OpenNMS version 1.5.94 was released.

I had been using it at a client site all week and I have to say it is the best OpenNMS yet. It is pretty much what will be in 1.6.0. We’re planning a 1.5.95 release for mid-October, with 1.6.0 following by Halloween.

There were over 120 bugs fixed between 1.5.93 and this release, as well as a number of new features (including an integration between OpenNMS and OTRS which I’ll talk more about next week).

We hope you enjoy this release and find it useful.

Yes, Virginia, There is Commercial Open Source

After yesterday’s post some people might think I’m a long-haired, all software must be free and open, hippie, and that anyone who is trying to make a buck on open source is evil.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I buy a lot of software, it is just that I pay small amounts for it. My belief is that software will take one of two paths. Stuff that is designed to just work out of the box with little user training will become a commodity, and the expensive, high-end stuff that requires a ton of consulting will become open. Plus, I have short hair (the better to fit under a motorcycle helmet) and I pay my mortgage on open source.

The problem is that neither of these paths make it easy to make the serious amounts of money in a short amount of time that one could in the past. People aren’t willing to pay 6 to 7 figures for commodity software, and it is hard to sell free and open software licenses since, well, they’re free.

Now what happens is that the people who long for the good old days and want to sell millions in software licenses stick the term “open source” on it and hope no one will notice. This is my take, in a nutshell, on the current state of “commercial open source” software.

But there are a couple of examples of companies that truly are “commercial open source” and are doing well. Plus, they are in the US of all places. However, the two companies that first come to mind are not in Silicon Valley. I know some amazing people in Silicon Valley, but sometimes when I’m there I get this vibe that it’s a bunch of smart people who are still a bit insecure, and thus they have to spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back for how clever they are. The clever/smart density outside of the Valley is much lower, so we actually have to get some work done [I kid, I kid].

The first company is Digium in Huntsville, Alabama. Our own Jeff Gehlbach is currently is Arizona at AstriDevCon and has let me know of some great things coming in the near future. I come from a telephony background, and what Digium has done with Asterisk is quite amazing. We use it, and I was humbled that OpenNMS was only one of two open source projects that made TechTarget’s Product Excellence Awards last year, and the other was Asterisk.

Even though a number of companies have tried to commercialize the Asterisk code, Digium remains solidly behind the free and open source model, as Mark Spencer recently said:

I believe it would be foolish to attempt to make Asterisk’s innovation only available as a proprietary product when clearly it is its Open Source foundation that made it so successful and continues to do so, in spite of emotional and to a lesser degree business challenges imposed by people who leverage my work without contributing — and in some cases directly attacking the very company that makes it possible for them to succeed.

The second one is my old favorite, Red Hat. Located about 30 miles away from our offices in Raleigh, NC, they are quietly moving forward, recently posting a 29% year over year revenue increase. Unlike the Valley open source firms, the goal is not to rapidly get acquired and cash out, but to build something lasting. In fact, it is Red Hat that is doing the acquiring.

What I love about Red Hat is that they enable us to exist. Even though we run on Windows and Solaris, if there wasn’t a stable, supported Linux distro out there my job would be a lot harder. I would estimate that about one third of our clients are also Red Hat clients, with another third using CentOS. The last third is spread around Solaris, SuSE and Debian/Ubuntu.

Neither of these companies have a business model based mainly on proprietary software licenses, yet they are doing well. As it was demonstrated, at least in Europe, there are different expectations overseas for software that calls itself open. As more and more business is being done overseas, it will be companies like these (and I hope, OpenNMS) that see the lions share of growth in market share and revenue.

That sounds pretty “commercial” to me.

Radio Free Europe

Some of my friends have a habit of trying to push my buttons. Many times they succeed (grin), and thus today I was asked to comment on a blog post by Larry Augustin about the difference in viewpoints on open source between Europe and the United States.

This post was based on his take on the first Europe Open Source Think Tank. I know they hold one of these in California every year, but I don’t get invited to that one either so this was the first I’d heard of it.

I had the pleasure of having dinner with a group that included Larry about 18 months ago. He intimidates me a little. He is a very nice guy in person, and he is probably one of the most financially successful people involved with open source. But then I read about things like the MedSphere debacle and I don’t know what to think except to be a little scared. In all fairness I never heard the Medsphere story from Larry in person, so there might be a nicer take on the whole thing.

Anyway, Larry put up a detailed chart comparing the views of open source between companies in Europe and in the United States. The OpenNMS Group has customers in over 18 countries outside of the US and from my experience the analysis is dead on.

When you say “open source” outside of the US, it means 100% free software. If you look at the column labeled “European View” it pretty much echos what I’ve been saying for years. The “commercial” open source business model as seen in the United States View is not open source.

Free and open source software represents a shift in the ownership of software from a small, tightly controlled group to a large, disperse community. It is 100% transparent and 100% free. Thus the value moves away from the code itself and onto those who can best use it. The Europeans seem to understand this.

In the US a lot of new software companies are driven by venture capitalists. Contrary to popular belief, VCs are actually very conservative and sometimes quite timid. They only want to try things that have been done successfully before. They know how to sell software, and now that open source is a popular buzzword, they want to sell open source software. So what happens is that either a mature commercial product that isn’t selling is labeled “open source” in order to garner interest, or a new product is created with an “open source” part in order to garner interest.

I think the tolerance of this model is driven by my free food analogy. Corporate decision makers are wary of “free” software and wonder what the catch is. When they find out that they actually have to pay for it in order to realize true benefit they return to their comfort zone. The fact of the matter is that in the US these people could care less about open source. They want the cheapest solution, and if it has to come with an open source label so be it.

For some reason the Europeans (and Asians and the Pac Rim in my experience) expect open source to mean free and open software, and they grouse at any attempt to pervert the term. Perhaps it is because Europe consists of so many different languages that it is harder to dilute meaning.

I could go on forever about “enterprise” editions v. “open source” editions, etc., but even now I begin to repeat myself. So let me end this with three points.

First, while the European understanding of open source is solid, the rate of adoption is lower than you might imagine, especially in the UK. While we have a number of clients in England in some cases it was a hard sell.

Second, during my dinner with Larry the talk was all about how to deal with Nagios. I think the bigger concern is how to deal with Solarwinds. Orion is mature, pretty to look at, affordable and in many cases a useful tool. How do you get someone to pay US$100/node for “free software” when they can get unlimited management for US$20,000? If cost is the basis of your business model, prepare to get undercut.

Second, not all companies in the US misunderstand the usefulness and power of open source. I’m at a client right now who really gets it. They’re excited, I’m excited, and we are doing great things.

We are pretty sure we know how to become very successful without having to resort to selling software (I won’t blog about the details on that though – a boy’s got to have a few secrets). In the meantime I also have no doubt that one or more of Larry’s companies will make lots of money. He’s smart that way.

It really depends on the ultimate goals of the software creators and the people who back them. Do you want to make a lot of money fast, or do you want to build something that lasts? I know a number of wealthy people whose life’s work is a footnote in some other company’s portfolio.

I want OpenNMS to be around for decades. Okay, so I won’t be able to buy a Ferrari in the next year, but then again my hope is the project will be around long after the car is a pile of metal.

And I’d much rather have a V-Rod.

Chocolate World

I’m back on the road again, spreading the OpenNMS love, this time in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

I was born in Pittsburgh but we moved to North Carolina when I was 6 months old, so most of my experience with the state has been on family trips in the summer. Somehow I always missed Hershey, so I was looking forward to this trip.

It’s been fun so far. Today we went to Chocolate World during lunch. According to my hosts they had toned the “cheese” factor down considerably from the old days.

Unfortunately I won’t have much time to spend sight-seeing since most places close before I get off work. I’m staying right next to the Antique Automobile Club of America museum, and I’ll be back up in a couple of weeks during their fall meet so that should be cool. Not as cool as the Hershey’s Kiss Car I saw on my way out this morning, though:

What I’d really like to be able to do is visit the York Harley Davidson Plant which is having an open house this week. If anyone wants to donate a 2009 Springer Softail to the cause, just let me know.

You can even pick out the color.

OpenNMS Gets Some Class

It’s that time again, and this week we have people in town for training. Two are from the Netherlands and three came from Canada, so it has really been “International Week” here in Pittsboro.

The next training is in November, and that should be the last training class for 2008. We will be having a seminar in London in October, as well as the Combined Training course in Hawaii this January in an effort to serve our PacRim users and anyone else would feels a trip to the islands is necessary in January (grin).

Details soon.

Major Security Breach?

I’m a big fan of the American Airlines AAdvantage program, and I have both the company credit cards and my personal credit card with CitiBank in order to earn miles.

Recently, I received notice that both my business account and my personal accounts were being closed, and that Citi was going to reissue new cards to me. The reason is that “some vendor” that I do business with had a large number of credit card numbers stolen. I tried to press them to reveal the name of that vendor, but they wouldn’t because that vendor is preparing to announce it in the near future. Unlike a software exploit, telling people that their card was compromised immediately doesn’t seem to me to be a problem, but it could be a public relations nightmare that might be softened with a line like “we have proactively contacted all of the affected banks” etc. etc.

I’m going to make a prediction that Amazon.com, one of my favorite online vendors, is the culprit. This is the only vendor where I have used both my personal and business cards. Note that with the business, only my card was cancelled, no one else in the company needed new cards since I am the one who buys gear from Amazon.

So, anyone else having there cards torn up and reissued? If so, do you use Amazon? Any other guesses?

I hope I am wrong, but if it does turn out to be that the Internet’s largest retailer got hacked, do you think vendors will start to think seriously about security for a change?

Lucky Number 7

Not much posting since I got back from Oz because I’m still busy trying to catch up, but while I was on a sales call today I realized that it was seven years ago, on a Monday, that I first started working with OpenNMS.

Of course this day in history is pretty much overshadowed by the events of September 11th, 2001 (we, along with the rest of the country, didn’t get much work done that day) but it pretty much changed my professional life forever. I can’t imagine what I would be doing now if it wasn’t for OpenNMS, and I think I’m a better man because of it.

Thanks for seven years, and here’s to many more.