Can Open Source Make You a New Tycoon?


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I get about a hundred press announcements and story pitches a day. I give each one a glance and make a quick save or delete decision. One caught my eye recently: “Drupal, Open Source, and Jobs.” As I was reaching for the DEL key, I hesitated. Jobs and employment are in the news daily. The subject line was tantalizing and led to some interesting conversations with senior executives who provide Drupal services: Ron Huber, president of Achieve Internet, and Ben Finklea, CEO of the Drupal SEO company Volacci Corp. I wondered, could open source software (OSS) really help turn around the economy or enrich your career?

Saving money by doing more with less is a recurring theme in our personal and work lives. Living in Washington D.C., I am keenly aware of this. I saw widespread damage to landmarks such as the Washington Monument caused by a surprise earthquake, while a more predictable catastrophe of larger proportion may be looming in the 2013 federal budget cuts. Could OSS help with that? Is there something more than the price tag that is increasing the mindshare for OSS? Is OSS becoming another new normal? After all, the software systems many of us use—Google Chrome, WordPress, OpenOffice, even Alfresco (Community Edition)—are open source and completely free. These and a host of other client and enterprise OSS applications are gaining widespread adoption.

These products usually offer cost savings, provide needed features, are easy to use and readily available, and they are often high-quality. There is also safety in numbers. The more people who use a product of any kind, the more likely there is to be a range of support, informally, through discussion groups or as a paid support service. I call that the “million eyeballs effect,” where the wisdom of the crowds provides a benign Darwinian effect. Finklea described it to me this way: “The price for a solution goes down as the community gets bigger. One company with complex needs starts with a partial solution—say, Drupal—builds the tools and features that meet their specific need, and then releases it back to the community.” Over time, the product attracts others who critique it, add new features, or help fix bugs, and the product is iteratively improved. Finklea says, “It’s quality. It’s quick. It’s cheap.”

Cheap, but in the case of complex enterprise software, it is not free. This should come as no surprise. Life cycle tasks from needs analysis to deployment transcend both OSS and vendor products. Managing information is a discipline, not a tool. To help with the discipline side, open source methodologies themselves are emerging, such as MIKE2.0 for information management.

What can go wrong in an open source project? Plenty, as with any enterprise-class initiative. Huber’s firm provides Drupal development support for those who need it, and he believes “Drupal is more of a developer’s tool than a ‘free out of the box’ platform, and its capabilities cannot be fully harnessed out of the box. Here’s an analogy: In the history of the world a hammer has never built a house without a carpenter, and everyone knows you don’t ask the guy hammering the nails to architect the high-rise.”

So will open source software take over the world? I’m not giving up my Windows laptop anytime soon even while I run certain open source tools on it. I am familiar with Windows; the product is greatly improved with each new release, and I am “locked into” Windows due to my investment in other software that runs on it. Vendor solutions will continue to compete and improve—providing better choices for everyone. Huber notes, “Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and Salesforce are all spending enormous amounts of money in R&D and marketing. OSS is making inroads into their markets, however, without the profits generated by proprietary solutions, it is difficult to unseat the current vendor regardless of costs. It is going to take time and many successful projects to break the barrier.”

Drupal’s founder, Dries Buytaert, has now moved on to create another startup, Acquia, providing Drupal consulting and related services. Buytaert apparently grew restless and wanted to repeat his success, this time providing support to Drupal users. Drupal is becoming widely used on federal sites, with familiar names such as WhiteHouse.gov and Energy.gov. Alfresco Software, Inc.—integrated with Drupal—lists the U.S. Army and the Department of Health and Human Services among its clients. Not everyone gets to be an open source tycoon like Buytaert, but if you can save your organization money with open source, you can at least be a hero. Opposing views? Let me know.