Community grows for open-source enterprise apps

Companies and their affiliated communities often sit uneasily together, awkward partners at the software dance. To balance the two, companies often seek to reduce corporate control of community through open-source licensing, but this strategy may be diluted by the common requirement to require community contributors to sign contribution agreements.

Nothing could be worse for the formation of true, code-contributing communities, according to Brian Aker, former director of architecture at MySQL:

[R]equiring contributor agreements destroyed outside MySQL development to the kernel, and left MySQL in a position where no substantial, or many, contributions ever occurred.

And yet most people would point to MySQL’s community (as Microsoft’s Dan Jones does) as a key reason for its success.

Perhaps they’re talking about different kinds of community?

Of course they are, and both kinds are important. MySQL attracted a broad-based user community, one filled with developers who modified and embedded MySQL to meet a vast array of different needs. Did it have a solid base of outside contributors who wrote the core of the MySQL database. No. But at tens of millions of downloads each year and a final sale price of $1 billion to Sun, few in the MySQL community are likely to complain.

The reality is that very few open-source projects succeed in attracting and marshaling significant outside contributions. Linux, Eclipse, and Mozilla all do, and perhaps for reasons I’ve identified before, but they are the exceptions to the rule.

Even so, it’s surprising just how significant the communities are around an increasing number of enterprise open-source projects, which communities include both users and developers, a significant number of whom actively contribute code to these enterprise applications. Who would imagine a community of millions forming around developing and using software designed to help the world’s largest enterprises solve some of their biggest problems? In other words, helping the Man feed…the Man?

Strange, but true.

Jaspersoft today announced some remarkable community numbers. More interesting, however, is that Jaspersoft isn’t alone in this.

Let’s run the community numbers for a few of the more successful open-source application companies, Jaspersoft, Alfresco, SugarCRM, and Zimbra:

Jaspersoft Alfresco SugarCRM Zimbra
Registered community members: 120,000 133,000 130,000 33,000*
Software downloads to date: 10 million 2 million 7 million 5 million*

* Zimbra gave me the number of active forum registrations, which is arguably a better metric than raw forum/documentation registrations, which is what I was able to collect from the other companies.

Remember, we’re talking here about enterprise applications, software at the top of the stack, not operating systems, scripting languages, middleware, or application server software each of which has a built-in audience that naturally dwarfs that of any enterprise application.

These companies are all either cash-flow positive or within striking distance of cash-flow positive. (At least two are profitable.) They’re going concerns selling free, open-source software to enterprise customers and succeeding in an IT recession.

Importantly, these communities are highly additive to the companies associated with them. Zimbra, for example, has more than 50 million paid mailboxes and counting. Alfresco, for its part, has grown every quarter since its formation in early 2005, with its last quarter seeing a 30-percent quarter-over-quarter increase on an already large base.

These are significant outcomes, and they derive from significant communities.

It turns out that while a CRM system may not justify a tattoo, plenty of developers care deeply about such “boring” software and contribute accordingly. Enterprise developers are just as passionate about their software as any other community of developers. They drive adoption and accelerate innovation.

The companies behind the projects, in turn, invest more in open-source software development. It’s a virtuous cycle.

This is why open source makes sense, not just at the infrastructure layer of IT, but all the way up to the applications that make enterprises tick.

Disclosure: In order to be able to present complete data, I turned to companies with which I’m involved as an adviser (SugarCRM, Jaspersoft), former employee (Alfresco), or where I keep close tabs (Zimbra).

Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.