The Value of Open Source Support

Michael Vizard

There's a lot of debate over the perceived value of commercial support for open source software. A lot of vendors in the open source space have a business model that depends heavily on revenue derived from companies that want additional support for an open source product, even though community support is supposed to be one of the biggest benefits of open source software.

The latest example of this is Puppet Enterprise, an offering based on the popular open source Puppet systems management tools that come with a few additional bells and whistles that don't come with the free version of Puppet and support from Puppet Labs.

There's no doubt that some companies want that level of support. In fact, there are some companies that claim the primary reason they go with commercial software offerings is because of the support the vendor offers. Puppet Labs CEO Luke Kanies says Puppet Enterprise was created with those organizations specifically in mind.

But the question it all raises is: How many customers with open software installed are willing to pay for additional support? Survey results published last week suggest that the percentage might not be so high. If that's the case, then will companies that buy commercial software start shifting their allegiances to open source providers that sell support, versus buying a product where the support is perceived to be bundled into the cost of the product?

These are difficult questions to answer that cut to the heart of the open source movement. There are hundreds of small open source projects out there that have a lot of potential value. But unless the developers have some way of generating revenue from their work or generating income from some other source, such as working for a commercial software vendor, the open source project could easily stagnate. Ultimately, the 'starving artists' that tend to form the core of an open source community need to eat.

The question is: Do the organizations that rely on open source software understand that and, if so, what are they willing to materially contribute, not only to the project but also to the people who manage and advance the goals of the project? The history of capitalism would suggest very little.

We live in challenging economic times where cash is king, so we'll have to wait and see whether the open source business model, beyond a handful of companies such as Red Hat, is really strong enough to weather an extended economic downturn. Passion for something will only take a project so far.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Feb 8, 2011 12:02 PM SteveK SteveK  says:
There's plenty of companies using paid-for software that pay for an additional support plans. As long at the support provides value to the company, I see no reason why they wouldn't be willing to pay for it - they already are in many cases. Reply
Feb 8, 2011 5:02 PM Rory MacDonald Rory MacDonald  says:
In open source, the value of a support package, and the success of a commercial company offering it, depends on the value of the software itself. If the underlying OSS package delivers enough value it will find its way into increasingly mission critical roles within the organisation and therefore the customer will be willing to pay for support. Similarly, with the developers who "need to eat", if you are an acknowledged contributor/committer on a project that becomes heavily used in the enterprise, eating is not the issue, it is deciding between the foie gras or black cod as a starter. If your project is used by a few technically literate SMBs to save money on running their website, you had better save up for some strong chilli sauce, because you going to be on dog food. You don't want to buy into this myth that open source is somehow software communism, it is hard capitalism based on market principles, it is just a very different capitalist model. To be exact, it isn't even one model. The difference between offering commercial support and offering support on a version that provides "a few additional bells and whistles that don't come with the free version", is a big deal in open source. This will have a major effect on who is willing to use the product and contribute their time to developing the free version (just look at the NASA/Eucalyptus debacle). Reply

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