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New friendships in the open-source world

With some of the entrepreneurial glamour gone from open-source software, companies are resorting to more traditional means to boost their prospects.

With some of the entrepreneurial glamour gone from open-source software, companies backing the cooperative-programming approach are resorting to more traditional means to boost their prospects: the old-boys network.

Open-source programming, in which software code may be shared and changed, has been popularized by successes such as Linux and Apache. Now companies backing lesser-known open-source packages are nailing down alliances to help their prospects.

For example, Lutris Technologies, a Santa Cruz, Calif., company that sells a type of server software, soon will see its Enhydra product bundled with each Hewlett-Packard server that ships with the Linux operating system. Other open-source companies are enlisting as advisers the programmers who originated the technology at the heart of their business models.

The deals are emerging in the midst of a harsher climate in which investors and venture capitalists have lost their enthusiasm for technology start-ups. That gloomy climate has wreaked havoc with Linux companies--and other open-source ventures are on even shakier ground. Zelerate, which specialized in open-source e-commerce software, last week laid off almost all its employees and scrapped its original software.

Enlisting the advice of technology founders helps companies cope with the challenges of the open-source realm, which is governed as much by political, cultural and philosophical concerns as it is by technical and financial ones.

"Navigating the open-source seas takes quite a bit of vision and some careful planning," said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky, and it makes sense to draw on the experience of someone comfortable in those waters.

HP demonstrated its agreement with this philosophy when it hired Linux luminary and open-source advocate Bruce Perens in December.

One company reaching out to its allies is Norfolk, Va.-based Great Bridge, which sells database software based on the open-source PostgreSQL project.

Great Bridge has named to its advisory board several key developers of the PHP software package, which is often used in conjunction with databases. Among them are PHP creator Rasmus Lerdorf and lead PHP programmers Thies Arntzen and Sascha Schumann.

In addition, Great Bridge is integrating PHP software into its database product through a deal with Zend, an Israeli company trying to commercialize PHP. Zend was founded by two other PHP core programmers, Zeev Suraski and Andi Gutmans.

Pinching pennies
Alliances such as that between Great Bridge and Zend make sense when companies want to augment their products but don't have a lot of money to spend on programming, documentation and other expenses, IDC's Kusnetzky said. "The open-source people for the most part don't have a lot of cash sitting around," he said.

More networking is going on at a Vancouver, British Columbia, company called ActiveState that supports use of two open-source programming languages, Perl and Python. ActiveState has lured Perl inventor Larry Wall and Python founder Guido van Rossum to its advisory board.

ActiveState also lured Lerdorf and former Byte Executive Editor Jon Udell to its advisory board.

ActiveState's move drew praise from Red Hat, a seller of Linux software and services and probably the strongest prospect in the open-source world. Red Hat Chief Technology Officer Michael Tiemann--among those with the longest history of making a business out of open-source software--lauded ActiveState's work to improve the lot of open-source software in general.

Despite sometimes fractious philosophical differences among open-source advocates, alliances make sense in these days when start-ups are worried more about solvency than competing with one another.

But open-source companies also are looking outside their world. For example, Great Bridge announced Wednesday that it has begun a version of its database software that works on Sun's Solaris operating system as well as on Linux.

Open-source companies also must deal with ties to the closed world of proprietary software. For example, proprietary software companies Oracle and SAP are investors in Red Hat, and Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik has acknowledged that his company's open-source expansion plans bump into Oracle's market. And during a keynote address this January, VA Linux Systems CEO Larry Augustin praised Oracle, an investor in his company as well.