The Secret Sauce of Open Source

In an industry that devours buzzwords for breakfast, it’s amazing that we still use the term “open.” Writing about the myth of open systems a couple years back, we found interoperability, rather than open, was the more attainable goal.

Maybe that’s why today, when people say “open,” they usually mean “open source.”

Credit Linux, with a rags-to-riches story that’s proven almost too good to be true. A frustrated 20-something programmer in Scandinavia starts a clean room UNIX project, embeds it with Woodstock-like communal ideals. And suddenly it’s the emerging corporate standard thanks to bear hugs from incumbents like IBM. Hey, maybe we should get the Farrelly Brothers to pen the screenplay, “There’s Something About Linux.”

While startups once dreamed of becoming the next Microsoft, today many are hoping to become the next Linux or Eclipse. Not surprisingly, open source has become the favorite strategy for vendors seeking (choose one):
(1) Escape from obscurity
(2) Exit strategies for orphaned or end of life products
(3) Market dominance of a platform strategy
(4) Any or all of the above

So what makes an open source strategy successful? We’ve been wondering that as, over the past couple months, three (count ’em) open source projects for developing Enterprise Services Busses (ESBs) have emerged, adding to others already scattered across the landscape.

To date, the most successful open source projects are Linux and the Eclipse Java tools framework, while the most successful open source products are Red Hat (Linux), JBoss (Java appserver), and, with a slightly different development model, MySQL (database).

The common thread? These are technologies that almost every software organization needs, but doesn’t want to spend much time or money worrying about. So you need a large enough potential market and a product or technology you can understand. Maybe Linux was obscure early on, but everybody knew what an OS was and all computers need OSs.

While Linux and Eclipse had good potential numbers, both traveled opposite paths to success: Linux as bottom-up, and Eclipse top-down. Below the radar for so long, Linux encountered little competition. Conversely, Eclipse’s visibility ensured competition, but IBM’s huge presence generated the bounce necessary for building the third party ecosystem that dwarfed Sun’s rival NetBeans.

Which brings us back to the question of whether ESB open source projects are viable. Potentially, the numbers are there, because when services-oriented architectures mature, most organizations will probably need an ESB. But these projects face a huge hurdle: no two vendors yet agree on exactly what an ESB does (we’ll get into that in an upcoming piece).

Maybe one or two ESB open source projects might eventually thrive. At least one will probably be a major platform vendor play like IBM’s Eclipse. The other could prosper from the ground up, but only if the skunkworks efforts now emerging find common ground within the next 12 months. That’s why we’re glad that at least a couple of them – Apache Synapse and ObjectWeb Celtix – are extending peace feelers after early wars of words.