When Nick Mailer helped found web-hosting provider The Positive Internet Company, he was instrumental in basing the firm's activities on free and open-source software. Mailer talks to ZDNet UK about the response from business to that open-source decision.
Actor Stephen Fry's support of Twitter has been credited with pushing the micro-blogging tool into the mainstream. But his support for all things open source has been equally impassioned, and Fry recently singled out the company that hosts his podcasts for its dedication to open source. "My thanks as always go to the team at The Positive Internet Company. For 10 years they have used only free and open-source technologies like GNU Linux in their organisation," Fry said.
Side-stepping venture capital funding in favour of organic growth, Positive was financed by turnover from day one, and has built its reputation in the hosting arena through an uncompromising attitude to open source and its cost benefits.
Clients for Positive's dedicated server and managed hosting services include the British Film Institute (BFI), Stella Artois, the BBC and Barclays bank.
ZDNet UK caught up with Positive co-founder and director Nick Mailer to discover the origins of his company's belief in open source and the downsides, if any, to running a purely free and open-source software business.
Q: Stephen Fry has said nice things about your devotion to open source and your expertise in hosting — how did that relationship come about?
A: With Stephen Fry there was an interesting osmosis between him and us and free software. His people liked our use of free software and had also heard good things about us through word of mouth and how we had done things for Ricky [Gervais]. Subsequently Stephen Fry has become a big fan of free software and in fact he recorded a birthday video for the GNU Project.
It is interesting that people who are thinking about things outside the immediate technical community are finding interesting ideas going on in free software. I suppose things like Creative Commons have opened that up to a wider sphere of people.
Fry and Gervais have obviously been good for building your profile, but how have you ended up with some of your more controversial customers?
Badscience.net with Ben Goldacre was having problems, and we said, come to us and we will give you a server for free. We seem to be hosting a lot of sceptic websites, such as Quackometer. There is also a hawkish left blog called Harry's place, which was threatened with being sued last year so their DNS provider cut them off. We now do their DNS.
We seem to rescue what we think are worthy projects from the over-zealous, censorial people who might otherwise shut them down.
Have you ever been threatened with legal action?
Yes, but we are not easily cowed. My father is a former barrister and now a judge, my mother is a solicitor, my brother is a solicitor, his wife is a solicitor, my wife works as a legal expert in a solicitors' firm, my aunt is a legal lecturer and my grandfather was a supreme court judge in South Africa. So all in all, when we get silly letters from high-street solicitors' firms, we tend not to react to them in the same way others do.
You studied literature at university, so how did your interest and expertise in IT come about?
I had always been interested in computers. I had an Amiga 500 and used to write little things in Basic. Then being at university between 1993 and 1995 was a time when the internet was just emerging. What initially interested me was the economics of this thing. I became quite fascinated in how it was all connected together.
Also in 1993, I got in touch with an ex-computer science teacher from school who was also interested in the internet and suggested we write a book about how schools could use it. We wrote the UK School Internet Primer, which I have been told was the first book about the internet for the education sector. We also held a conference in 1995 that was attended by people like Bill Thompson [BBC internet columnist].
And how did that sequence of events lead to The Positive Internet Company?
I ran an NT network for a while and realised I didn't like it. So in 1997 my colleague Jake [Jellinek] and I said, let's start a company that does scripting. By this point I had learned to script...