Company profile: Open source specialist SpikeSource

Red Hat and Novell/Suse brought the Linux operating system to the mass market, and SpikeSource aims to do the same for open-source applications
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

For many businesses, the world of open source is synonymous with the Linux operating system and perhaps a few well-known applications, such as MySQL or the Apache server. One thing these all have in common is that support for them is readily available from a variety of sources. In the past, that hasn't necessarily been the case for the galaxy of other high-quality open-source applications out there, from content-management systems to collaboration tools and customer relationship management (CRM) platforms.

SpikeSource, founded three years ago, is looking to change that situation through integration services and, more recently, by building up a worldwide network of resellers. Essentially, the company aims to do for applications what Linux distributors such as Red Hat or Novell have already done for the components making up the operating system — integrating the parts and giving customers a straightforward way of handling maintenance and support. Industry analysts say the idea, if SpikeSource pulls it off, could vastly increase the presence of open-source applications in enterprises as well as smaller businesses.

However, success isn't yet assured for the young company, the brainchild of former Kleiner Perkins "entrepreneur-in-residence" Murugan Pal. While the ideas may be sound, for instance, it isn't clear whether there's enough business demand for open-source applications to allow a company such as SpikeSource to get off the ground.

"In some ways, it reminds me of the B2B boom in 2001 or 2002," says Laurent Lachal, head of Ovum's open source research, who has been following SpikeSource for several years. "You had companies like [B2B exchange firm] Commerce One at that time, with high-sounding ideas, that were ahead of their time. Now there are marketplaces emerging onto the scene, but Commerce One is gone."

Paying customers aside, SpikeSource is busy signing up new reseller and ISV [independent software developer] partners, including NEC, the company's highest-profile deal to date. In October the company began expanding into Europe, signing up seven technology providers and bringing on board UK distribution company Interactive Ideas to be a master distributor for the region.

Pal began incubating SpikeSource at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 2003, with former Oracle president Ray Lane, a Kleiner Perkins partner, as the company's chairman. The company's initial focus, in keeping with Pal's technical background, was on testing and integration — the company's first 18 months were spent developing a "test harness" to do the heavy lifting of testing and integration.

In 2004, when the company was ready to come out of stealth mode, Kim Polese joined as chief executive. Polese was Sun's original product manager for Java, and left the company in 1996 to found Marimba, which broadcast software updates over company networks — the much-hyped "push" technology of the time. She was Marimba's chief executive until 2000, and remained on its board until 2003. Marimba was acquired by BMC Software in 2004.

"Because of my background in system management infrastructure and software as a service, I totally got the value proposition," Polese says. "I also thought the problem was one someone was going to solve at scale, and probably build a big company doing it. It is a hard computer-science problem to solve at scale, and our team had a tremendous head start in that."

Polese believes the software industry is at a turning point, making a decisive shift towards "commodification", changing from a non-commodity into commodity, with open source as a key driver in the process.

"That's a good thing, it happens to any industry when it begins to mature and take on mass-market appeal," she says. "It happened in the computing component market — Dell figured out that the innovation was around identifying and supporting the components. Ford figured it out in automobiles, and Amazon did for retail. Those are companies that emerged to make sense out of the chaos."

Spike stacks
Open-source processes can deliver high-quality software at a far lower cost than proprietary systems, but have integration issues that aren't found with proprietary software. While proprietary applications are relatively monolithic, their open-source counterparts are made up of many interdependent parts, such as databases, web servers, servlet engines and scripting languages. Companies either face a significant integration task, or must get a company such as Red Hat to do it for them.

While a company like Red Hat distributes an operating system — made up of a kernel and various other components — SpikeSource distributes "stacks", made up of various applications...

...sitting on top of an operating system. The stacks are made up of more than 50 components, including Apache and JBoss, down to more obscure subcomponents. They run on several platforms, including Red Hat, Suse Linux and Windows, with support planned for Solaris and other Linux distributions.

Customers can buy pre-built stacks or have SpikeSource make one to order. SpikeSource provides tools and services for managing the stacks, called the SpikeIgnite platform, and manages patches and updates via SpikeNet.

Key to all this is integration. The company's technology ensures all the components of the stack will work together seamlessly, in all their possible configurations. Unlike collections of proprietary applications, the resulting stack is genuinely integrated — it is deployed with a single installer, and a single patch can update the entire stack.

On the support side, too, SpikeSource manages the relationships with the various providers of tech support, giving customers a single point of contact for support calls. The customer's contact with all of this should be transparent, coming through their reseller — as of earlier this year, SpikeSource does all its business through the reseller channel.

The channel is now central to the company's strategy, the aim being to foster an ecosystem around open-source technology and support providers, such as that which already exists, for instance, with Microsoft and its many resellers.

"The emergence of this ecosystem is one of the critical factors for open source to take off," says Ovum's Lachal. "It's not just about the vendors offering support directly, they're also helping other people, VARs [value-added resellers], ISVs, to provide that support. Instead of having one customer, and that's it, there are several layers of support."

Polese says there is at the moment a "perfect storm" of factors coming together to support the emergence of the open-source applications market — ISVs needing a channel and wanting to get applications to market quickly, the channel wanting to offer support for open source and businesses needing low-cost, high-quality software.

"There are economies of scale for open source on the developer side. We're helping to drive those through the channel to the end customer," Polese says. "You can't expect customers to be their own ISVs to do that. We're providing efficiencies."

On the channel side, SpikeSource sees an important role for often small, locally oriented integrators who want to offer open-source alternatives to their customer base. "These are often small 'mom-and-pop shops'. The value and attraction is that they can sell a turnkey, tailored solution, whether it's around CRM, business intelligence, or what have you. This allows them to expand their business, offering enterprise-class maintenance and support, and also sharing in the margin of that ongoing subscription."

Similarly, the "federated support" model is a way of contributing back to the open-source community, since the open-source organisations providing the support also share in the support revenue.

The company has made significant gains in recent weeks. In October SpikeSource initiated its push into Europe, signing up technology providers such as Germany's Open-Xchange, with its well-regarded collaboration tools, and the UK's Alfresco, which makes content management software. The UK's Interactive Ideas signed up as a region-wide distributor, on top of integrators in France, Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany.

Perhaps more importantly, NEC last month agreed to bundle SpikeSource infrastructure software on NEC server hardware, making SpikeSource NEC's strategic global open-source solution provider. The deal should bring in more ISV partners as well as giving SpikeSource a higher profile and added credibility.

"It's a hard world out there, but they are getting some traction," says Lachal. "It's not just smaller ISVs and VARs, but also bigger ones. Their number-one objective should be to get more high-level partners."

SpikeSource must also focus on getting its message across, following several shifts in its strategy. "They have to keep explaining what they're doing. Some people are puzzled," Lachal says.
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