RealTime IT News

Novell's Latest: Professional Open Source

Officials at Novell will soon dive into the world of professional open source with paid support and services for Mono 1.0, an open source development platform based on version 1.1 of the .NET framework.

Paid Mono support is the Waltham, Mass.-based company's first endeavor into professional open source, a term used to describe a maintenance and support offering, with companies charging a fee for services. According to Erik Dasque, a senior product manager at Novell, the company's Mono launch could be the beginning of an initiative to expand into other open source projects. They include Openswan, a Linux implementation of IPSec ; iFolders, an enterprise file-sharing project; and Yet Another Setup Tool (YaST), an installation and administration tool.

"We're not completely ready ourselves," Dasque said. "We're in the planning phase to offer [Mono] in September or October, so we'll see what springs from that."

Mono 1.0 has been creating an industry buzz in recent months, making it a logical choice for Novell as a launching pad for other professional open source offerings. The software allows programmers on Linux, UNIX and other Mono-supported platforms to create .NET applications.

It's one of two projects that aim to bring a .NET framework into the UNIX-based world. DotGNU started at the same time as Mono, but is still at version .6 of development. Both sides have been waging a semi-public war of words, creating a stir in the open source and Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) communities.

For now, the last laugh is with the Mono project. When the beta of Mono 1.0 was released in May, officials said the project's Web site logged 40,000 downloads in the first few hours; when the final release was published, the Web site was bogged down for most of that day and the next.

Programmer interest with the open source project began with Novell's sponsorship of Mono and its acquisition of desktop Linux developer Ximian last August. According to Sergey Chaban, a long-time code contributor to the Mono Project, the merger and subsequent sponsorship by Novell was met with approval by open source developers. "From the amount of new people on the [developer] lists, it seems that this attracted many new contributors," Chaban said in an e-mail interview. "I don't really think that further increase in closeness will put people off the project; in fact, that will probably attract even more new contributors."

Novell Vice President of Development Miguel de Icaza, who is also the founder of the Mono project and co-founder of Ximian, said Novell support formalizes a process that's been under way for some time at the Mono project. His team has provided paid support in the past and will continue to do so, but now under the Novell umbrella. It's not exclusive to Novell, however, he said. If Red Hat came up to Mono leaders tomorrow and asked the project engineers to be their top-level support team for a similar Red Hat services offering, they could, de Icaza said.

The offering would be separate from the normal support received at its support.novell.com Web site, though it will follow similar pricing guidelines, said Dasque. Novell's entire support team will be trained on providing level 1 and 2 customer support (installation problems, bug reporting, run-time errors), while the Mono Project's 20 software engineers will provide level 3 support (squashing bugs, product updates/patches, deployment issues, etc.).

Smaller companies, like ISVs , might be better off buying packs of incident tickets, Dasque said, while large companies might want the 24/7/365 support that comes with an annual subscription service.

The Novell model is similar to JBoss, another professional open source business of some note. The JBoss Group provides paid services, consulting and support around the open source JBoss Application Server, as well as open source projects like Tomcat, Hibernate and Nukes.

Marc Fleury, JBoss founder, chairman and CEO, and his company have been offering professional open source services for years now, even before the term "professional open source" was coined. He believes Novell's decision to use one of the two open source business models that are known to work -- giving away the software and charging for maintenance and support and the dual-licensing like that of MySQL -- was a good one, but he wonders how it can make Mono profitable.

"In the operating system world, the value add from Red Hat is that Linux is really a thousand little projects that all move independently; the value add that Red Hat provides is versioning everything, saying 'all these are Red Hat 8.1' and offering support on that," Fleury said. "In the case of a virtual machine, which is really what the Mono Project is about, there is some business in the Java Virtual Machine support but not that much.

"People definitely want support as they go into production," he continued, "but it may be a difficult market for them to grow a significant subscription revenue base. But we'll see."

That revenue base is probably behind Novell's decision to roll up other open source projects once Mono support is up and running smoothly. The company even started Novell Forge, an incubator of sorts. Taking a page from the success of SourceForge.net, the world's largest open source development forum, Novell Forge hosts projects on its Web site for worldwide collaboration.

Jason Williams, director of technology for Web Commerce Group (WCG), said there's a market for companies who can provide enterprise-grade support for open source projects. WCG builds wireline and wireless Internet applications for companies like rental car agency Avis on open source projects like JBoss and MySQL. Their experience with the projects, and the need in the business world, prompted them to open a consulting service around the technologies out there.

"Professional open source is out there and it's there to stay; it's getting a lot of momentum and a lot of push," Williams said.

He credits companies like Red Hat and IBM for their efforts in raising the possibility of open source in an enterprise environment. Though harder to master than most out-of-the-box software, open source is showing companies that proprietary, pricey software isn't the only choice.

"It does tend to be more techie oriented. From a developer standpoint, there's more legwork to be done to get things up and running," Williams said. "However, there's the expression of 'don't make me eat the whole elephant'; with proprietary software, you tend to get this feature-creep. With open source, you tend to have tools that are designed to do one thing and one thing well."