Open Source ECM: Alfresco Business Strategy

Alfresco meetup for community and customers took place here in Rome two weeks ago, featuring both John Newton and John Powell, respectively Alfresco CTO and CEO.

I asked few questions to John Powell, learning more about Alfresco licensing story, and about differences between Alfresco Enterprise Edition and Alfresco Labs.

When we looked at open source companies, and we were particularly impressed by JBoss, and they used LGPL. So when we first started we used the LGPL license, and those days Alfresco was unknown. And lot of people said to us the LGPL wasn’t so a good license. Because the LGPL for big companies, they think is like the GPL, they don’t understand, it was confusing at that level. And a lot of other companies could take the LGPL,  not contributing anything back, so we were advised to change to the MPL license, because it was like the LGPL, in terms of the effect of the MPL license, but it operates at file level, so technically you could explain MPL, while no one really knows how technically, legally how the LGPL works. So we changed to MPL and that was quite successful, but we then were basically running into the problem that the MPL doesn’t work well on the Web.

Basically we work with Matt Asay, he said why we try all these ‘exotic licenses’ like LGPL, MPL, which, particularly in US,  the legal guys ask lots of questions.. let’s just say GPL, GPL is not perfect, but virtually all common open source projects use GPL, so it is a sort of  ‘standard’, so that is why we changed.

Alfresco licensing story is hectic, probably because first choices have been taken without consulting IP lawyers, differently from what we have been seing with open source vendors. Alfresco was probably aimed to be a cheaper ECM vendor, before anything else. The importance of open source economics  came at a later stage, as the need to look deeper into the licensing thing.

Matt Asay recently started advocating the Apache license BSD, will Alfresco change the license again? I don’t think so, but GPL the SugarCRM way – i.e. using the GPLv3 attribution-clause – seems a way to better protect Alfresco’s IPR.

Powell about Alfresco Labs-Enterprise differences.

I think we should have started branding Labs just to give a bit like Fedora and RHEL, to give that type of differentiation. Labs and Enterprise have the same functionality. I don’t know if you remember, we experimented with Enterprise with some closed sorce stuff for a while, and basically all goverments says “no, no, no.. a little bit closed is all closed!”.

The principle is Enterprise and Labs, some functionality, but Enterprise is care quality, because we put more bug fixing, long Q&A, more certifications, etc.

The only slight move recently we have made, is to say Labs and Enterprise functionally the same,  so you can build a Labs system and an Enterprise system, and provide that you take the equivalent versions, you can run on either.

So you can build on Enterprise and switch to Labs. The only thing if you are using a proprietary system, like Oracle, we don’t certify the oracle drivers in Labs, basically you have to build those yourself.

We actually improved the quality of Labs recently, we had a period, mainly because of the workload, where we did very low Q&A on Labs, and the community was complaining. But with Alfresco 3 we put a lot more effort. Enterprise is more Q&A, that doesn’t mean no Q&A on Labs.

Alfresco’s community expressed some concerns and doubts about Alfresco’s open source strategy, and beyond polemics there is some food for thoughts.

Alfresco keeps expanding globally, while exploring new channels and consolidating year-over-year positive growth. But is the line drawn by John Netwon definitive? Decisions about what to give away and what to keep secret are all but simple.

Alfresco’s core competency is the ability to create and mantain an extensible ECM platform based on viable open source components, compliant with standards (sometimes even driving some of them).

Open source core is not bad per se, as far as differentiating features are welcomed by customers and do not prevent users to deploy. Establishing which software add-on has to be proprietary is not easy, though. In the mobile space Funambol makes a great job, ending to please customers without upselling its community. Unfortunately the ECM space is not a pyramidal market, and that approach won’t fit.

Open source vendors sell preferably products (subscription), and Alfresco is not an exception. Alfresco’s decision to not professionally support the Labs edition maybe the very reason to lack business opportunities with governments, though. Open source software can be downloaded and deployed without a call for tenders, but paid services must be acquired with tenders and here Alfresco may be competitive.

Moreover, supporting Labs Alfresco might convert some users into customers, maybe providing them with a different level of support. In this respect GroundWork’s Starter Edition experiment maybe inspirational.