Open source at the business end

Nick Mailer describes why his web-hosting company chose to base its services on open-source software, and the response from business to that decision
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor

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...

...in Perl and do nascent MySQL scripting — going into my Easynet job, I used to read the MySQL manual on the Tube. So we said if people want a stock-control application that runs on the web, we'll do it.

Were you ahead of the game when it came to internet applications?
We thought there was something in it. We decided to host a machine at Clara.net and sub-divide it into 10 or 15 accounts to pay for it. We used the rest of the machine to do our scripting and as a platform for our web applications.

But what happened was that we were so early in the game — doing things like PHP and MySQL, and shell accounts, and having access to your own Kron Tab and that kind of thing. In 1998, most people didn't do that. We suddenly started getting flooded with orders for hosting. So we decided we weren't primarily a scripting company, but rather a hosting company.

And how did you combine your interest in open source with the hosting business?
We knew Linux and free software very well and, at that time, the term 'open source' was starting to be introduced. So we decided we could do one of two things: become a jack of all trades or a master of one. I had been burnt by running a Windows NT network and had seen too many blue screens, so it wasn't out of any puritanical ideology — I had been at the coal-face and didn't like the dust that came off it.

We decided that if people wanted proprietary hosting, for our own sanity we would send them elsewhere. We decided to focus on Linux and open source and become the best at it in the country — that was our hubristic code at the time.

Have you fulfilled some part of that ambition?
We established quite a nice community of Debian and Red Hat certified staff as well as attracting people such as GNU Project founder Richard Stallman, who hosts his site with us.

We have given talks at Debian conferences, we run a Debian mirror, and have helped run the hardware when they are doing testing. It all started working well and we started doing increasing managed servers, failover clusters and that kind of thing — it wasn't just the shared hosting anymore.

Because we got so much experience with the free-software stack, we were able to put things together like full failovers with NAS [network-attached storage], with firewalls — all running on free software and therefore being a lot more flexible but less expensive than the proprietary stack.

But were customers specifically attracted by your open-source infrastructure?
They liked the idea of a system that would stay up. They would say, 'Our host has to reboot every six days — do you think you can do better than that?'. We would get calls like that all the time.

Open source might be a bit rough around the edges, but over the long term it is a more sustainable ecosystem because the proprietary ecosystems, while they have islands of excellence, are a bit like game reserves with lots of fences to stop animals roaming. Open source has almost infinite room to grow without artificial constraints.

What are the downsides of hosting based on open source, compared with proprietary formats?
The biggest problems are the Microsoft technologies in .NET. But Novell has a project called Mono that allows you to run .NET software, and we have one or two companies that are using it quite happily. But as you know with Microsoft, there will be some little proprietary DLL that isn't part of the standard, which people get used to using. So as long as our customers stick to the .NET standard as published they are fine.

If they have already chosen us for hosting, they know the score and what technologies to use. The free software ecosystem is very rich. Look at Facebook, look at Google, Amazon. Those sites are based on free software technology. So if you can build a Facebook or a YouTube using primarily free software, then it is hard to argue that your little e-commerce shop is too powerful to use those things.

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