What does it take to build a company on the back of a non-commercial, open source project?
The figures behind Apache Maven are betting that for the widely deployed, open source Java project management tool, the answer is relying on open source’s ability to slip in the enterprise back door, gain fans organically and only then upsell users on commercial-grade improvements.
So far, Maven has enjoyed growth without a commercial backer behind it. That’s now changing as Sonatype, a company founded by Maven founder Jason Van Zyl, steps up as its commercial backer, with new executive leadership and a plan for products based on the project.
Sonatype’s new CEO, Mark de Visser, is a veteran of both Linux vendor Red Hat and PHP vendor Zend, and he’s confident that Maven can be the basis of a viable commercial enterprise. In an interview with InternetNews.com, De Visser detailed new products that are in the pipeline and Sonatype’s plans to build its business. The approach is one that could shed light on the broader issue of how to create a successful business enterprise around open source.
“There is a whole lot of talk about what kind of open source company can be a viable and profitable company,” De Visser told InternetNews.com. “One of the things to watch out for is some form of the network effect — is there something there that gives you real benefit from applying the open source model? That’s what got me interested in Sonatype.”
At Maven’s heart is an XML model of describing software projects, known as the Project Object Model (POM). De Visser explained that by having the model clearly articulated and machine-readable, it is easy to incorporate into other workflows — an approach that’s won it no small number of fans.
De Visser argued that once a few members in an organization begin using Maven and the POM, they’re motivated to encourage others to adopt it as well, since doing so simplifies their work and enables others in the organization to, in a sense, speak the same language.
According to De Visser, that kind of network effect snowballs until it reaches a critical mass, at which the underlying effort can propel itself. That sort of effect is made eBay so successful, he said: Why do people choose to buy and sell on eBay? It’s because that’s where the most sellers and buyers are.
“That’s where Maven is now,” he added. “The central repository for Maven in September was hit 250 million times.”
The Maven repository is used to hold build artifacts and dependencies of varying types.
Though Maven is widely used, De Visser argued that it doesn’t solve everything on its own. He noted that the project has not developed much in the way of a user interface, which is an area where Sonatype can add value. He also said that integration with the Eclipse IDE
Already, Sonatype is working along those lines. It currently offers Nexus, an open source user interface system for Maven repositories. De Visser is working on a commercial version of Nexus called Nexus Pro, which the group hopes will add additional enterprise features.
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For instance, Nexus Pro will gain integration with LDAP
“We will release a version of Nexus Pro in the coming month, and that has commercial features,” De Visser said. “We’ll sell that for about $3,000 per server per year, so there is the business model.”
Nexus Pro is just the first step in Maven commercialization for Sonatype. By the spring of 2009, De Visser noted that Sonatype will have a Nexus Enterprise version that will introduce federation into the its capabilities. Federation ensures that whenever a check in is made to one local repository, it’s mirrored to the rest of the global team.
With the enhancement, enterprises could scale out their Maven repository deployments — an improvement that takes into account the fact that many enterprise use globally distributed development teams.
Maven support and training is another area where Sonatype is looking to build its business.
“We are actually rolling out a support and training offer for Maven itself, and by the time we go commercial in another four weeks, we will have Maven support, training and Nexus Pro — that’s our portfolio,” De Visser said.
To market and sell those products, De Visser is betting on the network effect to negate the need to build a large direct sales force. That approach is based on his view that open source should always have a low barrier to entry, making it easy for users to migrate to the commercially supported version when they need to.
He also argued that other open source startups think it’s necessary to build up a direct sales force in part because they inherited that belief from traditional commercial firms.
“We don’t have to build an external sales force with people driving BMWs,” De Visser said. “We can stay much closer to a simple transactional model and we will probably invest little in marketing.”