Businesses in the market for open source software can learn a lot from Google, according to Mike Olson, the outspoken president and CEO of open source software mainstay SleepyCat Software Inc.
Olson believes Google is a master at using open source software in conjunction with proprietary services to maximize profits. And, he adds, Google's creative approach can be adapted by any company interested in using open source to enhance the bottom line.
In this SearchOpenSource.com interview, Olson talks more about Google's profitable approach and offers some insight into the maturing attitudes toward open source. He also reveals what he believes to be the "real value" of the open source methodology, and explains why he thinks proprietary firms like Microsoft and Oracle have trouble building viable communities.
You've been in this business a long time. How can potential buyers of open source software make sure they get the best deal from open source vendors?
Mike Olson: Whether you're dealing with a salesperson or not, I think the fundamental thing to bear in mind is that open source isn't some magic pixie dust that just makes products great. It's not a business model by itself. It is a tool that companies can use to leverage popular projects and put them into production in profitable and useful ways.
If you want to talk about open source businesses, I would say some of the most successful you wouldn't think of as open source businesses at all. Google is a great example. They built out their entire infrastructure on open source platforms [including] Linux and Apache and publicly available software of that sort. They built a bunch of proprietary infrastructure and services on top of that, but they use open source in their operations to build and deliver value to their customers. I think that any business operating today that's got any IT infrastructure at all should be looking at open source in the same way. [They should look at it as a way to] lower their platform costs and to get good software that they can deploy quickly and cheaply.
Any other general advice for open source buyers?
Olson: In general, I think that buyers should expect open source software to be as good as the proprietary software that they're otherwise considering. A few years ago, you heard open source executives say that open source software is "good enough." I don't think you're really going to hear that message much any more and I don't really think that good enough is good enough. Customers who are considering bringing in open source shouldn't bring it in simply because it's open source. They should bring it in because it's the best solution for the problem that they've got.
What's new at SleepyCat?
Olson: The end of the year is a busy release time for us so we've just released a new version of our Java product, and our XML and core product -- that is our Berkeley DB [database management system] product -- is coming out now. None of these are dramatic new feature releases. We're rolling out performance enhancements and customer-requested features.
SleepyCat recently added some functionality to its XML product. Could you give me a quick run down of those enhancements?
Olson: The XML product has recently had some pretty significant new features added including support for the XQuery standard and better performance and scalability for [managing] large documents. That stuff was all directly a response to the demands of content management sites that were rolling the software out. [Our XML product] is relatively young -- it's only a couple of years old compared to our ten-year-old core product -- and the adoption that we're getting there is really driving this thing forward.
We're here at the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC), a show which you've attended a couple of times in the past. How has this conference changed over time in terms of people's attitudes toward open source?
Olson: It's a dramatically different conference. For one thing, open source business models are much better understood now than they were a year and-a-half ago. Investors get it, entrepreneurs get it and there are lots of new businesses starting up. Lots of mergers and acquisitions of open source businesses have happened in the last year and that's gotten the market a lot more comfortable with the model. So, there's a lot less discussion required of what it takes to be an open source business and how you can monetize open source software.
There are CIOs and buyers from big companies who are showing up on the panels to challenge the open source businesses with their requirements. Rather than the open source executives speaking to each other about how to build a business, now we're hearing from customers. That's a pretty dramatic change.
A representative from Microsoft spoke at OSBC and suggested that open source may not be as open as people think. What's your response to that?
Olson: To the extent that people say open source is too anarchic, my response is yes, but that is just a business problem. If you don't want the latest version of the Linux server from Fedora, you go get it from Red Hat at defined intervals. That is the service that Red Hat is providing. It's very much like the service that Oracle and Microsoft provide to their customers by making regular releases of their software. The problem is that if you're dealing with big established proprietary vendors like Oracle and Microsoft, you as a customer have no visibility whatever into the middle of that 18-month development cycle. If you're an innovator or an enthusiast who wants to build on the latest technology from those companies, you've got to wait a long time.
What's really interesting about open source companies is not particularly the fact that we give away our source code. It's not the source code that's magic here. What I think is real impressive is the community and the value of that community. Projects like Berkeley DB, commercial product like MySQL and less commercial stuff like Apache have attracted a whole bunch of people who care passionately and contribute in lots of different ways.
Can proprietary vendors boast about similar passion from their uses?
Olson: It used to be that if you were a proprietary vendor, you would have partner programs that people would join. There was a club you had to pay money to be in to get access to the software and enhancements. That was an early kind of community, but it wasn't nearly free or open enough. It didn't draw enough people in. It only drew in people who were greedy enough -- who saw the commercial benefits -- to pay money to get in. What open source community is about is not just attracting people with money but also the guys who are really passionate [but may have fewer resources].
If Microsoft, if Oracle, if any proprietary vendor can find a way to get that kind of enthusiasm around its proprietary products, I think they can be as big and successful as open source. What we haven't seen is any evidence that they can do that.