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Open source: The money is in the cloud

The best way to make money on free and open-source software may well be to tie it to a cloud-computing delivery strategy, according to investor Bernard Dalle.

For those entrepreneurs looking to make a living from open-source software, Index Ventures general partner Bernard Dallé has some advice: get thee to a cloud strategy.

Bernard Dallé Index Ventures

Why? At a time when enterprises may be less willing to spend on software, they're increasingly interested in spending on the operation of that software through cloud computing, an interest that can be bought...and sold.

The cloud isn't simply a clever way to provide social-networking services, either. As Dallé suggested in a phone interview on Wednesday, cloud computing may well be the best way to monetize enterprise-facing open-source software.

He should know. Index Ventures has been one of the most successful investors in the changing world of software, hitting home runs with MySQL, Skype, and more. So when Dallé says that as much as 70 percent of the investment opportunities they see now are cloud-related, and that this bodes well for open source, it's worth paying attention.

Given that the cloud renders software less visible to end users, I asked Dallé if cloud computing spells the end for open-source businesses. Far from it, he said:

I think it's good news. I don't think open source is going away. It's here to stay. The world is increasingly moving to a hybrid world: a combination of on-premises and cloud computing. We're not going to see a 100 percent cloud world.

If I look at our portfolio, even our "open-source companies" like Pentaho, OpenX, and DimDim are turning to the cloud to monetize their open-source software assets.

Open source provides a convenient on-ramp and off-ramp for customers, helping them evaluate the software at low to no cost and also gives a free (as in cost and as in freedom) exit in case things go wrong. Between that entrance and exit is a ripe opportunity to make a lot of money by delivering value to customers.

Dallé further explained that open source helps vendors reach customers through low-cost distribution, but cloud computing, importantly, makes the open-source software palatable to a class of customer that finds open source too risky, yet has no problem using it when hosted.

If this sounds like a potent mix, it's because it is. It's also a highly efficient, low-cost way to start and build a company. Dallé elaborates:

The other big trend, not related to open source, is cloud-on-cloud: cloud services running on other clouds. It used to be that everyone ran their own data center, but now an increasing number of companies are happily running their services on Amazon EC2 or other public clouds. This dramatically lowers the cost of starting a service, and starting a company around it.

This might raise the concern that we'll see too many open source/cloud companies, not too few. Dallé isn't worried: "The quality of an investment always comes down to the quality of the people involved and their execution."

If Dallé's correct, the right place to look for open-source businesses to flourish is at the nexus of on-premises open-source software and cloud computing. It could prove to be a potent mix. And while the cloud might not be the right delivery platform for some software, it probably does have a high degree of salience for many.