ebizQ's OSS Taxonomy: Understanding Free vs. Open
By Dennis Byron, Analyst, ebizQ
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
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
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
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.
||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
||University of Calif
||See SleepyCat below
||Many sponsors (e.g., marketed as EnterpriseDB)
||Berkeley DB derivative
||Covalent and many others
||Iona/Logicblaze (where it is marketed as Fuse) but also others
||IBM (where it is marketed as the WebSphere Community Edition) and others
||Incorporated in many companies' middleware
||Incorporated in many companies' operating software distribution
||Incorporated in many companies' operating software distribution
||Zope was a founding member; Google is a major participant
|Operating System Examples
||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)
||Linux operating system kernel
|| Incorporated in many companies' operating software distribution
||Xen virtualization software
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
More by Dennis Byron
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
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
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.
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