ebizQ's OSS Taxonomy: Understanding Free vs. Open

With most software used in your corporation or organization, you deal with one legal entity that develops, distributes and supports the software. And typically you pay for it by securing a license of some type from that legal entity. Not the case with the open source software (OSS) movement. By its very nature, the structure of the OSS community and its intertwined business model looks like a piece of pre-Y2K spaghetti code.

To understand OSS' culture and its possibilities to help your company or organization better manage your information technology (IT) needs, users should look at three aspects of OSS:

  • Is the software really free and open, or just open (or just free)?
  • How are the roles parceled out among specific OSS developers, the organization responsible for developing and distributing a specific code set, and the sponsoring commercial organization if any?
  • What does the software really do?

For starters, the OSS community dances on the head of a pin explaining the differences between open and free. There are two different organizations working somewhat at cross purposes to explain the difference between the two terms. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has declared itself a social movement and is rapidly moving to a position that all technology-based intellectual property (IP), not just software, should be as free as air. Through a pseudo-subsidiary, FSF offers some important Linux operating system utilities but the FSF is more important for the legal work it has done to support its "free as air" concept for IP. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) does not insist on the socialistic agenda of the FSF or the FSF's singular legal approach. It agrees with most users and most providers of OSS that multiple legal approaches are OK as long as the basic principles of the code being available in source format for revision and redistribution without constraint are honored.

The OSI has 10 principles that go into more detail and the FSF has 20 years of manifestos that do the same but I think the preceding paragraph sums up the difference between open and free best. As for "just free," one thing both the OSI and FSF agree on is screening out freeware masquerading as OSS. Freeware is sample software, try-it-you'll-like-it downloads typically from one commercial company with no associated development community and no ability to see or revise its source. From the user perspective, there is nothing wrong with getting something free but just be careful of marketing ploys that claim freeware to be OSS if the basic OSS principles are what you are interested in.

Many products fall into a hybrid category of OSS and proprietary (or OSS and freeware). The OSI contends that you can't tangle up OSS and proprietary software and still call it OSS, even if it's free. In such examples,a large portion of the software is free and distributable under the GNU General Public License v2 or some equivalent and the rest is one way the commercial backer makes its money.

As for the difference among developers and commercial backers, only a few recognizable OSS projects have no commercial backer. On the other hand, analysts estimate that there are thousands of OSS projects and only a small percentage get to the point where they are either productized or receive commercial backing. The attached table compares the two and gives some well known examples. Hoping to clarify the third subject-functionality-the table also illustrates OSS in terms of the major types of software: applications, database, middleware, tools and operating system related. Note that the table we use in ebizQ.net's research into OSS is actually an Excel file running to over one hundred rows and growing daily.

The first column lists some well known OSS "projects," including the members of the LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL and the three "P" development tools. Each is supported by a community, as shown in the second column. Most often, these are employees of classic IT suppliers such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard but there are also tens of thousands of independent contributors that probably use the software in their work and spend some non-work hours improving it.

Those OSS projects (less that 10% of the total) that take on a product like look and feel need to be available via some "open" license, as described above. Then typically but not always, one or more companies productize the "open" code and supply for-fee support and services. Many also employ a "benevolent dictator" for the community related to "their" product; the Community and the Commercial Backer are usually linked loosely or tightly. Examples are provided in the third column of the tables.

OSS "Code" Community Commercial Backing
Description Few OSS “products,” less than 10%, are actually productized in the commercial sense of that word (distribution means are even often an issue) Those OSS projects that take on a product like look and feel need to be available via some “open” license, of which there are multiple major types. Typically but not always, one or more companies productize the “open” code and supply for-fee support and services. Many also employ a “benevolent dictator” for the community related to “their” product; the Community and the Commercial Backer are usually linked loosely or tightly
Application Examples Compiere ERP Partners mostly Compiere
OpenOffice Openoffice.org Sun
SugarCRM Sugarforge.org SugarCRM
Database Examples Berkeley DB University of Calif See SleepyCat below
MySQL DB "Captive" community MySQL
PostgreSQL DB PostgreSQL.org Many sponsors (e.g., marketed as EnterpriseDB)
SleepyCat DB Berkeley DB derivative Oracle
Middleware Examples Apache HTTP Apache.org Covalent and many others
ActiveMQ MOM Apache.org Iona/Logicblaze (where it is marketed as Fuse) but also others
Geronimo AS Apache.org IBM (where it is marketed as the WebSphere Community Edition) and others
JBoss middleware Jboss.org Red Hat
Mozilla portal Mozilla Foundation Mozilla Corp.
Tomcat AS Apache.org Incorporated in many companies' middleware
Tools Examples Eclipse IDE Eclipse.org IBM
GNU Utilities Gnu.org Incorporated in many companies' operating software distribution
Perl Perl Foundation Incorporated in many companies' operating software distribution
PHP Zend Technologies
Python Python Foundation Zope was a founding member; Google is a major participant
Spring Interface 21
Operating System Examples Debian GNU/Linux Debian Project packages (not productizes) Linux kernel plus GNU and over 15,000 other pieces of code Many outlets (e.g., Canonical takes Debian and turns it into Ubuntu)
Fedora Core Fedoraproject.org Red Hat
Linux operating system kernel Linux Foundation Incorporated in many companies' operating software distribution
openSUSE openSUSE Project Novell
Xen virtualization software Xen Community Xensource

The types of OSS that are incorporated in many companies' middleware or operating software distributions can be considered the purest. But there is not user advantage in purity; you need whatever it takes to get the job done. Even the communities related to the purest of the pure-Python, Apache, GNU, and so forth-are heavily supported financially and with in-kind contributions by the leading IT suppliers that use the popular OSS code sets. Other OSS software has a Byzantine history. For example, Mozilla is OSS portal code worked on by the Mozilla Foundation backed by the Mozilla Corporation; Mozilla in turn was originally spun out of AOL/Netscape. It is really the original Netscape browser made famous in the 1990s browser wars.

The Linux operating system kernel comes initially from the Linux Foundation, which in turn is sponsored by H-P, IBM, Novell and others, and eventually ends up in almost every other type of packaged OSS As for something more convoluted but not unusual: the SleepyCat OSS database project is really a derivative of the Berkeley database that forked out of UNIX at System V time but the community is now backed by Oracle, which purchased SleepyCat in 2006.
Finally, as with all software, it's important to understand clearly what the code does before you begin experimenting. There's a tendency in the press to lump operating systems and content management with ERP and development tools if the software has the OSS buzzword associated with it. In addition, further confusing the melding message pushed by the press (and picking up another important emerging IT trend), many OSS distributions are virtualized. An entire stack, from the application to Linux, is all there ready to load and run.

About the Author

Dennis Byron brings three decades of analyst experience to his role as ebizQ's Community Manager for Improving Business Processes. This community covers Business Process Management (BPM), Process Modeling, Process Analysis, and Business Alert Monitoring (BAM), among other topics.

As Community Manager, Byron will blog and podcast to keep the ebizQ community fully informed on the latest news and breakthroughs relevant to enterprise BPM. Byron will be responsible for bringing you breaking news on BPM daily, writing feature articles and sourcing content from other analysts, industry associations and vendors for publication on ebizQ. Finally, each week, Byron will compile the most important news and views in an e-mail newsletter for ebizQ's ever-growing BPM community.

Byron is ideally suited to the job, as he has researched and analyzed all areas of IT and information-systems use for the past 30 years. Byron looks at BPM market dynamics backed up by facts, while taking into account the perspective of the IT and business person. He is a frequent speaker and moderator on business processes, which will also be one of his roles as Community Manager.

Byron was the ERP and Middleware Analyst with the Datapro division of McGraw-Hill and IDC from 1991 to 2006. In these roles, he was the primary analyst for Business Process Management. He has conducted over 500 specific information-systems case studies. He has contributed to Application Development Trends, IT Business Edge, Research 2.0 and other publications.

Byron is also the principal of IT Investment Research, which is aimed at institutional and individual investors in IT, or anyone who enjoys peering under the covers of "the financials," where large companies and emerging IPOs like to bury their most interesting facts. His main area of interest is investment opportunities in enterprise software.

More by Dennis Byron

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