Open Source Software: The Community Model in 2021

January 25, 2021

I read “Why I Wouldn’t Invest in Open-Source Companies, Even Though I Ran One.” I became interested in open source search when I was assembling the first of three editions of Enterprise Search Report in the early 2000s. I debated whether to include Compass Search, the precursor to Shay Branon’s Elasticsearch reprise. Over the years, I have kept my eye on open source search and retrieval. I prepared a report for an the outfit IDC, which happily published sections of the document and offering my write ups for $3,000 on Amazon. Too bad IDC had no agreement with me, managers who made Daffy Duck look like a model for MBAs, and a keen desire to find a buyer. Ah, the book still resides on one of my back of drives, and it contains a run down of where open source was getting traction. I wrote the report in 2011 before getting the shaft-a-rama from a mid tier consulting firm. Great experience!

The report included a few nuggets which in 2011 not many experts in enterprise search recognized; for instance:

  1. Large companies were early and enthusiastic adopters of open source search; for example Lucene. Why? Reduce costs and get out of the crazy environment which put Fast Search & Transfer-type executives in prison for violating some rules and regulations. The phrase I heard in some of my interviews was, “We want to get out of the proprietary software handcuffs.” Plus big outfits had plenty of information technology resources to throw at balky open source software.
  2. Developers saw open source in general and contributing to open source information retrieval projects as a really super duper way to get hired. For example, IBM — an early enthusiast for a search system which mostly worked — used the committers as feedstock. The practice became popular among other outfits as well.
  3. Venture outfits stuffed with oh-so-technical MBAs realized that consulting services could be wrapped around free software. Sure, there were legal niceties in the open source licenses, but these were not a big deal when Silicon Valley super lawyers were just a text message away.

There were other findings as well, including the initiatives underway to embed open source search, content processing, and related functions into commercial products. Attivio (formed by former super star managers from Fast Search & Transfer), Lucid Works, IBM, and other bright lights adopted open source software to [a] reduce costs, [b] eliminate the R&D required to implement certain new features, and [c] develop expensive, proprietary components, training, and services.

In case you did not know, value-added services and proprietary generate the big bucks in search, not the license fees. Palantir Technologies, uses open source software, and almost mandatory on site engineers and consultants. Why? That’s the bestest way ever to create 21st century lock in. The approach appears to be working. “Appears” is an operative word.

Now back to the essay, which contains a list of some open source software business models; to wit:

  • Open-Core: The company open-sources a slimmed-down version of its product and sells a fully-featured “enterprise version” on top (e.g., Kafka/Confluent or Docker/Docker EE)
  • Hosted Version: The company offers a fully managed hosted version of its product ( e.g., MongoDB or Grafana)
  • Support & Consultancy:  The company offers support and consultancy services around its open-source product (e.g., Elastic or MongoDB)

The best part of the write up is, in my opinion, this statement:

Each of these models come with inherent conflicts of interest.

I want to point out that the outlook for certain popular open source software — for instance, Lucene/Solr — is likely to follow the path Amazon has taken with Elasticsearch.

What do I make of this open source thing? It was great while it lasted. But software is moving on. Remember, please, that the cloud giants want customers to forget about software and think about the bigger picture: No code, snap together solutions, and subscriptions for the right to pay for engineering and consulting services.

Stephen E Arnold, January 25, 2021


One Response to “Open Source Software: The Community Model in 2021”

  1. richbet on February 6th, 2021 7:45 am

    nice and good article , issu
    tanks for post

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