Open Source TNG

My three readers of this blog know that I’m pretty particular about the use of the the term “open source“. It’s not that I’m an open source zealot, but the term has a specific meaning that has been diluted over the last couple of years. Since the value of OpenNMS is nicely summed up with “open source” I am loathe to allow its meaning to be changed.

It is with some pleasure that I’ve noticed that one of the fauxpen source companies in the management space, Zenoss, has made some subtle changes to their corporate message over the last few months.

From a press release last April, which leads:

Zenoss Inc., the leading commercial open source network and systems management provider

Note the prominent use of the term “open source”.

Now flash forward to June:

Zenoss Inc., the fastest-growing alternative to the “Big 4” for enterprise network and systems monitoring

While the term “open source” still appears throughout the press release, there is much less emphasis on it.

Today, this came through my reader:

Zenoss Inc., provider of the next generation alternative to legacy enterprise IT operations management solutions

Note that “open source” was only used once in the main article.

I take this as a good sign. I’ve never really had a problem with the “open core” business model – I think that all commercial software will move to this model eventually – but I hate it being called “open source” for a variety of reasons I won’t repeat here.

I do have to wonder what is driving this change. Could it be that they are finding less traction with the term “open source” in the marketplace? Could it be a backlash from open source advocates who explore their product only to find out that they have to pay high per node prices for the “real” software? Or could it be pressure from the VCs to start making serious bank as the five year window is closing rapidly?

In any case, with all of the marketing money these companies have you would think they could build on the the “open core” brand without having to degrade ours. They still have “open source” all over their website, but I am hoping this is the start of a move toward something a little more legitimate.

Brain Regrooving

When I started a business around OpenNMS, everyone who had real jobs would say “Oh, it must be so nice working for yourself since you can take a vacation whenever you want”. Unfortunately for me, our support model business plan didn’t allow for me to just disappear whenever I wanted to, and for the first few years the best I could manage was an occasional three day weekend, where I would stop from time to time on the workday to check mail.

Now that the company has grown, I find I am able to take a decent vacation at least once if not twice a year. This allows me to get away from the business, get away from the farm and spend a little time getting my brain regrooved from the long weeks this project requires of me.

This year we went out to Oregon to spend a week fishing with friends. If I didn’t live in God’s Own Earth I would probably live in Oregon (somewhere down around Eugene). We camped and went fishing for steelhead, bass, trout and tuna.

The latter required getting up at some ungodly hour, getting on a boat, and spending over two hours to get 40 miles out to the tuna. Over the next six we caught 37 fish – nearly 1000 pounds. It’s an exciting and somewhat bloody form of entertainment.

My friend TJ with two of our fish

Unfortunately, I found out that the sea, a small boat and me don’t exactly mix so I spent most of that time in the wheelhouse hoping someone would shoot me and put me out of my misery.

Once back on land I perked up almost immediately and was able to clean the boat while the other folks worked on cleaning the fish. I brought along some wasabi and soy sauce and had some sashimi – that made it all worth it as it was so good (although my fishing buddies were certain I would see that sashimi again).

So let me apologize if I haven’t been responsive to e-mails over the last week. I don’t like “vacation” notification e-mails so I never use them. My first priority it to get through the backlog of nearly 250 messages, so if you are expecting a reply, please be patient.

Copyright Changes

The following post is a little long, so I figured it might be best to put the “point” upfront. The OpenNMS Group has acquired the copyright to the original OpenNMS code. Thus, for the first time in seven years, all of the OpenNMS copyright is held under one organization.

I didn’t start OpenNMS. It was started by three guys named Steve Giles, Luke Rindfuss and Brian Weaver. They formed a company called PlatformWorks that did the initial OpenNMS code framework, and they grew to include such OpenNMS icons as Shane O’Donnell and our very own Ben Reed.

Platformworks was acquired by a company called Atipa, which later morphed into Oculan. Oculan brought to market a network management appliance that was based on OpenNMS with some additional functionality built in and a high level of support (each appliance would periodically “phone home” reporting problems, getting upgrades, etc.) but they had no business focused directly on OpenNMS.

Since there was a lot of interest in OpenNMS as a platform, in September of 2001 I was brought on board to build a services and support business around it. The first OpenNMS support customer signed on in December of that year, and I’m happy to say they are still a customer.

In May of 2002 Oculan received new investment, and the decision was made to focus solely on the appliance. OpenNMS 1.0 had just been released, but Oculan was no longer going to provide resources to maintain it.

Having worked at that point in time for nearly 15 years in network management, I saw the potential in OpenNMS. I also knew that if no one stepped up, the project would most likely die. So I went into Steve Giles’ office and asked for OpenNMS. We talked for a bit, and then he looked at his watch and said if I was off his payroll by Friday, I could have OpenNMS and a couple of servers.

That was the easy part. The hard part was explaining to my wife that I was starting my own business selling free software. Note to all you newlyweds out there – I have learned that this is one of those decisions you need to make together. Don’t forget that.

“Getting” OpenNMS meant little more than getting the name, being promoted to “admin” for OpenNMS on various sites, and the “opennms.*” domain names. I did not get the copyright to the OpenNMS code, since Oculan viewed that as their intellectual property (IP). I didn’t really care, since I was planning on publishing all future changes under the GPL, and that’s what I did.

While OpenNMS kept growing, albeit slowly, Oculan flared brightly but then went away. They closed their doors in May of 2004.

In September of 2004, The OpenNMS Group came into existence with myself, David Hustace and Matt Brozowski as founders. We’ve seen amazing growth with our “spend less than you earn” business plan, and even managed to hire Ben Reed, one of the original OpenNMS guys. And we did it all with GPL’d software.

However, not owning the copyright has presented us with some issues. First, it is hard to provide indemnification if you don’t own 100% of the code. And second, it makes defending the theft of your code difficult.

Last year we hired Moglen Ravicher, the law team behind the Software Freedom Law Center, to represent us as we pursued some “irregularities” with the use of OpenNMS code by Cittio in their Watchtower product. OpenNMS is a Java program published without a classpath exception, so simply importing OpenNMS code into a program makes the program a derivative work (note that Sun’s openjdk is published with a classpath exception for this very reason) and it looked like, at a minimum, that is what Cittio was doing.

Cittio’s initial response was that if they were using OpenNMS, it was only OpenNMS 1.0, for which we did not hold the copyright. And since we didn’t own the copyright, we could not pursue any copyright violations.

I have my doubts as to whether or not that was a true statement, but it had the desired effect of stopping our legal action. The Oculan IP had bounced around a bit, and landed at Raritan, so I contacted them to see if they would join in our lawsuit. With both Raritan and OpenNMS together, their excuse would become moot.

Unfortunately, we found out that the Free Software Foundation had a complaint with the way Raritan was using some GPL’d code in one of their appliances. This was definitely accidental, but the fact remained that we could not move forward until this matter was resolved. Due to the age of the code it was hard for Brett Smith and his team at the FSF to verify that the changes Raritan had made resulted in compliance, and so it took a year before Raritan and the FSF agreed that everything had been addressed.

Now that we could move forward, Cittio abruptly closed its doors and sold its assets to Nimsoft. Nimsoft contacted us to make sure that we were satisfied that no OpenNMS code would be involved in the code they were salvaging from Watchtower, and while I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, I believe that will be the case.

There was really no reason to continue to pursue Cittio, since with any failed company even a favorable judgement would have us getting in line behind all the other creditors, so we decided it was best just to let it end.

During this year that I worked with Raritan, I was impressed at how eager they were to both resolve their issues with the FSF as well as work with our small company. They could have sold Cittio a license to OpenNMS and made it very difficult for us to pursue any action but instead they stuck by us.

In the seven years since OpenNMS effectively was forked, the products have taken extremely different paths, thus with no real conflict of interest at hand I approached Raritan about buying the copyright to the original 1.0 code. We worked out an agreement and now the OpenNMS code is wholly owned by The OpenNMS Group, while Raritan has a license to continue to use the code in their products.

This is both exciting and scary to me. First of all, we are now in debt for the first time, although we hope to have that paid off as quickly as possible. Second, we now can truly offer indemnity to our support clients. Finally, as we move forward and investigate investment in order to grow, there is some IP for an investor to value, instead of just the good looks and fine wit of our team.

This will not change the lives of the average OpenNMS user one bit. If you check out the code you will see some changes in the copyright header, but that’s it. Do not expect to see new, proprietary “enterprise extensions” like the fauxpen source guys. In fact, we plan to reorganize part of the code and publish it with a “classpath” exception to allow for the easier addition of monitors and collectors, etc. Thus we hope to make OpenNMS even more free.

OpenNMS is growing at an amazing rate this year, but nothing that happens will ever change my two requirements for the project: OpenNMS will always be free (under an OSI-approved license) and OpenNMS will never suck.

Thanks for being a part of making that happen.