Testing open-source in the battlefield

A few decades back, when I was writing code myself, I couldn’t hide my feeling for open-source developers. A guy spending his valuable time to contribute to an open-source project has no personal life and probably no ambitions. Wrong.

But let me make a step forward to the recent years and describe my current connection to open-source. My experiences are concentrated around my startup activities and all stories are very different, in the same way that open-source varies from case to case.

Chapter 1 — The early ages
The first one relates to my activities in Converge. I remember I trusted the suggestion of our CTO about open-source, even if myself I was a fan of proprietary software. I have therefore enrolled the company in the ORACLE partnership program and we were customizing enterprise solutions using open-source technologies. It was easy for us to deliver solutions on good infrastructures (databases, app servers, etc) that have the proper trustmarks and being at the same time competitive due to the use of open source technologies. In several cases, we were also using open-source infrastructures too. “But what about security?”, was a typical question. “Well, we are not delivering software on [let’s not call the name], our software it is not an open source community. It is our proprietary solution based on open-source tools”. Was that a good strategy? Apparently yes, but it didn’t last for ever. How did we pay our debt to the (open-source) community? We didn’t. In this philosophy we developed our super J2EE-based eCommerce platform. We had 1 client… a very big player in the country. We were very proud of that and we decided to go and find more clients and sell it abroad too. Didn’t work. They were all concerned and had more or less the same questions: “Who owns the software?”, “What will I do if you ever close?”, “What about security?” and the statement “so, we are going to marry each other”. That was not sustainable anymore. And this brings us to the next milestone…

Chapter 2 — The Magento era
Magento is the leading platform in eCommerce with ~30% stake worldwide. It was initially owned by eBay, sold to a fund and recently announced an acquisition of $1.68bn by Adobe! Magento operates in 2 modes; the community (open-source) edition and Magento commerce (enterprise solution). A colleague -and from that moment a good friend- who had the leading Magento agency in Greece, asked me to collaborate in this domain. It was the perfect timing for us. Like having no emotional memory for what we have built until that moment, we switched to Magento. We had our people trained and we picked up every opportunity to scale. We organized the Magento-PayPal Meetups, we became the first Magento partner in Greece and we partnered with Meet Magento Association, to organize the Meet Magento Greece events. This time we were not only using open-source tools, but an open-source platform. Magento community is a real ecosystem that works in a structured way and this is so different from what we learned so far. None of the previously-listed questions were appearing anymore and moreover, clients felt much better as their business continuity was ensured. In my journey to Magento I made several friends, among them a very good one — I guess you all know his name. This person is a real community builder. He operates in a volunteering way and he has contributed the maximum in building this great community. Few years ago, he has trusted me to become the Chief Innovation Officer of Magento and contribute using my academic experience to trigger the innovation management entrepreneurship in the Meet Magento community.

Chapter 3 — eWALL
Between 2013 and 2016, I was coordinating a flagship EC project in the area of Personal Health Systems, under the name eWALL. The project was focusing on patients with chronic diseases and how you could offer cloud eHealth services. The project was as big as ~9M€ and had a healthy mix of partners from the industry, academia and SMEs. The software engineering part of the project versus the medical was around 2:1. We developed a great system, state-of-the-art, scalable and able to deliver top-of-the-line services. At a certain moment in time, a good colleague from the industry, asked if we were interested to go for open-source. We embraced the idea and it took as a while to officially decide this. That was a brave and smart idea for all. It would have been better though if we acted faster. And that because it is easy to say you are open-source and much more challenging to really be.

In fact the decision of open-source needs a lot of work. Some tasks that you need to consider are:

  • First and foremost read about all types of open-source licenses and take the proper decision.
  • Check software artifacts one-by-one and write down their dependencies and their licenses.
  • Make sure they are all backwards compatible with your choice for license. If not, you have a lot of work. Either find a new compatible library, or write it yourself :)
  • Start a project in Github and assign a motivated moderator.
  • Make all necessary mentions of the license in each source code file.
  • Provide documentation and support the transfer of know how.
  • Attract people and get your ecosystem started.

Apparently this is not the easiest work on earth, but it pays off. In eWALL the decision of open-source happened simultaneously with the project decision to have Innovation Sprint as official exploitation partner that could involve several people from the project to further develop and commercialize the product, which is now called CloudCare2U.

Similarities & differences
What do all these experiences have in common? Of course the open-source element. But this is almost the only similarity.

In (1) we worked with open source tools to deliver proprietary systems. The benefit was the competitiveness of the integrated systems, but at the same time we couldn’t convince larger players about their business continuity, counting on an SMEs solution.

In (2) we used an widely-accepted open-source platform to deliver services (and not products) to our clients. With an investment from our side in money and time we had the knowledge in our hands and were delivering reliable solutions around, in a competitive though environment.

In (3) we used open-source, as a commercialization strategy. It was the way to bypass several barriers and created lots of opportunities. On the other hand, it was a challenging initiative and we found out that the continuation of credible open source community needs a lot of resources.

The verdict
So, what’s the verdict? I remember myself supporting open-source by saying “if TESLA goes open-source, why should we be afraid that someone will know our code”? Open-source is not panacea, but it is a very powerful option and strategy, if is designed with the right vision and implemented with the right tactics.

Married, father of 2 sons, Entrepreneur, Innovator, Associate Professor, iSprinter. Blogging about technology, innovation & startups.