Thursday, May 07, 2009

Open Source's Assault on the Enterprise Data Centre

This week's announcement of SpringSource's acquisition of Hyperic, a maker of Open Source enterprise monitoring software, made me think about a number of things.

1. What does this mean for the prospects of Open Source within enterprises, especially in data centres?
2. What are the prospects for SpringSource as a company? Crucially, what are SpringSource's strategic intentions?
3. What do these trends mean for customers, users and the community as a whole?

I keep reading about how Open Source's prospects have paradoxically brightened thanks to the deepening economic gloom. For all the wrong reasons, enterprises are now looking to Open Source. I say their reasons are wrong because short-term cost savings in the form of lower licence fees are not the major advantage of using Open Source. The opportunity to control their own destiny, free from coercion by vendor agendas, is the greatest benefit, and this can deliver savings far in excess of the measly amounts that licence fees alone would suggest.

I believe that the increasing profile of Open Source in the enterprise software stack is a good thing for user organisations, with some qualifications that I will come to later. I have believed for some time, based on my experiences in large commercial organisations, that proprietary software (and hardware) companies manage to earn a hefty premium from corporate customers on the basis of benefits that are more mythical than real. There is a certain type of corporate decision-making animal that wants to be convinced and comforted by the brand shorthand of large vendors that spell safety, reliability, and a general "enterprise classness". Thus a WebSphere "has to be" better than a Tomcat, an Enterprise Service Bus "has to be" better than simple REST, and an AIX, HP-UX or Solaris "has to be" better than Linux. They cost so much more, so they've got to be better. Cheaper alternatives damn themselves by being cheaper.

How can this mentality be overcome?

It's instructive to consider the hardware market. The most dangerous stealth assault weapon in hardware is the Intel platform. I made the mistake of underestimating the potential of Intel in the early nineties. Those who worked in the industry in the nineties would remember a product category called the Unix workstation. Unix workstations were desktop machines used by the elite in the IT industry. Compared to Unix workstations, Intel PCs were woefully underpowered apologies for computing platforms. Lowly, second-rate developers wrote applications on PCs using pathetic tools like FoxPro. Real developers (like me) built high-end applications using real tools like Oracle Forms on workstations.

Well, the bottomline is that today's generation of developers has probably never heard of a Unix workstation. The puny, pathetic PC platform, like an imperceptibly rising tide, completely swamped its high-end cousin. The tables turned swiftly. "Underpowered" no longer was. That change swiftly repositioned the alternative as "overpriced". End of story.

Today, the Intel assault continues, this time against big iron in the data centre. I'm frankly skeptical about the value proposition of big iron. Intel power and capability are constantly rising, and its price-performance trend continues unabated. The ability of Intel to virtualise is changing the game rather rapidly. The argument in the data centre, like on the desktop, will shift from "underpowered" to "overpriced" in short order, and big iron will be out. Big Unix will go first, followed by mainframes when organisations can wean themselves off their legacy mainframe applications.

But as on the desktop, the Intel platform cannot prevail against the incumbent without the help of software. And that's where the SpringSource acquisition drops a piece of the jigsaw puzzle into place. Hyperic now challenges enterprise monitoring tools like IBM Tivoli, HP OpenView and BMC Patrol, providing similar capability at a fraction of the price. The pattern is familiar.

For a while, corporate decision-makers will hesitate, reluctant to abandon the comfort blanket of familiar brand names from the big end of town. But I suspect the growing pressure to find cost reduction opportunities in the current climate will force many of them out of their comfort zone. Many of them will sample Open Source. Most, I suspect, will like what they find, once they overcome their own mental roadblocks. [I have never ceased to be amazed at the reluctance of customers of software to choose options that will give them control of their own destiny. No wonder Marx had to exhort workers to unite with the reminder that they had nothing to lose but their chains. Humans seem to prefer the comfort of familiar bondage to unfamiliar freedom. It's the Matrix's choice of red pill (harsh reality) and blue pill (comfortable illusion). Many actually prefer the blue pill. It's only when the blue pill is no longer an option will they try the red pill.]

But that brings me to the qualification I expressed earlier. I support the notion of Commercial Open Source as long as certain principles are respected, the main one being the ability of users to control their own destiny. SpringSource and its increasingly powerful stack of products (Tomcat or tc Server, the Spring framework and now Hyperic) are most definitely liberators when compared to the gouging data centre vendors that we all know and (don't) love. But will SpringSource stay faithful to the Open Source social contract?

I believe that software must be collaboratively developed to amortise the costs of development among a number of developers and thereby reduce the requirement to show a return on investment on the core product. That is the fundamental difference between the Open Source development model and the proprietary one. Proprietary software is forced to show a return in the form of per-copy licence fees because it is funded by an investment model. Open Source is not, because its funding can follow an expense model with development costs written off, or amortised. Thus Open Source appears "fairer" because it doesn't charge "rents" on copies of software whose marginal cost of production is actually zero. Commercial Open Source carries this model to its logical conclusion by only charging for non-repeatable services that cannot be stored and replicated, such as training, consultancy and support.

So far, SpringSource as a company has followed the book on Commercial Open Source. Their products tend to be freely downloadable (with some exceptions such as their "enterprise" versions), and organisations can run them without having to pay either licence fees or support fees if they can also maintain them in-house. There is sufficient documentation available to give users control of their own destiny, which is the crucial benefit of Open Source.

My fear is about the future. Will SpringSource continue to maintain a benign pay-for-services model on top of genuinely Open Source products, or will they go the way of so many others before them (like Compiere), and be tempted to convert their stewardship of a powerful stack of enterprise software into a model with tighter control and less user freedom? I sincerely hope they can avoid the temptation of greed, because the long-term benefits to them as well as the rest of the industry are much higher if they retain a light touch. A tighter grip will make their users want to wriggle free. Witness the challenges of Adempiere to Compiere, MariaDB to MySQL and CentOS to Red Hat Linux. If a commercial entity seems to wield an unhealthy degree of influence on an Open Source product, the tendency to fork the project will increase, to the detriment of all (the company more than the community, ultimately). It's a bit worrisome that only SpringSource employees have commit rights to their software. A more inclusive and meritocratic development community around products under SpringSource's stewardship would allay user apprehensions and pre-empt such forking.

This month's Indian elections underline my point. How could an incredibly diverse country of over a billion people have stayed united and largely peaceful for over sixty years? Only by giving those people genuine control over their own destiny through democracy. Much smaller and more ethnically homogeneous countries have been less successful at this.

In future, SpringSource could attain sufficient gravitational mass to pull the stewardship of the Java platform itself into their orbit. If they can avoid the temptation to tighten their grip, "monetise" their influence or otherwise break faith with the community, they can look forward to a (gradual) rise to a position of pre-eminence in the enterprise software market.

The current big names in the enterprise data centre have the most to fear from this development. If SpringSource is wise, the enterprise market is theirs. Customers will gladly give them their business in return for guaranteed control of their destiny.

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