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As more open source companies get

acquired, questions and tensions are

raised about the use of that software


R Software and co-founder of the original

Apache Web server project, is the kind of
guy who oozes cred in the open source
community. He was lead architect on the HTTP specifi-
cation and described Representational State Transfer—
we know it simply as REST today—as a development
method in his doctoral dissertation eight years ago.
When Fielding joined the OpenSolaris community ad-
visory board in 2005, Sun Microsystems hailed his pres-
ence as a sign of its commitment to open source.The hon-
eymoon ended in February, when Fielding resigned. Sun’s
pledge to give the community authority over OpenSolaris
was “a sham,” Fielding wrote in his letter of resignation.
“They were telling me they wanted a community, like
the one around Apache,” Fielding says in an interview. At
the same time, “they were undermining the OpenSolaris
brand,” by distributing open source code combined with
Sun proprietary code. “There’s no point sitting around
giving advice when Sun’s marketing department will de-
cide what it wants to distribute anyway,” he says.
The discord underscores what can go wrong when
big IT vendors get integrally involved in open source
By C projects or, as has been increasingly the case, buy open
es Bab source companies. Business technology organizations
coc have years of experience watching their key software
startups get snapped up and, in some cases, mutilated,
but the large-scale commercialization of open source
brings a whole new set of challenges.
The timing of Fielding’s departure couldn’t have

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been worse for Sun, which was completing a $1 billion process, open source has become big business. The
acquisition of MySQL AB, developer of the MySQL idea: Develop open source code quickly; make it avail-
open source database. What should businesses using able for free download in hopes of winning early mar-
MySQL expect will change under Sun ownership? ket momentum; rake in some technical support rev-
Nothing changes, asserts Sun CEO Jonathan enues as the code develops an enterprise following;
Schwartz, who by leading the ac- and cash in via an acquisition by a
quisition of MySQL and making deep-pocketed vendor.
the Solaris operating system and When Open Source The movement highlights how
Sun’s Java middleware suite open Is Acquired much has changed from the days
source has bet his job on the idea RISKS when the Apache project was
of a profitable coexistence be- • Weakened developer and user started by a bunch of volunteer de-
tween open source and propri- community relationships velopers who built—and then gave
etary software in the same com- • Leadership walks away away—the world’s best Web server.
pany. Schwartz says he doesn’t • Development moves away from Such contributions still occur, but
open source, toward proprietary
expect former MySQL CEO Mar- products open source projects increasingly
ten Mickos and others from My- • Innovation slows, and long-shot started as a commercial enterprise,
SQL to become obedient Sun em- enhancements have no channel or morph quickly into one. Hy-
ployees. What he really wants is peric, Terracotta, SugarCRM, Mule-
for them to continue cultivating Source, SpringSource, and dozens
• More paid developers working
their communities of open source long-term on project of other open source outfits aimed
developers and users. • Access to larger, enterprise IT at business IT hope to follow in
If they do, Sun will tap into the customer base MySQL’s and JBoss’ footsteps.
thousands of new open source • Project becomes part of larger Nokia acknowledged the open
users who download MySQL each strategic play for new users source momentum in June when
week; it’ll supply technical support it said it would acquire Symbian
to those who have built a major business around it; and for $410 million, then make Symbian’s popular mo-
it will have the chance to sell servers and offer its li- bile operating system available as open source code.
brary of open source Java middleware and tools to the In doing so, Nokia hopes to neutralize a fledgling
same prospects. Rivals such as IBM, Microsoft, and Or- Linux mobile platform and steal a march on Win-
acle already have a broad front of software products in dows Mobile. It also hopes openness will spur cre-
these markets, and embracing open source could give ative application development, giving people new
Sun an opening to be a disruptive force, capitalizing on reasons to buy high-powered phones. Nokia could
its technical expertise while outflanking established have spent more on marketing and sales; instead, it
players for new customers. So far, so good at least on invested in open source code.
one critical front—Sun hasn’t lost any of MySQL’s top
leaders since it completed the acquisition in February. THE RISKS: COMMUNITY LOST
For businesses using open source, the biggest risk
HOW WE GOT HERE in the acquisition of those projects is a weakened com-
Sun isn’t the only big vendor breaking new ground munity, where the core developer relationships fall
with the integration of major open source software apart. One of the biggest business advantages of us-
projects and companies. Same goes for Citrix Sys- ing open source code is the ability to tap into software
tems, which acquired XenSource and the expertise that iterates quickly and transparently, incorporating a
behind the Xen hypervisor for $500 million in Octo- range of new ideas.
ber; Yahoo, which acquired Zimbra and its desktop At its best, open source software provides busi-
application suite for $350 million in October; Oracle, nesses with a fast, low-cost way to deliver something
which bought Sleepycat and its BerkeleyDB embed- the market is ready to try. Charismatic project leaders
ded database for an undisclosed amount in February attract skilled developers, who self-organize into a
2006; and even Linux distributor Red Hat, which ac- fast-moving team motivated by the ability to con-
quired JBoss and its Java application server for $350 tribute to solving a problem. Ross Mason, CTO of
million in June 2006. MuleSource, producer of a lightweight enterprise ser-
Over the past 24 months, a premium has been vice bus used at financial services firms, and Rod
placed on open source code, as it moved from the Johnson, CEO of SpringSource, the lightweight Java
backwater of the enterprise to the mainstream. In the development framework, are two such personalities. Sept. 1, 2008 26

The team attracts outside contributors, users, and re- A related risk to losing or fragmenting the devel-
viewers, who give early feedback that helps the open oper community is losing the open source company’s
source code become a business-ready product. JBoss leadership. Sun so far has retained CEO Mickos, VP
started as such a project under Marc Fleury. for products Zack Urlocker, and other MySQL execs,
At small companies like JBoss, MySQL, Sleepycat, who are among the most experienced at walking the
XenSource, and Zimbra, leaders are in direct contact tightrope between community interest and profitabil-
with users and work personally at building a commu- ity. Mickos walks that line deftly, and Sun executives
nity’s trust. Almost everything happens transparently who want to lead the company in MySQL’s direction
on mailing lists and online discussion forums. When can learn a lot from him, says Fielding, if Sun “thinks
those leaders step inside a much larger company, at of itself as part of the community, not the leader of
least some transparency—and trust—is lost. the community.” Johnson, originator of the Spring
Six weeks after the MySQL acquisition, Sun had Framework and someone who has worked with Sun
what one observer called the dreaded “Slashdot mo- through the Java Community Process, says he has
ment.” On April 16, Sun announced it would launch a been encouraged lately by Sun’s efforts to open up
backup system for MySQL invoking advanced features Solaris and Java. Johnson says he feels “more posi-
including compression and encryption as a commer- tive” about Sun’s ability to produce good open source
cial product for which people would have to pay. The code and relate to open source communities, and
announcement was met with a flame war of protest on about the the potential for the MySQL organization to
the open source discussion board. thrive inside of Sun.
Until this point, all MySQL offerings had been freely Asked in April if he’s concerned about Sun’s acquisi-
downloadable, rather than one free “community” ver- tion of MySQL, Bruce Lowe, owner of Center Stage
sion and a more advanced, feature-rich version for a Software, a maker of show business events software,
price. Having a free and a for-fee version is hardly un- said he tends to believe CEO Schwartz will protect
heard of in open source projects, but it’s a tricky tran- MySQL’s open source integrity. “Better to be acquired
sition when people are hooked on getting the best ver- by Mr. Schwartz than Mr. Ellison,” Lowe said.
sion for free. “For those of you who put your time into
helping MySQL become a great DB, and who must feel WHO WILL LEAD THEM?
like a child kicked in the tummy by mother, my condo- When Oracle acquired Sleepycat, a supplier of tech-
lences,” said commenter Margrave, the day after the nical support for the BerkeleyDB embedded database,
news broke. “Maybe we’ll see a fork.” there was no pretense that Sleepycat would remain in-
If a second open source version of MySQL veered tact. Its salespeople became part of the Oracle sales
off from Sun’s subscription version, such a fork could organization, and its developers joined the larger engi-
divert developer focus, something business users don’t neering staff. Sleepycat CEO Mike Olson, a realistic,
want. Likewise, the community worried that MySQL’s tough-minded team leader and salesman who in many
focus would shift to proprietary additions, rather than ways fits the Oracle culture, became Oracle’s VP of em-
free, open source offerings. Open source companies bedded databases. Olson said in an interview at the
are judged by the developer community in part on how time that he enjoyed working at Oracle. But he left
much of their code they make freely available. Keep right at the two-year mark. Even when all goes well,
the finest bells and whistles for commercial products, open source team leaders, like many an acquired en-
and the risk is that enthusiasm to contribute wanes. trepreneur, don’t stick around big companies for long.
Sun backed off charging for encryption and com- When Red Hat acquired JBoss, JBoss customers
pression. “We listened to the reaction, we’ve had time heaved a sigh of relief that the acquirer wasn’t Oracle,
to reconsider, and that was done,” said Rich Green, reported to have been pursuing JBoss a few weeks
Sun’s executive VP for software, in an interview in May earlier. After all, both JBoss and Red Hat were open
during JavaOne. The enterprise-friendly enhance- source companies. But within months, Fleury, JBoss’
ments were added to the core system instead.
However, it was revealed later that MySQL’s open DIG DEEPER
source founders had planned the same move in VIRTUAL SPRAWL VM growth threatens to turn back
hopes of boosting revenue ahead of an IPO filing. The efficiency gains without strong management. Download this
incident shows that an add-on product that might InformationWeek Analytics Report, free for a limited time, at:
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part of a major vendor.

27 Sept. 1, 2008


outspoken leader, took a “leave of absence.” Soon after, exception that doesn’t necessarily disprove that acqui-
nearly all former JBoss business executives were gone. sitions of small open source companies test the com-
Despite their open source pedigrees, Red Hat and pany-project-community relationships.
JBoss had plenty of differences. JBoss was organized
as a business first and an open source project second. THE ADVANTAGES: SCALE AND ACCESS
Its development ranks weren’t open to all newcomers; There’s another potential advantage to business IT
key contributors were invited to join the company and when open source companies and projects get ac-
asked to sign over ownership of contributed code. quired: The project suddenly gets access to a large en-
Craig Muzilla, Red Hat’s VP of middleware and for- terprise customer base. Sun brings MySQL to its high-
mer senior VP of marketing at Metamatrix, acquired powered client base and can pitch it as part of a larger
by Red Hat 15 months after it bought JBoss, says the strategic picture—MySQL, combined with its Java mid-
JBoss community has benefited from the acquisition dleware and NetBeans open source development
by becoming more open to contributors. “In some re- tools, makes open source code adoption more of a co-
spects, it’s more vibrant,” Muzilla says. “The majority ordinated transition and enterprise cost-saving move.
of contributions come from outside the company now.” While there’s a risk of losing volunteer developers af-
So in Red Hat’s version, an acquisition of an open ter an acquisition, big vendors may be able to bring
source firm by a large company can open up participa- more paid developers to a project, letting them work
tion and improve community ties. If so, Red Hat is the long term on it, and draw new perspective from top-
tier user companies.
All these factors are playing out in Citrix’s acquisi-

Multivendor Xen tion of XenSource, centered on the open source Xen

virtualization project. When Xen, with its roots at
Paints A New Model Cambridge University, showed it had the smarts to vir-
tualize the x86 instruction set, Hewlett-Packard, IBM,

OW THAT CITRIX SYSTEMS owns Xen- Oracle, Sun, and others flocked to the project as a
Source, the lead originator of the Xen hypervisor, ready-built alternative to VMware. IBM, for example,
what code must Citrix give back to the open contributed a designed-in approach to virtual machine
source community, as it pours money into develop- security that some consider superior to measures that
ing proprietary products around Xen? The answer offers clues to VMware has been adding through third parties.
how open source plus proprietary development will coexist. As VMware threatened to dominate the virtualiza-
Xen is open source code distributed under the GPL Ver- tion market, XenSource’s leaders agreed to sell to Cit-
sion 2, which requires a vendor to make its code changes rix, a close Microsoft ally. XenSource on its own had
freely available to customers. That means competitors only been building ties to Microsoft, and after the acquisi-
need buy one copy of, say, Citrix XenServer to examine the tion, the joint work accelerated. Once XenSource was
source code. In effect, all Xen changes in Citrix’s proprietary inside Citrix, one of the first announcements concern-
product will be shared with the community. “We have no fear ing the renamed XenServer hypervisor was that it
of making all the bits available,” says Simon Crosby, CTO of would support the Microsoft virtual machine file for-
the XenSource unit inside Citrix. mat, VHD. (VMware has its own incompatible format.)
The Xen vendor community has “stumbled on a model that Xen continues as an open source project, and Sun
endorses differentiation by all vendors,” he says, while col- and Oracle are producing their own hypervisor soft-
laboration continues on the core Xen hypervisor. The Xen ware based on Xen, something they couldn’t have
project is devoted to “producing the best engine, not the en- done as quickly without an open source option. But
tire car.” Vendors will surround the Xen hypervisor with man- the combination of a Citrix proprietary XenServer and
agement and development tools, and applications for niches Microsoft’s Hyper-V, both sharing a common file for-
such as disaster recovery or energy conservation. mat and managed by Microsoft’s System Center Vir-
When Citrix acquired XenSource, control of the Xen project tual Machine Manager later this year, suddenly looks
went to a new advisory board of the five top contributors plus like a formidable competitor in its own right—perhaps
representatives of Citrix, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Novell, not the outcome other vendors had in mind when they
Red Hat, and Sun. Since then, Xen has moved rapidly to flocked to the Xen project. Says Sun VP Green, “We
achieve parity in many respects with market leader VMware’s always knew somebody would buy XenSource.”
hypervisor, ESX Server. As Xen becomes the basis for more The emergence of an alliance of Hyper-V and
proprietary product sets, it’s likely to evolve faster than any XenServer changes the competitive landscape for
open source effort could on its own. —CHARLES BABCOCK VMware. Under CEO Diane Greene, VMware out-

Sept. 1, 2008 28

flanked Xen, making the low end of VMware’s product

line free just as the enhanced Xen 3.0 became available.
VMware was miles ahead of Microsoft, commanding
the high ground in virtualization en route to $1.3 billion
in revenue last year as businesses raced to virtualize
servers to cut energy, equipment, and space expenses.
Citrix, as a Microsoft ally, has always benefited from
having its code in Windows Server, speeding opera-
tion of its flagship Presentation Manager, while Mi-
crosoft benefits from having an ally that concentrates
on a high-end presentation option on top of Windows
Terminal Services. In April, this partnership was ex-
Crosby goes
tended from application presentation to server and proprietary
desktop virtualization. with XenSource
“The next year is going to be the most interesting
year in virtualization,” predicts Simon Crosby, former mercial distributor has been able to move the operating
XenSource CTO and now CTO of Citrix’s virtualization system forward faster than the kernel developers, who
unit. Gartner put XenSource’s 2007 market share at make their work available to all. XenServer, with the re-
4%, he says, based on less than $10 million in revenue. sources of the Citrix-Microsoft alliance, might be a dif-
In 2008, XenSource will generate $50 million in rev- ferent story, as might other big-vendor-backed projects.
enue and be on a growth path that rivals VMware’s, Crosby promises Citrix will contribute back to the
Crosby says. XenSource has close to 3,000 customers, open source project, but for Xen users, the XenSource
compared with 1,800 at the time of the acquisition. acquisition takes them a step further away from the
The product line fueling that growth won’t be open open source guarantee that they will always be mas-
source Xen but a proprietary Citrix version, Xen- ters of the code. That’s because key supporting prod-
Server, working with Microsoft System Center Virtual ucts will be proprietary. Will they wake up one morn-
Machine Manager in the near future. ing two years from now and find so much has changed
To pull it off, XenSource still must prove it can push that they again face vendor lock-in?
a proprietary product line without invoking the wrath So there you have it. Open source code has gained in
of the open source community. But it has advantages. value over the last two years, and that value is recog-
The Xen hypervisor, produced by XenSource and nized in the high acquisition prices. The open source
other Xen contributors, remains freely available. Xen code, of course, remains freely available, but the code’s
doesn’t have a mass following of open source devel- value withers if there’s no community of independent,
opers or a big following of large-scale users. There are critical users and developers driving it forward, with
open source alternatives—such as KVM, now in the leadership to guide it.
Linux kernel—which likely are more interesting to Some acquirers will seek a return on their huge in-
many open source developers. The Citrix product line vestments by turning the open source into an enhanced
was never free, so there’s not a switch. “enterprise” product line that, in a matter of months,
Crosby is unapologetic about proprietary advantages. creates lock-in no different from proprietary code.
“Strange to say, it’s been easier to work with Microsoft Some will sustain and encourage a community, balanc-
than with some of the members of the open source com- ing the community’s interests with the need to drive
munity,” he says.“They tend to be more surly—not surly, a profits. Some software companies have grown by being
little more difficult to partner with.” Xen, for example, got good at acquiring and integrating startups. They have a
roughed up in the Linux kernel development process new skill to learn in doing that with open source.
when XenSource asked for support in the kernel. For business IT teams, the industry dynamics make
Crosby says the people he’s working with at Microsoft picking the right open source projects all the more dif-
“aren’t the old Microsoft guys. There’s a new generation ficult. The next two years will answer some of the
more interested in reaching out to the community.” questions hanging over this brave new world of acqui-
sition and merger. You’re surely an optimist if you
A RACE TO WATCH think all the answers will reward users in the same
The Photo Group

Can a big vendor like Citrix that takes open source manner as the original Apache project.
code in a proprietary direction stay ahead of the open
source development community? With Linux, no com- Write to Charles Babcock at

30 Sept. 1, 2008