Brampton Factor: Open source goes commercial

Can run-of-the-mill projects make money?

Can run-of-the-mill projects make money?

Businesses may be comfortable using well-known open source products. But how will they take to more modest efforts? Martin Brampton looks at one commercial wannabe.

Is the arrival of Acquia an indication of changing times for open source?

If you have not heard of Acquia, you may have heard of Drupal, a popular open source content management systems (CMS). Acquia is a commercial operation set up to deliver Drupal software packages and services.

I should share that I have been personally involved with content management systems since the autumn of 2005, when I joined the development team for Mambo, an open source CMS. Following political wrangles, I left the Mambo project in 2006 and after a break started to develop my own Aliro CMS.

Large numbers of personal websites and commercial websites are built on and run using open source CMS. And why not? A huge amount of web hosting is critically dependent on the open source Apache web server and the open source community version of MySQL, not to mention Linux and a host of ancillary services.

Despite their popularity, open source products are still quite different from commercial products. Trying to find a way to bridge the gap between the two types of software can be a difficult operation but it is one Acquia has been set up to tackle.

Some open source products have strong corporate backing. Some are commercial products that were turned over to open source by large companies like IBM. The usual motive is to cut development and distribution costs, while concentrating on revenues from services.

Other products such as Firefox and Open Office have attracted sponsorship because of their potential for affecting competitive relationships among the giant software companies. A few are so well known they are particularly attractive to volunteer developers.

But the run-of-the-mill open source project relies heavily on dedicated volunteers, often a very small team or a lone individual. If these projects are to create good quality software, they depend on skilled developers, who are often less skilled and less interested in marketing and finance.

So we immediately find that when we look at open source products, their descriptions are often a mirror image of those offered for commercial products. While the paid-for products are usually accompanied by glowing descriptions that stress the benefits to organisations who purchase them, detail is often thin. In fact it is frequently difficult to decide from published descriptions of software exactly what it does, and even harder to know how it fits in with an infrastructure or with other products.

Contrarily, open source products usually have descriptions that stress their technical functions while ignoring the wider context in which they will be deployed. Even for a technician, descriptions of this kind can be at too low a level, obscuring the more general features that would make the product valuable. For non-technical people, descriptions of this kind are obviously unappealing.

These differences are heightened when it comes to the differences in delivery. Purchased software will normally have at least a slick installation mechanism, and for more expensive items will be provided with installation as a service. While some open source software offers these things, frequently the user is in a position of dealing with a possibly quite complex installation and commissioning process.

Obviously it is possible to provide services to supplement open source software. But an immediate snag is that a large proportion of the users of, say, open source content management systems are unwilling to spend anything at all. And many of the support services that exist run very much as cottage industries of a kind that will not appeal to larger buyers of software.

Acquia's progress will be followed with interest, as it is attempting to break out of these constraints. The company intends to put together software packages of Drupal CMS, rather along the lines of Linux distributions, and sell them to customers. This will be backed up by a range of deployment services and an image that is intended to appeal to the average corporate buyer. A key player in Acquia is Dries Buytaert, the founder and architect of Drupal.

Part of the argument for setting up Acquia applies to many successful projects. As an open source project matures, its functionality tends to rise considerably, under pressure from a diverse and growing band of users. As it becomes more complex, it is increasingly difficult for developers to keep up with demands on a purely voluntary basis. Buytaert is hoping that Acquia will provide an environment that will support his continuing role in Drupal at the same time as giving him an income.

Acquia certainly faces obstacles. The fundamental question is whether an operation that bundles Drupal software and provides services is commercially viable. Beyond that, there are questions about the impact of commercialisation on the volunteer-based Drupal community. While some will be happy to continue in the new environment, others may feel that they should be looking for their own opportunity to create software that can ultimately achieve commercial support.

If Acquia is successful, or even survives, it is likely to pave the way for many more such operations. The big, well known projects such as Linux and Apache are already well established. But if companies like Acquia can prosper, then the middle ground of the software world could well be increasingly colonised by open source. If this happens, it will be a challenge for the whole software industry.