World of Cheese

I’m a geek. Always have been, it seems. I got my first computer in 1978 when I was 12 years old (a TRS-80) and haven’t looked back.

In the highest levels of the geek pantheon you’ll find the actor John Cleese. He was one of the more cerebral cast members of Monty Python and his humour seems to resonate with us. I find it hard to believe that he’ll be 70 this year (a month older than my father) but then again I find it hard to believe I’ll be 44 soon.

I can’t help but think that John is also a geek. While I don’t think he runs around buying the latest technology for himself (more on that a bit later), he does embrace it. One of the first games I bought for my 386 PC back in the day was a Monty Python multimedia software package (before the term multimedia was mainstream) that included games, pictures, screen savers and it animated your desktop (it was called Monty Python’s Complete Waste of Time and was released in 1994).

So here is this guy, almost 70, and he’s still pushing the technology envelope. He’s on Twitter and has numerous web pages, including one called Headcast. Headcast is being revamped, although to get access to the new site you’ll need to sign up for John Cleese’s Nigerian Lottery, which he appears to only be marketing through Twitter.

On the new website you’ll find news, merchandise and be able to download 20-30 minute videos for US$2.50. You order through Paypal and then you get a link to download the video. The reason I didn’t post the URL to the new site is that I had problems with the download on my Mac via Safari. While the file seemed to download fine it was corrupted and wouldn’t play (one of John’s minions got me sorted via Vimeo). They should have everything working by the official launch.

What does this have to do with open source and OpenNMS? Open source is a disrupter in that the normal methods of software development and sales have been turned on their head. In much the same way, the entertainment industry is going through a similar change.

Movies are no longer the same since many people can afford large flat screen televisions and high end sound systems at home, so the desire to go out, brave sticky floors and sit shoulder to shoulder with loud, smelly people in a theatre is lessened. Even television shows are time shifted and people fast forward through the commercials. I don’t think the demand for good video entertainment is going away, but the revenue model is going to have to change.

Instead of complaining about it, you have people like Cleese who embrace change and come up with ways to profit from it.

For example: I follow John on Twitter. He tweeted about his Nigerian Lottery. I signed up. I got a link to the new Headcast site and downloaded World of Cheese. He got $2.50, and I bet his cut is much higher than he gets from a movie ticket. I got a somewhat exclusive John Cleese video. All of these technologies coming together to entertain me and compensate the content creator. Brilliant.

That long setup was simply there to preface my review of World of Cheese.

According to Wikipedia, Cleese was going through a divorce last year, and apparently this found him sequestered in a Covent Garden, London, hotel room. I’m assuming this video was shot during that time. The first 15 minutes consist of a rather intimate look around the room while John riffs on curtains, hotels in general and coffee. The last few minutes touch on irrationality, the holographic nature of the universe and jigsaw puzzles.

As someone who spends a lot of time in hotel rooms (over 60 nights last year) I could really understand his frustration. I can remember being in a hotel in Japan where I couldn’t figure out the air conditioning unit, even after I took a picture of it and asked my hosts to translate.

He didn’t discuss my favorite hotel topic: shower controls. You would be amazed by the differences in the knobs and buttons that control the water in hotel showers around the world. Besides your basic one knob/two knob choice, there are hundreds of combinations. Being the experienced traveler I am, I have it down to a science.

Recently I stepped into a shower and quickly sized up the situation: ah, the single knob, pull to start, rotate for temp model. Piece of cake. I pulled it out to find that housekeeping had left the little button in that turns “fill the tub” into “shower”. It usually pops out on its own, but for some reason this one didn’t. This meant that instead of the freezing cold water coming out of the spigot, it came out of the shower head to spray my unprotected, naked body (yeah, I know, thanks for that mental image).

What’s funny in this situation is that my breathing became one way. I immediately inhaled (“gasped” is a better word) but was too cold to exhale, so I inhaled again – kind of a “hnuaggggh, hnuaggggh, hnuaggggh” sound. Eventually the water warmed enough to thaw me out and restore my breathing before I could pass out.

While I visit hotel rooms, Cleese had to live in his, so there was a lot more stuff than I usually have. There was a large number of books, a stack of newspapers, and a rather amazing collection of wine (at least for a hotel room). He makes coffee using nothing but a large funnel and a coffee filter. His shower contained two large bottles versus the stupid 3oz ones I have to carry on the plane, and it’s kind of fun to look around as he talks to see what other things he brought with him. This isn’t the Minister of Funny Walks or Basil Fawlty, this is a moment from John Cleese’s life as he actually lived it, and I think it provides some insight into the man himself.

So if you are a fan of his type of humour and of John Cleese, go buy World of Cheese. If nothing else you’ll be contributing to the Cleese Alimony Fund (not tax deductible, unfortunately) as well as validating the business model.

NOTE: In researching this post, I came across Awesome. Fans will remember Edmund Wells as the author of such classics as Grate Expectations in the Python Bookshop sketch.

UPDATE: the new site is up.

The Palm prePod

At OpenNMS we get to work from home a couple of days a week, but I’m really glad that most of us get together in office as well. Not because it makes us work any better or harder, but because the side conversations can be a lot of fun.

Today, Ben and I got into a debate about the new Palm Pre and its ability to sync with iTunes.

The Pre connects to the computer via USB and identifies itself as a Palm Pre. However, in “media sync” mode, the mass storage device changes its identity to reflect an iPod. This allows one to sync their Pre with iTunes as if it was an iPod.

The debate was over the question: is Palm breaking the law?

I don’t know enough about USB to know exactly how Palm is achieving this, but if they are returning a string that says “Apple iPod” that would be a trademark violation. However, if they are returning just a number, say “1291” then it gets a little murkier. Some might claim it is the same (since 1291 represents an iPod Touch) but I don’t. In one case it is an obvious abuse of trademark, but in the other it is more of a compatibility hack.

I expect in the next week we’ll see the official responses from Apple and Palm (with the Pre’s release this week and WWDC next week). It should be interesting.

What does this have to do with open source and freedom? A lot, actually. While the digital age makes it a lot easier to copy and move information, it also allows vendors to control a lot more, too. Think about Apple’s DRM in iTunes. One reason I buy all my music from Amazon is that I have a number of non-iPod devices and I want to make sure I can play the music I purchase on them as well. Even when DRM went away at the iTunes Store I still buy from Amazon.

It reminds me of the time (back in 1993) when Garth Brooks wanted to make it illegal to resell CDs, since people were taking them home and recording them. Can you imagine a car company saying “you can buy this sedan but you can never sell it”? It doesn’t make sense.

For example, if I buy an iPod, a Linksys Router or a PS3 and I want to hack the hell out of it, I should be able to do so. Now, I don’t expect the vendor to support me should I screw up the device, but they shouldn’t be able to prevent me from using something I own, pretty much anyway I want. There are certain notable exceptions – I shouldn’t be able to buy a DVD, copy it and sell the copies – but that is a copyright issue and not a property rights issue.

This case will be important since proprietary software and hardware vendors have a vested interest in keeping open source out of their playground. Sometimes the only way to get something I have purchased to work with free software is to come up with a hack, and outlawing such hacks would be unfortunate.

The Palm Pre/iTunes case is a bit different, since it is hardware hacking software (and proprietary hardware and software at that) instead of the other way around. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Apple may be magnanimous and comfortable with its monopoly and ignore it, but more than likely it will take steps to block the “media sync”. In either case Palm wins: it gets to sync with the most popular management program out there or it can claim Apple thinks that the Pre threatens the iPhone. Either will draw even more attention to the Pre.

UPDATE 1: Aaron points out on Twitter a Sega v. Accolade case that might have precedence.

UPDATE 2: Looks like it is 1993 all over again, with game manufacturers wanting a cut of used video games sales. Sheesh.


One of the things I love about my job is that I get to meet a number of cool people. One of them, Mark Taylor, turned me on to a post by Georg Greve of the Free Software Foundation – Europe.

It echoes a number of things I’ve written about recently, although with much more clarity and coherence than I can muster.

In “It’s time for the community to take charge of its brand” Georg concisely explores topics that I rambled on for post after post. These include the fact that there is no substantial difference between the terms “Free Software” and “Open Source”, and that abuse of the term “is harmful for all companies and commercial endeavours in Free Software, as it weakens the ability to communicate an essential part of the unique sales proposition.”

I feel that pain every time I’m asked about the OpenNMS “enterprise” version.

While much of the article hit me as preaching to the choir, one bit was absolutely brilliant. Instead of referring to the users of open source software as “leeches” or “free loaders” he calls them “hermits”. I love it.

Like it or not, open source software has a large social component. Webster defines a hermit as “one that retires from society and lives in solitude”. Perfect. It doesn’t have a built in negative connotation (as in “blood sucking leeches”) but it does express the fact that using open source software without being a part of the community makes the experience less than what it could be. It’s much kinder – there is always hope that a hermit will come back down off the mountain – but with a leech all you want to do is remove it and kill it.

Of course, because Georg is part of the FSF, expect a number of ad hominem attacks labeling him crazy like that Stallman fella. His reasoning is so sound it is probably the only option his critics have.

The Vendor/Client Relationship

Our commercial clients are awesome. One reason for this (besides their inherent awesomeness) is that since The OpenNMS Group does little to no marketing, our clients are self-filtering. First, they actually have to find out about OpenNMS (and unlike the industry press which often neglects to mention us, it seems that they can type “open source network management” into Google). Next, they will have to understand the value of 100% open source software. Third, they need to determine if OpenNMS is right for them.

Ben sent me a link to a great video that demonstrates a lot of the problems I used to experience when deploying commercial software.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we’re immune to such “relationship issues”. Since we aim to replace products from HP, IBM, BMC and CA in the enterprise, those buyers are used to dealing with commercial vendors. If the opportunity is large enough, commercial companies think nothing of putting an engineer on a plane and flying them out for a couple of days to install the product in the hopes that the client will purchase it. Since they sell licenses, they can make it up on the “back end” as the initial and yearly maintenance costs are so large that they can gamble on a number of such trips and make money if only one closes.

Since OpenNMS is free of license fees, what we sell is our time. Thus if we did this: flew out, installed OpenNMS, and showed you how to use it, there is no “back end” for us to recoup those costs. We would soon be out of business and OpenNMS would suffer for it.

It’s hard to get that across sometimes. While it rarely comes close to the examples in the video, it is not unusual that we’re asked to negotiate on our prices or to provide days (if not weeks) of free consulting. For the latter we have a number of services products to help either see if OpenNMS is a right fit for the environment (Getting to Know You) or get it installed and running (Greenlight). We price our support as affordable as possible, so telling me “hey, if you do this I’ll by a support contract” doesn’t help, as there is little margin in there to offset the costs.

As for discounts, we don’t believe in treating one customer different from another, and we don’t have the sales staff to go through a long negotiation process. We post our prices online, and while some commercial and fauxpen source companies do the same, in their case it is much more of a high end guideline than an actual price. I know in at least one of our clients a fauxpen source company cut their published prices by a tremendous amount just to get their product in the door.

We charge people for what they use. If you are a big company, we don’t think you should have to pay more just because you can. If you are a small company, we don’t think you should have to pay more because you might not be able to negotiate as well as a larger company. Of course, bigger companies need 24×7 and Ultra support contracts, and smaller ones don’t, so it all works out in the end.

I’m sure we’ve lost business by being somewhat inflexible about support pricing and pre-sales services. But it has kept us profitable. I think it is better to be smaller and profitable than larger and out of business.


Sorry for not posting in awhile – things have been crazy around the office. At least one of my three readers is a client and if he has an open support issue but sees I have time to write a blog post, he tends to point that out. Let’s just say I’d rather be busy as hell versus the alternative.

The big news in our little world this week is an InfoWorld article on open source “leeches”, a term attributed to Dave Rosenberg to refer to people who use “open source technology but don’t give back to the open source community”.

I’ve talked about “free loaders” in the past so I won’t rehash those comments here. Plus, there are already a number of great comments from folks like Mike Hogan and Jeremy Garcia. My comments will be along somewhat different lines.

When people write, I try to understand their motivation. I write this blog to both chronicle my experiences with open source as well as to promote both OpenNMS and the value of 100% open source software. So, why did InfoWorld publish this article?

A clue is in the subtitle which states “as commercial open source becomes the norm, fewer developers are giving back”. The key word there is “commercial”. The term “commercial open source” is often used by the “fauxpen source” community to describe their business model, which I like to say is along the lines of “Free Food Today, Just $5”. While not to pick at that scab, many of these “commercial” companies were hoping for a lot of community involvement and contribution, and they seem surprised when it doesn’t appear. They then turn around and label people who use their open source software without payment or code contributions as “leeches” and “free riders”.

I have been saying for years now that simply labeling your product as “open source” does not mean that thousands of qualified people will give up nights and weekends to work on it. I think it is even harder to get those people to contribute when there is a commercial model behind the product that seeks to commercialize the code itself. In my experience, the line tends to be drawn at companies that dual license 100% of the code (like MySQL used to). If you can get 100% of the code under an open license, even if you can pay and get it under a proprietary license, the community, while uneasy, is still accepting. Those companies with a “community” version and an “enterprise” version cross that line (since the features in the enterprise version are not open) and thus discourage contribution.

Eric S. Raymond, one of the creators of the term “open source”, references in Homesteading the Noosphere what he calls the “gift culture”. While open source removes some of the philosophical trappings of free software, it is still driven by the idea that the code produced is a gift. Webster defines a gift as “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation”.

It seems from the InfoWorld post that certain creators of open source software are expecting compensation, in either money or free code contribution. No wonder they are unhappy. If you expect or require compensation, don’t use the open source model or an open source license.

If you want to realize the true benefits of open source, it helps if you embrace it fully. If you want to sell software licenses, then open source is probably not for you. We are blessed at OpenNMS to have a community that includes over 40 people with full commit access to our code repository. It has taken us almost a decade to build to that, but one way we have done it is by being completely honest about our 100% open source development philosophy. That has built up trust between the commercial side and the community side of the project that we’re not just here to sell the honey the community bees make (to borrow an analogy).

I love our leeches and free loaders and anyone who finds value in the OpenNMS project. Outside of our committers, we have tons of people who answer questions on the mailing lists, update the wiki or contribute in some measurable way to the success of the project just by using it.

Sometimes when I meet people at conferences they’ll say “we love OpenNMS, but I’m sorry that we don’t buy a support contract”. I always reply “Don’t worry about it – just the fact that you find the work we do useful is thanks enough”.

Consider it a gift.

UPDATE: We were on a call with a new client in California, and we asked them why they chose OpenNMS. They told us that their bandwidth provider, AT&T, told them to, since that is was they use in house. Heh, I guess that makes AT&T a damn leech, right? (grin)