Vendors increasingly control leading open-source projects

The market research suggests that commercialization of open source will make it expensive compared to proprietary solutions, but the facts don't bear out this assertion.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
4 min read

Given the momentum behind open source, and how it has grown through the economic downturn, it's not surprising that more and more vendors are getting involved to commercialize open-source projects. What is perhaps surprising, however, is how early in the open-source project lifecycle that commercialization is emerging, as Gartner indicates in a December 2008 report ("Predicts 2009: The Evolving Open-Source Software Model").

Gartner suggests that by 2012, "50% of direct commercial revenue attributed to open-source products or services will come from projects under a single vendor's patronage." What this means, however, is open to interpretation.

Here's Gartner's:

Driven by expanding mainstream IT adoption, open-source usage profiles are shifting to more-conservative, risk-versus-reward dynamics. As a result, new adopters now place an increasing premium on commercial support channels to establish service-level agreements on par with closed-source alternatives.

In response to commercial open-source demand, many new projects are being commercialized early in their maturity phases--often by a dot-com startup, and before a broad community "network effect" is firmly established. These projects are often under the patronage (if not authoritative control) of a single vendor that employs nearly (if not entirely) all key code contributors.

While Gartner suggests that this trend will lead to cost parity with proprietary solutions 50 percent of the time, the facts don't bear out this assertion. For example, Forrester finds that 87 percent of enterprises surveyed reduced costs through open source.

In part, this is due to commercial open-source vendors charging dramatically less than their proprietary peers. We can pass on sales and marketing cost savings in the form of maintenance savings.

It would be nice to discount this cost savings as transitory--a near-term phenomenon that dissipates once vendors control open-source projects--or related to community-based open source. But Forrester's Jeffrey Hammond, supported by IT executives from Virgin Mobile and San Francisco International Airport, argued at OSCON in July that open source, commercial or community-based, saves money in deployment costs, acquisition costs, and ongoing maintenance costs (if any).

Pixie dust comes and goes
Still, Gartner has a point. It's true that there are trade-offs that come with commercialization of open-source projects. Some of the magic pixie dust arguably evaporates when a company is behind a project.

But other "magic pixie dust" appears. Polish. Documentation. Enterprise acceptance. And more.

Was Linux hurt by Red Hat's involvement? Hardly. Linux has thrived in tandem with Red Hat's prominent role in developing the Linux kernel.

For those that think community-based support is the way to go, consider CentOS, a clone of Red Hat Enteprrise Linux. CentOS recently had its leader go AWOL. While the situation was eventually resolved, a serious vendor like Red Hat mitigates the vagaries of community whims, like Red Hat's Alan Cox deciding to stop working on tty development.

But it's not just Linux. Is Drupal adversely affected by Acquia? Lucene/Solr by Lucid Imagination? MySQL by MySQL? Jasper Reports by JasperSoft? And so on.

In every case, I'd argue that the projects have been significantly blessed by vendor involvement, not cursed. There are downsides to company involvement, but those are primarily the vendor's issues, not the customer's.

Regardless, Gartner is right to highlight the significant benefits of open source that transcend price tags.

Adopters will continue to receive benefits from open-source solutions, but these benefits will be increasingly realized by advantages in investment protection, innovation and technology alignments, rather than by simple cost savings alone.

Forrester, too, called this out at OSCON, articulating that while many companies adopt open source to save money, and do, they discover a myriad of other benefits along the way. Increased flexibility, higher quality, and more.


For example, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration argues that "Being able to look at source code is a huge benefit, instead of just getting a black-box executable we can't even look at....[I]t's always nice to be able to modify something on our own. We count on [open-source vendor] Progress to do the heavy lifting, but we do keep our own options open." The FAA depends on Progress, without being dependent on Progress, and gets a great deal of benefit from both the open-source software and the open-source vendor.

I'll buy that. Frankly, whether it ultimately costs me more or less is somewhat immaterial. I don't buy Macs because they're cheaper. I buy them because they're better. In like manner, I buy open-source products because they are often much better, in several ways, than proprietary alternatives. Not always, but often enough that if you're not at least considering open-source alternatives, you're missing out.

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