Hey, Red Hat - Open-source help still lousy?
OSBC It's been exactly a year since former Delta Airlines vice president turned Red Hat chief executive Jim Whitehurst criticized open-source vendors for doing a lousy job of getting customers involved in the community and projects.
Twelve months on, how are things looking?
Little has changed, judging by the general level of hand-wringing at this year's Open Source Business Conference (OSBC), but Whitehurst has kick started an effort inside Red Hat to find ways of getting customers to participate more actively in his own company's Linux and middleware projects.
Whitehurst told The Reg he's given one of Red Hat's former heads of learning services and global support the task of recruiting a team of "zealots" and building a program of customer engagement around its Linux and middleware.
The thinking is for a set of informal channels for ordinary system administrators in major customers such as Bank of America to contact the company and engage without needing to pick up the phone as, say, Bank of America's chief information officer (CIO) might.
It's a work in progress Whitehurst said, and - as yet - there's no date for delivery.
"It's how do we scale an engagement model that's not 'call somebody on the phone,' so when somebody wants to get involved there's a way to get involved," he said.
Meanwhile, Whitehurst said, there's a growing level of participation in Spacewalk, Red Hat's Linux systems management project.
"The majority of customers aren't engaged," Whitehurst had told the OSBC moments before speaking to The Reg. "Having a less programmatic way to engaging customers is something we are working on."
Whitehurst is taking a "softly softly" approach to engagement. He doesn't necessarily want a rash of code committers, rather cultivate feedback and contributions at different levels on a range of areas, such as that least loved of all subjects - writing documentation for code.
"I want to encourage people to get a little bit involved: give feedback, understand what's going on, help influence. Areas where you get code commits can come well down the path," he said.
Whitehurst reckoned that following last year's comments he'd "got a lot" of phone calls from people working on code who wanted help in building a community around it.
Such projects require a huge effort, but can happen.
The most frequently cited example of users jumping in an setting up a community effort - quoted by Whitehurst last year - is that of the Advanced Message Queuing Protocol (AMQP) project. That was initially donated by JP Morgan Chase with Iona Technologies and Red Hat and is now backed by Credit Suisse, Deutsche Börse Systems, and Goldman Sachs.
Why bother when people like IBM, Microsoft, and Tibco already offer message queuing? Because, AMQP tackled more specific needs of financial services.
And why did these companies - some rivals - come together? Because, while important, it was considered a waste time and money developing message queuing in-house. And for all that effort, the work conferred no competitive advantage. This actually turned into a positive plus when it came to working with rivals on the project in the community.
The Eclipse Foundation is now home to a project with similar characteristics. Swordfish is an open-source Service Oriented Architectures (SOAs) effort, due this summer, based on a major code contribution from Germany's Deutsche Post.
Swordfish uses Deutsche Post's Sopera open-source enterprise service bus (ESB), technology that was spun out by the postal giant into a separate company also called Sopera and that was re-written under an Eclipse Public License.
Deutche Post turned to open source because the ESB was critical to running the messaging in its mailing division but was expensive to maintain and develop. Eclipse, meanwhile, delivered Sopera and Deutsche Post a ready-made community.
Of course, there already exists a perfectly serviceable open-source ESB from the ever-popular Apache Software Foundation (ASF) called ServiceMix, with a community around that. So why didn't Deutsche Post use this, given the popularity of Apache's other projects?
Ricco Deutscher, Sopera's chief technology officer, told us ServiceMix is good, proven technology but that Sopera has been proven in really large mission-critical deployments and offered features such as a registry repository and "central configuration." Also, the project carries with it a lot of accumulated end-user knowledge on how to build ESBs.
The plan at Eclipse is to add service and business activity monitoring via Swordfish, features that will find their way back into the main Sopera product. Long-term the idea is to challenge IBM's WebSphere and Oracle's WeLogic, closed-source, monolithic - Swordfish is based on OSGi - and relatively expensive middleware suites. Sopera starts at a $5,000 per CPU.
Since Deutsche Post went open source, others are also using Sopera with customers including European aerospace giant EADS and environmental charity Greenpeace in the UK.
"This is the starting point for development in Eclipse of a full-service repository," Deutscher said of Swordfish.
Eclipse could provide a ready made system of participation for other end-user projects. There's just the fact Eclipse is largely a vendor shop - and often the same vendors on different projects - that, like most other open-source efforts, is light on end users. ®