Even though OpenNMS is a open source project, we do sometimes receive support from commercial vendors. For example, when we do demonstrations where Internet access isn’t available, we often use Gambit’s Mimic software to simulate a network. In exchange for temporary licenses we place a link to their website in the footer of the OpenNMS wiki.
Back in 2007, Johan Edstrom, one of our OGP members, really liked the IntelliJ IDEA IDE. While most of our developers use Eclipse, he was just more comfortable with the IDE from JetBrains and since they offered free licenses for people who work on open source projects, he wrote to them and asked for one. Here’s the response he got:
We are pleased to support the Open Source community and we look forward to seeing your project’s progress. If we can be of any additional service, please don’t hesitate to ask.
Also, while it’s not required, we would be very appreciative if you would add an IntelliJ IDEA banner to your project’s site in support of IntelliJ IDEA.
This is absolutely not required. This is a no-strings-attached license, but we would be very grateful for any help leading people to info about IntelliJ IDEA!
So I went ahead and added the banner to our site and all was right with the world.
The license was good for one year, and so in 2008 he renewed, again with no problem. But this year he received quite a different response:
We can’t give you free license because it will be used on your paid support services engagements. You can buy commercial licenses if you want.
All the best,
OS Support Program Manager
I never tire of pointing out that the OpenNMS Project is independent from the commercial services company, The OpenNMS Group. Johan is not an employee of the commercial business, so he doesn’t perform “paid support services engagements”. In fact, his involvement in the project has not changed in the last two years but for some reason he didn’t qualify for a free license this time. Furthermore, since 100% of OpenNMS is free and open software, what would it matter? The IDE is used to help develop code, and all of that work gets released back to the community.
I must wonder what types of projects qualify as open source for JetBrains. Only those that make no money whatsoever? I can see the next e-mail: “Sorry, your license will be used to get donations on Sourceforge so you have to buy one.”
My point here is not to bash JetBrains. To complain about not getting a free license is like complaining that the bisque in a free soup kitchen is a bit salty. But it does illustrate the dangers of commercial software.
In two years we went from “This is a no-strings-attached license” to “You can buy commercial licenses”. The rules changed. Luckily for us we can probably get Johan to use Eclipse now, but what if we depended on IDEA? We’d be screwed.
With open source software the power lies in the user, not the provider. With commercial and open core software companies the revenue model is to sell licenses, and thus to maximize profit these companies are motivated to increase license revenue. This may mean selling to you licenses at a discount to get you using the product, only to change the rules a couple of years down the road.
If you are a decision maker in your company, I think you owe it to your employer and your shareholders to question any commercial software purchase. Are you willing to base your operations on software that may double in price without warning? Maybe the vendor will go out of business, leaving the code in limbo, and what will you do then?
Transitioning to open source is not easy. Although the software is free, there is a cost in time, perhaps consulting services and in getting your staff up to speed on the product. But in the long run the cost is worth it, if just to lose the reliance on outside vendors who, as this situation demonstrates, can be very fickle.