Apache entrepreneur takes two

Apache honcho Randy Terbush sets up a consulting company for the open-source Web server software that could put noses out of joint at his former berth Covalent.

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Stephen Shankland
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Can Randy Terbush do it again?

Apache entrepreneur takes two
Terbush, one of the original founders of the influential Apache Web server project, is trying once again to start a company to help businesses get the most from improvements in the open-source software.

Through his first company, Covalent Technologies, Terbush pioneered Apache as a commercial product. However, he and another key Apache community member, Dirk-Willem van Gulik, have left Covalent to start Tribal Knowledge Group.

Covalent has grown to become a 65-person company with several software products based on the Apache Web server and with tools to help run Apache better. In an interview, Terbush said his new company is focusing less on packaged software and more on consulting to help companies use the full array of software that comes along with Apache.

"My chosen path for Covalent did not agree with current management," Terbush said. Customers these days prefer to get help integrating software with their current environment than to buy "bolt-on" software packages they must install themselves, he said.

As a business idea, integrating Apache software components for customers has merit, said Giga Information Group analyst Stacey Quandt. "It's a viable market," if only an emerging one, she said, adding that customers are increasingly interested in Apache's growing capabilities as a cheaper replacement to proprietary software such as IBM's WebSphere or BEA Systems' WebLogic.

Web servers deliver Web pages to browsers, and Apache is the most widely used software for the task, according to an ongoing survey run by tracking firm Netcraft. Apache is used on about 22.3 million Web servers, nearly 60 percent of the total on the Internet and well ahead of Microsoft's Internet Information Server.

Apache is one of the most prominent projects to emerge from the open-source community, a global collection of programmers who collaboratively create software that may be freely modified, shared and redistributed. Apache's profile is second only to that of the Linux operating system, which is used on servers and increasingly on desktop PCs.

Terbush was one of the eight primary founders of the Apache project, which began as a series of patches to a Web server created by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). He initially founded Covalent in 1994 to host Web sites, but in 1998 the company released its first software product, an Apache module to secure Web transactions such as credit card purchases.

Terbush had a major influence on Apache, Quandt said, through his programming work and through his company, which funded development and made Apache more palatable to corporations. "Randy Terbush is an early open-source pioneer who went from developing Apache to turning it into a commercially viable software product," Quandt said.

New directions
Apache has been growing in new directions in recent years, extending from delivering basic Web page to creating complicated Web pages on the fly by tapping into back-end databases using new add-in modules.

Prominent Apache extensions are Tomcat, which runs Java programs on servers, and Xerces, which processes commands and information encoded with XML (Extensible Markup Language).

Terbush estimates that about 10 percent to 20 percent of Apache programmers and programming code involves the original Apache Web server. Most current work is to do with the new extensions, he said. Tribal Knowledge Group intends to help companies take advantage of this fuller suite of programs.

The extensions to Apache come under the purview of the Apache Software Foundation, an organization formed in 1999 to give programmers working on them more legal clout. Apache is used in software from IBM, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard and others, and the foundation presents these companies with a more corporation-friendly contact point for legal agreements and other interactions.

Terbush is treasurer of the Apache Software Foundation and van Gulik is president. At Covalent, Terbush had been chief executive and chief technology officer and van Gulik had been vice president of engineering and vice president of development.

Covalent also has been expanding its focus. It also packages the Tomcat extension software and an FTP module to help Web site operators manage download sites.

Tribal Knowledge has developed a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) module for Apache similar to the first product Covalent shipped in 1998 and to the SSL software Red Hat ships with its Linux product. The module wasn't built to be a competitor to these products, but rather "to demonstrate a responsiveness and commitment level to infrastructure security," Terbush said.

One thing hasn't changed about Terbush's business ideas: He's not wedded to hotbeds of technology development. Covalent began in Lincoln, Neb., before moving to San Francisco, and the Tribal Knowledge Group is headquartered in Alta, Wyo.

"The Tribal Knowledge Group will largely be a distributed company, as most of the work we either can do remotely or need to be on site with the customer. The (San Francisco) Bay Area no longer holds the same draw as it did in the heyday," Terbush said.

More responsive?
But Terbush made it clear he does plan to compete with Covalent, a company with which he currently finds fault.

"I look forward to the opportunity to compete for customers in this market through a return to responsiveness and understanding customer needs," Terbush said. "Covalent had a great reputation with its customers in the old days, and I look forward to earning that same level of trust with the Tribal Knowledge Group."

Covalent disputed the idea that it doesn't understand or respond to its customers.

"We have a hell of a lot of very satisfied customers, and two of our best quarters ever," said Jim Zemlin, Covalent's vice president of marketing. "We are having quarter-over-quarter double-digit growth. I don't think we've ever had a down quarter."

Covalent customers include investment bank Bear Stearns, network equipment maker Cisco, pharmaceutical giant Merck, investment bank Morgan Stanley and mortgage provider Freddie Mac.

Covalent bears no grudge against Terbush, Zemlin added. "There's nothing but goodwill toward Randy at this company," he said.

Covalent still employs several key Apache experts. Among them are Ryan Bloom, an Apache Software Foundation board member, leader of the Apache 2.0 work and a member of the Apache Runtime Project; Doug MacEachern, a former board member and the author of the Apache extension to run PERL programs; and board Executive Vice President Jim Jagielski.