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On Open Source, Declarative Living and Making Better Platform Decisions.

Zimbra is interesting for a host of reasons, not least of which is that anyone can check out the status of bugs in one of the hottest new industry platforms.
 
You might just say: but of course, its open source…
 
I would push back a bit though and say: its one thing to use open source componentry- its quite another to make it so easy to follow the story… Could it be that a transparent declaration of code quality, for that is in effect what Zimbra is providing, is one of the reasons the firm has already picked up an 100k seat enterprise customer?
 
Declarative living means opening up about how you do stuff. In the digital lifestyle space it might be sharing your music preferences. In the enterprise development and production space it might be saying here are the components we used, and how we’re putting them together.
 
Scott Dietzen, on a recent blog, said:
I believe Zimbra makes heavier use of open source software than any messaging solution to date: Linux file system (message store), Apache (server container), MySQL (meta-data), Lucene (search), Postfix (MTA), OpenLDAP (config. data), SpamAssassin (anti-spam), ClamAV (anti-virus), and so on. (Click here for a comprehensive listing.)
Without all of that sweat and toil from our brethren, you would not have heard of Zimbra yet, let alone be reading about its large-scale deployment.
It used to be that software companies would call that kind of information “competitive advantage”. But Scott and Zimbra understand that saying what tools were used to create a software package doesn’t allow someone to replicate the work.
 
Of course you might just say: of course, its open source.
 
Back up a second. Don’t think “yeah right” but rather think about some of the wider implications of this transparency, in terms of making smart technology deployment choices.
 
Lets consider what is happening here. People like Alex Bosworth tell us what Software I Use. Alex is a very a very smart guy, and it makes a great deal of sense to take his advice.
 
Many other world class developers also make clear their platform choices public. There are a number of examples in my delicious declarativeliving tag garden.
 
What if you could roll up all these declarations, and aggregate the wisdom there, to help with platform choices of my own? Its surely only a matter of time before we see some kind of structured blogging initiative for technology platforms. Actually I would like to encourage exactly such an initiative.
 
So people could share, aggregate, read and rank each others IT portfolios.
 
Now you might now be saying don’t be stupid: no enterprise will do that. To which I might reply – its really not so long ago that if I had of told a hot startup would publish data about their current bugs you would say I was out of my mind.
 
Competive advantage doesn’t come from saying, or not saying, what technologies you choose to deploy, but rather from how you deploy them and the processes and customisations (or lack of them) that you put in place. Or maybe this is just a narcissistic view… “its all about me/us”.
 
Which brings me to James McGovern – not that he is a narcissist, but rather he understands the importance of the individual in driving change and creating productive cultures. So James, I have been meaning to say for a while that I am far more interested in the Hartford’s IT portfolio than the shares you hold.
 
I want to see your IT portfolio information made public. Never mind a reference architecture, we want to know about your real architecture. So we can compare it with others, parse it, look for best practice or portfolio overlaps or whatever.
 
Of course some people at the Hartford might want to fire you if you tried to share the information. Its that old chestnut – “competitive advantage”. But it seems to me that if you’re really interested in a future where enterprises regularly contribute to open source projects, then a great first step would be to start making some declarations about what the organisation uses now. If the firm is too cautious to take that step, is it likely to start working with open source developers in earnest?
 
I am not criticising the Hartford here, or other enterprises that want to keep their technology choices close to their chest. I would point out however that in doing so you play into the hands of vendors and folks like Gartner and IDC. This could be the future of IT market research.
 
Vendors and proprietary analyst firms are the ones that would be most affected by a free interchange about the choices enterprise are making, and open aggregation of same. Its not clear to me why enterprises think they benefit from this secrecy. Am I heading into Nick Carr territory here… ;-)
 
One immediate advantage of an open declarative approach, potential system cheating notwithstanding, would be that we could finally start measuring what open source technologies are being used in the enterprise. Trying to work out what technologies are driving business advantage by counting hardware and software licenses just doesnt work any more. Too much technology flies under the central purchasing radar these days… 
 
In order to start counting real market share information then, to get information about Liferay and ServiceMix deployments, say, we will probably need a commitment from enterprises to the kind of transparency we see in open source.
 
Which brings me to mention a RedMonk client – Palamida, a startup predicated on the notion that in order to be comfortable about intellectual property we also need to be transparent out it. You can’t indemnify what you can’t inspect.
 
Why did we win Palamida as a client? At least partly because I was excited about its attempt to drive radical transparency into the development process. Mark Tolliver is doing some good things, making the right partnerships (Eclipse, SpikeSource), for example, but also using engaging narrative-based marketing.
 
Here is the theme: cereal boxes, and other food packaging, include lists of ingredients, which helps us choose whether we want to consume them. I look for organic labels as part of my due diligence in choosing food for my family. So why don’t we do something similar with software? Something like IP Ingredients.
 
There is no Sarbanes-Oxley for software. There might be in future though… so why not get there voluntarily, before we get regulated?
IPIngredients.org is a web site devoted to providing information about the need for and benefits of intellectual property (IP) transparency in the software development process. We want to encourage all software development vendors (corporations/individuals, for-profit/non-profit, and commercial/open source) to actively acknowledge the third-party code and licenses they have in their own code bases. Similar to the idea of requiring food manufacturers to provide consumers with information on ingredients and nutritional information in packaged foods, IPIngredients.org calls for software manufacturers to provide the market with technical and legal information about their code.
I would love to see this kind of transparency extended to the enterprise as well. It would certainly make my job easier, and my competitors harder…
 
The declarative approach to portolio management could potentially kill the Magic Quadrant stone dead. Platform recommendations could be based on a huge sample size of practitioners, rather than the ivory tower opinions of a few consultants?
 
I appreciate you might say “its never going to happen…” but that has never been a reason for something not to happen… as per my comments on software startups above.
 
In the end IT portfolio declarations and associated tag gardening is all about making better technical decisions, edging aside multimillion dollar marketing budgets (including vendor analyst budgets), as barriers to entry. That would seem to be a good thing. What do you think?
 
 
 
 
 

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8 Responses

  1. Interesting stuff James. When I was doing management and strategy stuff at Ovum, one of your clients approached me (and colleagues) to ask if we could help to create some kind of collaborative survey platform which could be shipped out to enterprises, in order to enable them (and other vendors) to get market data without having to work with IDC’s numbers. So I suspect there’s definitely something in what you say – although I think there are some wrinkles. For example, what you suggest would definitely make your job easier! which is nice ;-) But I think you’d have to offer enterprises something of value in exchange for the info you’re talking about. You give the “participation age” response, but given enterprises’ reticence to lower the barriers I think getting the ball rolling would have to about more than just community spirit. What would you offer them?

    Though why listen to me – the MWD blog runs on blogger ;-)

  2. what would we offer them? the possibilties are endless. free short consults for members perhaps. shared IP – things like the compliance oriented architetecture. we’re already doing a lot of sharing.

    offer the enterprise something of value – jesus christ if they could cut the Gartner budget by 10% and make more informed platform decisions – wouldnt that be value?

    i am flabberghasted to have a couple of people ask what the value would be. you think the status quo is proving value? you think enterprises dont waste billions of dollars a year on procurement decisions? you think large vendors dont win against small vendors by buying off “independent consultants”…. what am I, in some weird alternative universe where we like to get screwed by people?

    the best analog is commercial software – i defy ANYONE to tell me that open source software hasnt created massive advantages in technology deployment – even for 100% windows shops.

  3. i enjoyed the post. some reactions –

    – one way we talk about this is that being an “open source” company is about more than the license. that’s a big part of what our 6 promises are all about – http://www.sourcelabs.com/?page=company&sub=customerpromise
    transparency is a key attribute for an open source company. another way to put it is that customers don’t want any “hidden surprises” and that’s one reason why they are willing to do business with small open source startups.

    – one way in which we’re helping to lead is opening up tests and test results. it seems pretty drop-dead obvious that that’s the right thing to do, both for the customer as well as for the vendor.

    – i like what you say about SOx for software. we haven’t put it that explicitly, and i like it.

    – on your piece about “competitive advantage” – i think it’s important to note that more generally competitive advantage in a world based on recurring subscription revenue is becoming more and more about ongoing value delivered to customers, and obviously a key element to that are things like trust. “declarative living” makes a ton of sense in that world, much more so than in the world of “hit and run” multi-million dollar deals that we used to live in (and some vendors still do).

  4. James, what are you on acid or something? ;-)

    I think you are spot on in theory, but the practice of this will be a long time coming… individuals are still catching up on the declarative notions, and I think large enterprises are far behind. Many regard their IT portfolio as a competitive advantage in terms of software assets – they really should regard their IT people, processes, and culture as the advantage but there are yet a lot of managers to convince of that fact.

    I think you are dead on though about the advantages in terms of starting to get more accurate metrics around use of open source, and companies (even competitors) should see the advantages of being able to collaborate (even collude) to have vendors cater better to their industry needs. There are some obvious cases like compliance…

    But I do think enterprises are open to disclosing these if only semi-publicly to analyst firms in exchange for market analysis. This isn’t quite the public declaration you are asking for, but would start to open the doors. You are also correct that holding these cards close is part of what lets the big firms control information – it’s a competitive disadvantage to have to depend on their opinions to make platform decisions.

    You also know you are doing something right if you cause controversy! Nice post

  5. James-

    Great post. Clearly, transparency is a core value of Zimbra and it makes it a lot easier for technology partners, customers and channel partners to know what we are up to and how they can get involved. I love the idea of encouraging transparency of vendors and IT choices. It makes it easier for partners and vendors to know how to add value for an organization. For example, if people know that a company is using Salesforce or Web Side Story it is easier for partners and vendors to make very specific recommendations to help the company maximize the value of their investment.

    -jr

  6. Hmmm. James you know very well that we would be more than willing to tell others what software we run and even how it performs but the constraint is not the large enterprise but the small software company who doesn’t want their benchmark information floating around in the blogosphere unmanaged.

    If you could convince your software vendor clients to allow us to be more open, then we will be more willing to share…



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