Open Source Software: All or Nothing at All?

Over the past year or so, there’s been a lot of discussion in open source software circles around so-called open core software business models, in which the “core” of a product is freely available under an open source license, typically with a “community edition” label, while some amount of features are withheld from the free version and made available in one or more proprietary licensed “enterprise editions.”che.jpg

The specific features that an open core vendor holds back depend on the product, but the typical definition is that if you’re an enterprise running the application in a production setting, you’ll want the enterprise edition.

The open core vendors say, more or less, “We believe in the value of open source, but this code doesn’t write itself, and we’re trying to make some money here. This open core deal is our game plan for paying our costs and making that money.”

The open core detractors say, more or less, “Part-way open source isn’t open source at all. You’re enticing customers with open source branding, only to pull a bait and switch with your lame crippleware.”

Now, I’m a pretty big fan of open source software — I can’t tell you off hand how the system I’m running scores on the Virtual Richard M. Stallman test (there doesn’t appear to be a vrms package available for Fedora 13), but with the exception of some codecs, hardware driver blobs, and Web-based applications, my home and work computers run open source software, from the core to the edge.

And not only am I a fan of the software itself, but I’m a fan of the open source model. I think it’s a great way to get things done. Openness means that a solution to the problem at hand could come from anywhere. For instance, I don’t know who’s responsible for writing the drivers that have turned the Linux-incompatible multifunction printer I bought four years ago (foolishly, without researching it first) into a Linux-compatible MFP, but since the Web site of my printer’s maker remains silent on Linux support, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t them.

It’s due in part to that open source fandom, and part to the enterprise products focus that comes with working for eWEEK so long that I have a tough time getting upset at the open core vendors. Enterprise software can be very cool, but very expensive. In nearly all cases, enterprise applications could be of use to many more organizations than can afford to buy them. The applications that have been popping up under open core licensing schemes have the promise of expanding access to worthwhile enterprise technologies to many more organizations.

Now, if the community version of an application doesn’t do everything that the enterprise edition does, does that make the community option “crippleware?” I’d say that depends on what you’re looking to do with the software.

Several months ago I reviewed an open core application, Talend Open Studio, which I’ve since used in a couple of small projects–for which, incidentally, my budget was zero. Call it crippleware if you like, but it worked for me.

There’s nothing strange about any open source software company presenting customers with the “free for enthusiasts, developers or small projects, but if you’re using it in production, you’re really going to want to get the paid version” line of marketing. Isn’t that exactly how Red Hat’s sales pitch goes?

I don’t mean to equate Red Hat with these open core vendors–the fact that Red Hat makes all of its works available under a free software license, thereby opening the door for clone challengers like CentOS and Oracle Unbreakable Linux, is a major differentiator, and a big reason why Red Hat looms so large in the industry.

The bigger reason why Red Hat looms large is that Red Hat’s software solves organizations’ problems, and this is the best way to judge the open core vendors. Is the community edition too crippled to be useful? Then I won’t use it, and I won’t recommend it. It’s not as though there’s a shortage of lousy, overpromise/underdeliver software out there.

As long as the software that an open core vendor labels as open source is indeed open source, I don’t have a problem with open core. My rule of thumb for whether something is open source goes something like this: “if I can’t fork your code into a new product and compete with you, it isn’t open.”

Particularly in product classes where there’s no inexpensive or open source option at all, an offering that combines an open core with an optional closed crust is certainly better than nothing. At best, this software can put enterprise technologies within reach for more organizations.

At worst, we can all ignore it.