A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Internet …

This morning, as I was browsing through my RSS feeds, I saw an article on Cult of Mac about the VLC media player being removed from Apple’s App Store.

The VLC project is one of those amazing examples where open source is demonstrably better than commercial software. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better media player. Quicktime? Not even close. You have to add Perian just to be able to come near supporting the number of formats VLC can. It seems it would only be a matter of time before someone wanted the power of VLC on iOS, and a company in Paris did just that.

The problem is that VLC is published under the GPL, and Apple’s policies, such as limiting a particular download to just five devices, go against that license. One of the contributors to VLC, Rémi Denis-Courmont, took issue and his complaints caused the app to be pulled.

Now, for iOS lovers this is a bit of a blow, since VLC is such a great piece of software. John Brownlee at Cult of Mac was upset about it, and he posted a pretty vitriolic attack on Denis-Courmont. He also pointed out that Denis-Courmont works for Nokia, an Apple competitor, and thus implied this action might have been driven both by business interests as well as a hatred of Apple.

Most of the true free software people I’ve met encourage the adoption of free software everywhere. Apple wasn’t directly benefiting financially from the inclusion of the software (it was free). Other aspects of the license were maintained, as the developer of the port, Applidium, made all of the sources available. So it is a real grey area as far as the intent of the license goes, but since the GPL expressly forbids adding additional conditions to the license, Apple is indeed in violation, and Denis-Courmont has every right to complain.

I am a fan of Cult of Mac (they featured my original Mac in their 25th anniversary coverage) but I thought Brownlee had expressed his frustration poorly in the ad hominem attack on Denis-Courmont. So I posted a comment pointing it out.

Here’s the funny part, instead of getting slammed by the fanboys, the next three posts agreed with me, and, having had time to chill a bit, Brownlee toned his post way down.

Wow. Calm discourse on the Internet that resulted in a positive change.

How often do you see that happen?

How Not to Get Help from an Open Source Project

Other people have posted about this before, but it is a lesson that bears repeating. Getting help from an open source project is not like getting help from a commercial software company. In the latter case, one has exchanged money for software and so can expect a certain amount of assistance.

Open source is different. In most cases the majority of the people who work on a project are volunteers. Complaining about the timeliness of free support from such a community is like getting a free Mercedes and complaining about the color.

First off, anyone who deals with forums on-line, open source or otherwise, should read Eric Raymond’s seminal “How to Ask Questions“.

Second, here’s how to get someone like me to *not* help you.

On the OpenNMS discuss list, we’ve had a user post 53 e-mails since Thanksgiving. The last several have concerned monitoring MySQL with OpenNMS. There are a number of ways to monitor MySQL using the platform, and people have been trying to help him out.

Unfortunately, we get replies like this:

STILL I AM UNABLE TO SEE THE DATABASES GRAPH. I HAVE EXACTLY FOLLOW YOUR DOCUMENTS AS IT IS I DONT KNOW WHERE IS THE PROBLEM COULD U ATTACHED THE /ETC FILES TO ME AND ALSO THE GRAPH PICTURE WHICH U ARE GETTING RIGHT NOW.

As most people know, posting in all caps is the equivalent of yelling. Yelling that you wanted a silver Mercedes when you were given a black one is rather rude and probably has a negligible effect on getting a different color. And don’t get me started on top posting.

But I guess the mailing list wasn’t good enough for this user. He decided to call our office.

Now, we are mainly located on the east coast of the US, so calling me numerous times, starting at 2:28am, is also not going to win you any friends.

But hey, there is always Facebook, right? Posting something like:

you all are looking good but i am still not satisfied with opeenms because opennms help is not good like microsoft. i want to get the license of it bus my initial requirment is to monitor mysql databases in it which is not yet complete

will get results, right? After all, companies like Microsoft are renowned for their high level of support, and I’m sure posting a comment on Microsoft’s Facebook page would cause hundreds of people to drop what they are doing to help you.

When all else fails, you can post a message on the OpenNMS Group contact page (which, of course, specifically mentions not to do this for support):

I am very dishard about the opennms help. I have submit my problem a lot of time but no proper solution were recived yet. why? My problem is i want to monitor mysql table spaces etc in opennms using jetty is it possible or not just tell me yes or no

So I replied: “Yes”.

(sigh)

Look, literally tens of millions of dollars *that I can document* have gone into making OpenNMS, and that doesn’t include the tens of millions of dollars worth of donated time and effort. Throwing an online hissy fit won’t get you help any faster.

And I hate the “well, if you just get OpenNMS running for me I’m sure I’ll buy a support contract later” line. It’s like going to the doctor and asking him to treat you for free on the off chance that if you feel better you might pay him. I can count the number of times someone has led with that line and actually bought a contract on each one of my rippling, six-pack abs.

When I first started out providing services for OpenNMS, I got a call from Motorola. They were considering OpenNMS, and they wanted me to come out and show it to them (i.e. fly to Texas). I pointed them to our “Getting to Know You” package where I would fly out and spend a couple of days showing them how it works on their network. They were aghast. How could I possibly ask them to pay for something like that? Even pointing out the fact that OpenNMS was free software and that once installed they could both own their solution totally and not have to pay license fees couldn’t get them past the fact that I was asking them to pay for “presales”.

Trust me, you don’t need customers like that. Customers that “get it” will have a competitive advantage. This will eventually allow them to provide better service to their customers (either through a better solution or cost savings put to other use) and thus distance themselves from their commercial software-using competitors.

While I doubt OpenNMS had anything do to with it, ask yourself what was the last model of Motorola mobile phone you owned? Did it come in a bag?

The Prodigal Customer

At The OpenNMS Group, we love our customers, but unfortunately we don’t get to keep all of them. Some drop support due to budget issues. We had at least one client who didn’t renew due to the fact that once OpenNMS was up and running they felt they didn’t need support. But I am happy to say that overall our retention rate year over year is around 93%. While I don’t have any stats to compare this too, I think it’s pretty good.

The first commercial support customer was Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. They purchased support back in December of 2001, when OpenNMS was still managed by Oculan. Last week they renewed for an incredible ninth time, so we have provided enough value that they will have used our services for at least a decade. Rackspace has been a customer since March of 2002, and I think there are few open source companies that can point to that kind of track record.

But I wanted to tell a story about a support renewal that showed up early last month. It was from a client in Virginia who chose not to renew last year. They had been sold on the idea that a commercial solution would meet their needs much better than OpenNMS, and so they decided to go that route.

I’m never happy to lose a customer, but many times I can understand. As a services organization, it does neither us nor the client any good if OpenNMS is not a good fit. OpenNMS is not for everyone – users tend to be well above average in their field and have a honest enjoyment of network management. Sometimes those people are hard to find.

And while we couldn’t exist without the support of our long time customers, I hope I can be forgiven for being just a little more excited about this renewal than most. It is one thing to know that the software you create is worthwhile – it is another thing to have someone who has used it to try alternatives and to come back.

This client was lost and now is found, and that makes me happy.

Welcome to the New Year

It’s hard for me to believe that is it 2011. Not only have we passed two of Arthur C. Clarke’s books without a trip to Saturn or Jupiter, it still seems like yesterday that we were worried about Y2K bugs. I hope to live until 2061 but doubt I’ll make it to 3001 (but you never know). I plan to be around for the Unix time bug in 2038, but of course, by then no one will be using software with that problem so there is little to worry about.

One theory I’ve heard about why time seems to go faster as you get older is that each year is proportionally a smaller part of your life. For example, a year to a 5 year old child represents 20% of its existence, but it is only 2% to a 50 year old person. If I lived to 3001, a year would represent less than 0.1% of my life, or the equivalent of 2 days for the 5 year old.

Trippy.

I was not unhappy to see 2010 in the taillights. While it wasn’t a bad year, it wasn’t great and we experienced some growing pains. On the other hand, I have a great feeling about 2011.

I expect that we’ll release OpenNMS 1.10 in the first half of the year, with the focus being mainly on IPv6 support. Seth has done a great job in refactoring the code to support both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses, and what’s left is a lot of testing as well as adding some IPv6 specific discovery mechanisms. We are also working to improve our Windows support, since believe it or not we seem to generate a lot of interest in the Windows version of OpenNMS.

We are also trying to extend our training to more parts of the world. On the last day of the month we’ll be holding, for the first time, our week long training course in Europe, which will immediately be followed by our first partner certification training. Look for more news about our new partner program next week.

We will also hold training in the US at the Pittsboro, NC, headquarters starting the last day in February. Both courses will have the a module on the new database reporting system based on JasperReports.

I will be speaking at a number of events this year. Next week I’ll be in Atlanta speaking at ATLNSMTUG (pronounced “awkward-acronym-ug”) on the OpenNMS Project. Since the Atlanta NSM Technical User Group is made up of some hardcore NSM nerds, the focus of this talk will be on how we set out to build a better NSM platform and how it compares to products like Netcool, eHealth and Netcool. It will be pretty technical, and I’m buying the pizza, so if you are into that sort of thing please register and I hope to see you there.

I will also be the opening keynote speaker at the inaugural Indiana LinuxFest to be held in Indianapolis on March 25-27th. I was very flattered to be asked to talk, and I plan to present some thoughts on how the open source community actually benefits from all its various groups and factions. I’ve titled the talk “Why We Can’t All Get Along (And Why This Is a Good Thing)” and I hope it lives up to the expectations of the organizers and attendees.

Here’s my sincere wish to my three readers that they had a wonderful holiday, and may all you wish for in 2011 be the least you receive.