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Selling open source software is a bit of a problem, Bas Nijjer of CollabNet UK has just told me. Seems this guy comes up to him at a show and says: “So, you’re selling Subversion…” “No, not exactly,” Bas replies, “it’s open source…”

“So, what exactly are you selling?”

Similar questions must come up for everyone commercially involved with open source software. CollabNet sells an enterprise collaborative development platform, which happens to use Subversion for change management, which happens to be an open source project originally sponsored by CollabNet. CollabNet is all about delivering software development services, for low cost-of-entry, enterprise-strength distributed software development. Its customers can get on with building software and let CollabNet manage the underlying infrastructure and security.

But people are discovering Subversion for themselves and using it. Large organisations are becoming dependent on it – and then discovering that they’re dependent on an unsupported - in conventional terms - product. Nothing wrong with the product, but there’s more to building a managed and dependable software development environment than simply downloading software from the web.

And perhaps there's an opportunity for companies like CollabNet and others, helping customers who don't realise this to discover exactly what development processes they have and also which processes they need - and how to do something about addressing the gap.

More immediately, there are “reputation risk” issues for Subversion and its users – and an opportunity for anyone who can address them. CollabNet will cheerfully provide its complete platform as a service, of course, but what of people who only want Subversion for version control?

So, it now provides CollabNet Subversion On Demand, which brings together open source and the service model for low-cost, rapid-deployment of software services. It’s a slightly-enhanced Subversion (with web-based user administration, for example), but it also comes with what CollabNet claims are enterprise-class security, maintenance and operational services (for a price starting at $55 per user per month).

It seems to me, however, that using open source software (with or without added services), and relying on externally-hosted service delivery, in a commercial organisation is all about risk management. Hosting your version control, say, on CollabNet’s servers isn’t more risky than hosting it inhouse, it is differently risky. The risk of inhouse failure is known and accepted, whereas the risk of a service provider failing is new and frightening.

Much the same applies to using open source software rather than stuff from a conventional vendor. Success will come to organisations mature enough to assess the various risks dispassionately and address them appropriately. A company that finds itself using Subversion without realising it, which then finds it has operational problems with its deployment and no real idea of how to fix them (admitting it has big problems in a zero privacy open source community may not be a great idea) has some very real issues. But they are really nothing to do with Subversion or the open source software model. ®

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