Should you pay or should you go for free open source software?

Open source software is free, but many businesses are happy to pay for support. This model tends not to scale well, however, making wider deployment expensive. We weigh up the options

While businesses generally take out an enterprise agreement for the provision and support of open source software products, such software is available for nothing. However, avoiding the associated distribution fees means all the work a provider would normally undertake on a user’s behalf would need to be done in-house.

At a recent open source conference, the limitations of the licensing models used by commercial open source distribution – or distro – providers was discussed.

In a session at the Cloud Foundry Summit in Basel, Rachael Wonnacott, platform-as-a-service (PaaS) engineer at Fidelity International, described how a swell in the company’s use of Cloud Foundry meant extending its commercial Cloud Foundry licence would have been very expensive.

It was already paying over £1m in licensing costs to provide a PaaS based on a commercial Cloud Foundry distribution to support 40 applications. As adoption of the internal PaaS increased and more applications were written using the cloud-based platform, the company found that licensing costs were rising uncontrollably.

To regain control, the company decided to use the free open source Cloud Foundry code available on GitHub to build and run its internal PaaS, taking on all the tasks normally handled by an open source distro provider.

There is a cost involved in doing this, in terms of having the people with the right skills internally, but Fidelity International was able to manage the internal PaaS and keep the Cloud Foundry software fully patched with just 10 people, and it did not need to expand the team to support the infrastructure. Unlike a commercial distribution, as use of the open source-based PaaS grew, running costs stayed the same.

The economics of distros

Distro providers are part of a wider community of contributors. At Cloud Foundry, they help to maintain the so-called “upstream” code that makes up the open source Cloud Foundry software.

Chip Childers, chief technology officer at Cloud Foundry Foundation, said one of its responsibilities as a foundation was to ensure the economic activity around Cloud Foundry remained sustainable.

For Childers, this means users are able to gain value out of the software; suppliers have happy, paying customers; systems integrators and independent software suppliers with tangential capabilities are able to commercialise these; and everyone continues to invest in the continued development of the upstream open source code.

In the context of enterprise IT, distro providers act as the middlemen between the open source user and the open source community. “There are bi-weekly updates of Cloud Foundry. Some distro providers stream these updates into the enterprise,” Childers added.

Explaining the challenging business model facing those that charge a fee for providing and supporting otherwise free open source software, Bryan Betts, an analyst at Freeform Dynamics, said: “There’s always going to be a role for distribution – not everyone has the skills or wants to run their own infrastructure.

“What’s kind of broken here is any model that primarily relies on software licences for long-term revenue. What’s evolving is the opportunity for users to use commercial distros as a vehicle for building experience and confidence, then switching if it makes business sense. Licence revenue is still there, but it shifts to the medium term.”

One way the distro providers have been helping the user community, according to Childers, is by serving as a buffer between the user and all the changes and projects occurring in open source. As an example, he said the pace of change in Cloud Foundry was exploding, but many of these projects were immature and not ready for enterprise adoption.

“The ecosystem provides a curated platform and constantly evaluates the larger Cloud Foundry,” he added.

Some users see distros as a way of getting improvements to the open source code they use. For instance, it is not uncommon for enterprises to work closely with their open source distro provider to help to steer the inclusion of new features in the open source code they have deployed.

An open source mindset

While a distro provider enables IT departments to buy open source software in the same way that commercial software is purchased, the two are very different.

The beauty of the open source model is that the software itself can be freely downloaded from a repository like GitHub and used free of charge. Unlike commercial software, users are not charged a licence fee for usage or for the volume of instances of the software they deploy. Instead, distro providers make money by charging for support and maintenance. The larger the deployment, the higher the annual charge.

What the Fidelity International example shows is that distro service fees lead to unpredictable costs when applied to cloud-native computing. Fidelity’s goal in deploying Cloud Foundry to support an internal PaaS was to increase the use of the cloud-based platform – the more applications that use it, the further it can move towards its cloud-native vision.

Read more about enterprise open source

There are risks for any organisation considering using free open source software without the support and maintenance a distro provider offers. Having run a commercial distribution for a number of years, Fidelity felt it had gained the expertise to manage updates and patches to the open source Cloud Foundry code itself.

Given that distros are often sold like a commercial software licence, by charging based on the size of the deployment, it is easy for people to forget what open source code actually represents. It is a community effort.

Cloud Foundry has input from more than 350 full-time employees, spread across the main companies that contribute code and work on enhancing and fixing problems in the software. But they do not work alone, and enterprises are being encouraged to participate.

“If you are using open source, you should be giving back to the community,” said Abby Kearns, executive director at the Cloud Foundry Foundation.

“There are a lot of legal hurdles for heavily regulated enterprises to overcome if they want their developers to contribute to an open source project, but it can be done”
Abby Kearns, Cloud Foundry Foundation

Kearns recognises the challenges enterprises face when trying to participate in the open source community. “There are a lot of legal hurdles for heavily regulated enterprises to overcome if they want their developers to contribute to an open source project, but it can be done, and I believe it is absolutely necessary for these organisations to find a pathway to do this as they use more open source software and share more of the software they develop,” she said.

“It’s challenging for legal departments in large companies with a lot of proprietary products. Owning intellectual property has a ton of business value, so these companies must find a way to differentiate between their proprietary software, for example, and the code they contribute to open source.”

Kearns acknowledges that there is a fear among enterprises that they could be sued if someone misuses the open source project to which they have contributed, as they are unable to exert the same kind of control over it as they do over software developed in-house from the ground up.

“I understand that fear, but open source software governance and contribution models are purpose-built to alleviate this. In addition, they are far more likely to be successful long term if they find a way to engage with the shared R&D model that has made open source the standard delivery method for software,” she said.

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