Lately there’s been lots of blog and twitter chatter about recognizing an open source product.  While an interesting intellectual exercise, the debate could also have real world impact on IT purchasing decisions.

Open source purity:
I used to spend time debating the open source “purity” of a given open source vendor.  I moved on when Shaun Connolly, of JBoss at the time, wrote this post titled “Open Source Community and Barack Obama”.  In 2010, it’s incredibly difficult to define an “open source vendor”, because virtually every IT vendor utilizes open source in their products, or contributes to open source or provides services around open source.

The recent debate about open source “purity” extends beyond the vendor, and instead focuses on products.  The debate is being spurred by the increasingly popular open core licensing approach and the delivery of software products through cloud offerings.  The 451 Group’s Matt Aslett writes:

“It ought to be simple: either the software meets the Open Source Definition or it does not. But it is not always easy to tell what license is being used, and in the case of software being delivered as a service, does it matter anyway?

The ability to deliver software as a hosted service enables some companies that are claimed to be 100% open source to offer customers software for which the source code is not available.”

In the perfect world, customers would pay vendors for the value they receive from usage of free and open source products.  Since that hasn’t really panned out, open core licensing and cloud delivery of open source software are gaining attention as leading approaches to capture revenue around open source products.

Keep an eye on freedom of action:
Customers using or considering purchasing a product that falls into the open core licensing category should be aware that the enterprise commercial product they purchase is unlikely to offer the same freedoms as the open source community edition that their developers likely used and became advocates for.  Some enterprise open core commercial products don’t even offer source code access.  This obviously limits freedom of future action versus using the open source community edition.  Other open core commercial products do provide source code access, but only as long as your subscription license is current.  As such, it’s important to understand how easily your company can shift from using the enterprise commercial open core product to using the open source community edition. Its important to understand if the enterprise features are really product extensions or are they integral to your usage?  Gartner analyst Brian Prentice has argued that customers will eventually need to evaluate and price the enterprise commercial version of an open core product.  This is all the more true if there isn’t a clear distinction between which kinds of features fall into the open source community edition versus the enterprise open core commercial product.

Customers using or considering using an offering that falls into the cloud delivery of open source category need to consider two elements of freedom of action.  First, is it possible to run the product on another cloud infrastructure or within the customer’s own data center?  Second, and often more important, is the customer’s data locked into the vendor’s cloud offering?

While usage of open source licensed products is heading in only one direction, it’s important for decision makers to understand that “open source” is used in many shapes and forms.  With no malice intended, your interpretation may not match your vendor’s interpretation.

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PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”