As open source software has gained more widespread adoption among businesses, that sector of the software ecosystem has itself become more commercialised.
If they are to adopt a given system, businesses need to know that it will be supported and developed in future, and these assurances, it can be argued, can only come from a commercial organisation. As a result, the advance of open source in business is now partly linked to the viability of commercial open source vendors.
The success of open source systems vendor Red Hat, for example, which maintained double-digit revenue growth throughout the recent downturn, has added a degree of legitimacy to the field. Meanwhile, Oracle’s treatment of MySQL – the company associated with the open source database system of the same name that it acquired as part of Sun Microsystems this year – is expected to be a defining influence.
Another open source company attracting mainstream attention is Canonical. Founded in 2004 by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth and headquartered in London, the company develops and sells support for the Ubuntu distribution of the Linux operating system. The privately held company took revenues in the region of $30 million last year, according to some reports.
The desktop version of Ubuntu is the most popular desktop Linux distribution in the world, with some estimates assigning it a 50% ‘market’ share.
Steve George, director of corporate services at Canonical, attributes this to the distribution’s usability and ease of installation. “Ubuntu has specific characteristics that are attractive, predominantly that it is a good balance between being easy to use and being secure and stable,” he says. “We aim to have the best defaults in place, so you can get up and running immediately – you don’t have to spend a lot of time forming it into the most obvious configuration.”
Now the company has its sights on the enterprise market, where the cost profile of open source software is winning converts. “Enterprises are looking carefully at their budget and thinking about the ways in which they can make it go further,” says George. “Open source is a way in which that can happen, both in terms of the initial cost of ownership and ongoing costs.”
In the enterprise space, it is the server version of Ubuntu that is most likely to find adoption. Although it has launched a strategy to target small businesses, it is in the corporate data centre that Ubuntu Server Edition has gained the most traction, often in virtualised, ‘cloud-like’ environments, George says, where the complexity of licensing traditional software can constrain the scalability that is technologically possible.
The public cloud also features in Canonical’s strategy – in October 2009, the company announced the interoperability of Ubuntu Server Edition with Amazon’s EC2 cloud offering.
However, George expects the move to mainstream public cloud adoption to be a gradual one. “Most of the organisations I talk to want to run [Ubuntu] on their own private infrastructure, but over time I expect that this will move to hybrid clouds as people get more comfortable with the technology. Then, in the long term, they may be happy to run on something like Amazon’s public cloud,” he says.
As George acknowledges, these moves necessitate an enterprise-grade support offering. “Pure technology is not something that enterprises are going to deploy. Even if it’s the best technology in the world, they need these things in order to fit it into their existing environment,” explains George. “They need the support and the reassurance.”
At the same time, however, Ubuntu’s lifeblood is its legion of volunteer developers, who are constantly examining and prodding at the operating system’s internal organs, making their own corrections, modifications and improvements, and sharing them on Internet forums and communities. “They are absolutely critical,” explains George. “There are 300 employees at Canonical – there’s no way we could take Ubuntu out to the world without the community,” George explains.
As a result, maintaining the interest of these communities is essential to the future of both Canonical and Ubuntu. “People are looking at what we’re doing and they’re taking part, but they can also feel ownership of the project,” he believes. “No open source project wants to lose its community: it’s important that you keep them involved and onside with what you’re doing.”
The key challenge for Canonical, and for all commercial open source companies, is to become industrialised and ‘corporate’ enough for enterprise customers without deterring the community. Their ability to do this will dictate the long-term viability of open source software – in its current incarnation – within business.