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Enterprise Open Source Customer Is Listening

It's critical to listen to the customer first and remember - they are listening to us

There's been a lot of pubic discussion recently about what it means to be open. While the OSI has published the Open Source Definition, which lists 10 attributes of what it means to be "open source," commercial entities have emerged that are described as "hybrid" models. Many companies offer a version of a product that's sold under an OSI-approved license and another version under a commercial license. Others sell and support products that meet some but not all of the 10 attributes. These companies purport to be "open" without meeting this strict definition, leading to a spirited debate about what it means to be open in an evolving market.

Meanwhile, commercial open source is clearly coming of age, as was evident by the breadth of successful open companies at this year's OSBC in San Francisco. I exhibited there and can attest to the positive energy and optimism, more than I've seen in a trade show in years. The quality of companies and people both exhibiting and attending was outstanding, with many excellent panel sessions and show floor conversations about how and why open source businesses are succeeding. Open businesses are truly taking the world by storm, making further and further inroads into markets formerly dominated by proprietary alternatives. Consequently, with the stakes increasing, the debate over what it means to be "open" has been raging. Many thought leaders and industry pundits have weighed in, expressing their support of one viewpoint and outrage at the other.

While our debates about definitions rage on, the customer is listening. Not because they care as much about what open source business model a particular vendor uses but because our debates give them reason to be confused by the FUD that's out there.

Listening to Them (the Customer)
When it comes right down to it, being in the software and services business is about delivering customer value. In the universe of open source software, there's certainly been discussion about preventing customer lock-in, for example, but as open source matures and is increasingly considered by CIOs, there's a broad array of practical real-world issues that have to be addressed to both deliver value to the customer and provide the opportunity for vendors to grow their business regardless of where they fall on the "hybrid" spectrum of open source definitions.

As president of the Open Solutions Alliance, I admit it's been difficult to focus solely on customer value the last couple months because of the definitions debate. Multiple members of the OSA have suggested that the OSA "take a stand," and many people have asked for the OSA's position on openness.

The OSA's position on such issues will always be based on what is best for customers looking to adopt open solutions. The Alliance was founded with this principle in mind, and its efforts and activities will always have this pragmatic goal. The OSA is focused on specific initiatives that give us the opportunity to hear directly from customers who have adopted open solutions or considering deployments, and deliver value to their endeavors, specifically around interoperability.

Customer requirements can vary greatly, depending on the industry, IT best practices, type of solution in question, and the skills and know-how required to implement them. Companies that serve different market segments must evolve their business models to meet the requirements of that segment. Some may be more services-intensive, requiring frequent code customization, for example. Others may be strictly regulated in a manner that dictates how licensing and IP is managed. Because open source, especially in the applications space, is still relatively new, we think there's room for experimenting to see what business models are best for customers. For this reason, OSA hasn't limited its membership based on which business models we think are best. We'd rather let customers decide that. Ultimately, successful customer experiences will tell us which business models work best.

What We Hear (from Customers)
So, what do customers want? Several of OSA's members have held CIO councils or met with the CIOs of their customers, and we'll continue to do that in the future. While many of them can be classified as "early adopters" of open source, since all of them use open source products in their organizations, they're also well connected to mainstream audiences that may not have adopted as many Open Source Software (OSS) and solutions as they have. The feedback has been remarkably consistent.

First, business customers often look for evidence of other customers having been successful with a product before buying it. Proprietary vendors do a good job of marketing their success stories, but many open source companies have not, except for the largest ones like Red Hat. Their concern is that the relatively low volume of "proof points" shows that OSS or open solutions are immature, when in fact the opposite is true. These offerings can be very feature-rich and high-quality, but many open source companies don't talk about it. They talk more about the virtues of being open, which may well be true, but don't directly tie to the value that the end customers are trying to extract from these products. Value propositions such as low cost of ownership, supportability, interoperability, and ease of use aren't discussed as frequently.

Interoperability, in particular, is a frequent pain point. No customer purchases just one solution. They frequently buy multiple, and from different vendors, each of which makes independent decisions regarding which standards to adopt and how to implement them. Frequently the customer is left with the cost of making all the moving parts fit together.

Moreover, the challenge of interoperability is broad and multi-faceted. Issues ranging from user management, to UI integration, to consistent management and monitoring approaches, to data integration are equally important. Most customers also have mixed environments, including both open and legacy proprietary assets, and these must work together. Finally, some non-technical issues arise, such as consistent approaches to managing projects involving multiple vendors, and common support SLAs - it doesn't help if one vendor has a 24x7 help desk when the other doesn't. While not technical issues, they represent interoperability issues between different vendors' business practices and can be equally important to customers.

Finally, we frequently ask our customers what they believe it means to be "open" and the answers are fairly consistent. They believe that access to source code is important because this allowed for better customizability and extensibility, and helps prevent lock-in. They also want their licenses to be "clean," meaning vendors should exhibit "truth in advertising" in their licensing practices, and not adopt licenses that get in the way of customers extracting value from the code they adopt. But the most resounding answer we hear is the ability to work with the vendor as a partner in a spirit of give-and-take to resolve a business problem. Some have told us war stories about one-way interactions where proprietary vendors push products on them and never listen to their evolving needs. Most "open" companies, in their experience, instead welcome working together to solve a problem, as well as feedback and guidance on how to improve their offerings. In short, all view "openness" as a means of helping the customer run their business better and not as an end in itself. Consequently, some are bemused at the debate over what it means to be truly "open" and would prefer more focus on how to deliver better customer value, no matter what "hybrid" model they adopt. All feel there isn't enough debate over the best approaches to driving adoption and solving customer problems.

The Real Relevance of "Openness"
So, while open businesses are taking the world by storm, there's more that can be done to achieve greater customer value. What's been missing so far is collaboration among companies to remove the remaining pain points, notably interoperability. This is a hard problem that no one vendor can unilaterally solve by itself, but is exactly the kind of problem that can be solved through the kind of collective action that made open source products successful in the first place. It's this spirit of collective action that we should continue to embrace as we move to the next step of the "open" evolution.

This collaborative spirit lives not just in how source code is managed. What's become apparent through many of my conversations with OSA members and other open vendors is that these aren't just companies that decided to make their source code available (or, for integrators, to work primarily with open source products), but are taking the spirit of openness and collaboration to heart throughout their business practices. Marketing managers frequently talk about the "four Ps" of their offerings, designed to expose products to prospective customers on their terms, not the vendor's. Business development managers talk about their more open and collaborative styles of partnering. Product managers talk about their roadmaps and processes for managing their product requirements over time, designed to incorporate frequent and regular input from customers and other external sources (think of PM as a facilitator, not a dictator, of product requirements). In all cases, there's been a remarkable tone of openness and transparency, a sense of "what you see is what you get," and the confidence that being open and honest in one's dealings (and accepting nothing less than the same in return) would result in happier partners and customers. This is a refreshing change of pace from the often secretive one-way communication of proprietary vendors, and greatly facilitates doing business.

This spirit of openness is the core of what the OSA is all about. It was founded to address systemic issues like interoperability that are best solved collectively, and it's critical that our members operate in an open and collaborative fashion. By choosing to operate this way, we can address some of the toughest challenges in our industry in ways that a proprietary vendor would hardly ever dream of.

Interoperability is a diverse problem, but we also have a diverse membership. Each member claims to have an "itch to scratch" (to borrow a euphemism commonly used to describe why developers contribute to open source projects). The "itch" differs from company to company, but a common theme is that each issue can be solved better through collective effort instead of unilateral initiatives. For management companies, a common "itch" is how to encourage application vendors to expose consistent APIs for administration, management, and monitoring. For business applications, there are several "itches" including data integration, single sign-on, and so forth. For integrators, there's concern over inconsistent support SLAs and inconsistent use of various standards that enable extending and customizing applications. And so forth. But each member looks to the OSA to foster and facilitate working with other like-minded companies to work through their specific issues.

Consequently, although we don't split hairs regarding what "open" models are the best, there's one notion on which we can't compromise. There's a difference between "old guard" proprietary organizations and more open collaborative organizations, not just in terms of how they manage their source code, but how they do business. A company's DNA is either one or the other; they don't mix. This is hard to quantify, but you know it when you see it when interacting with the management. There are typical markers though. Freely available source and "truth in advertising" licensing practices is a good sign, and one prioritized in our Open Solution Definition (http://tinyurl.com/3y5pp7). So is having public forums for customer feedback. Still there are multiple ways a company can deliver value and still be "open" in how it does business. The critical piece for us to remember is to listen to the customer first and remember - they are listening to us.

More Stories By Dominic Sartorio

Dominic Sartorio is president of the Open Solutions Alliance and senior director of product management at SpikeSource.

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