Profits considered immoral by open source community?

Eucalyptus CEO makes strong assertion

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A recent comment from an open source luminary begs the question: is open source anti-profit?

The comment was made by Eucalyptus CEO Mårten Mickos to New York Times blogger Quentin Hardy, in a Bits article on the open source ecosystem that has grown up around Amazon Web Services (AWS) that was posted last Friday.

Hardy did a good job summarizing the various players in the sector: Open Nebular; OpenStack, Cloud.com, and the aforementioned Eucalyptus, and their overall role with respect to AWS. He zeroed in on Eucalyptus, which was a good choice, too--even though OpenStack and Cloud.com have a lot of PR mojo going right now, there's no getting around the fact Eucalyptus has garnered a lot of commercial success for itself. Eucalyptus, as Hardy pointed out, is also more integrated with AWS infrastructure.

And that close integration is the context for the comment Mickos made that I want to review.

"'Like Amazon or not, they are the de facto standard for cloud,' says [Mickos]. 'It's just that not everyone wants it. Some people in open source think it is immoral to make a profit. I don't.'"

When I read that statement, I was very concerned that such a sweeping statement was not, in fact, true. But, let's get this out right up front: I am sure in the very literal sense there are members of the free and open source software communities that do believe that profits are immoral. Those folks exist, and they are entitled to their opinions.

The basis for this article is this: I do not think that this opinion is held by the majority (or even plurality) of the FLOSS community. I will lay this out, but I will also most definitely invite commentary.

Do FLOSS community members consider profits to be immoral? Even Richard Stallman, who is widely (and wrongly) considered to be anti-business, doesn't have a problem with people making money off of the software they create. What he has a problem with is anyone or any company that closes software off in an attempt to maximize software profits. Better, he argues, to keep the software Free and make money off of the talents and expertise that each person can provide.

You may or may not agree with this line of thinking, but one thing it clearly does not do is consider the profit model immoral--only proprietary software.

There is also a tendency to think that free and open source development models automatically force a business to have a different sort of business model. That has been well-and-truly argued away by smarter people than I.

"Open source software is a key economic driver from an engineering efficiency and software reuse perspective, but it also opens new opportunities and additional tools for product management to engage better with customers and improve both the top line and the bottom line," Stephen Walli wrote in 2009, "But there is no open source business model."

Update: Mickos, for his part, has responded to the statement that started this thought experiment: "I completely agree with you that it is a very very small minority that thinks so (and I said that to Quentin). And I am specifically not thinking of Richard Stallman. I know that he is not against business. He
is only for freedom. I have no issue with RMS; on the contrary I have huge respect for his consistent insistence on software freedom. I don't think the world gives him enough credit for that," Mickos wrote to me today.

For the record, it was I that brought up Stallman, as a perceived extreme counterexample, not Mickos.

I am not a mind reader, but I wonder if Mickos' comments stem from how the community reacted to Eucalyptus when it inadvertently may have become the catalyst for the creation of the OpenStack project back in 2010.

According to some, OpenStack got started when NASA was building their Nebula infrastructure cloud, and were working with Eucalyptus to get the job done. But, there were problems.

Eucalyptus uses an open core model with its customers, which means there's an open source "core" software product they give to community users for free and commercial add-ons for which they charge customers.

As a contributor to Eucalyptus, NASA was unable to get some of its enhancements into the core Eucalyptus code base because those improvements were too close to the functionality of Eucalyptus' commercial add-ons, and were thus rejected by Eucalyptus. NASA, frustrated with this obstacle and unwilling to buy Eucalyptus' commercial product, re-dedicated the entire Nebula team to creating a new cloud fabric controller, known as Nova.

Nova would eventually become a component within the OpenStack platform launched in 2010.

Mickos disputes this version of events from Nebula's Chris Kemp, something he and I will discuss in more detail soon.

This (possibly apocryphal) tale would point out a potential hole in the open core model. If you have customers who expect to play by open source rules with your open source product, you can't take your ball home when the game doesn't go your way. Smaller customers might fold under the pressure to buy the commercial add-ons, but larger customers with their own open source savvy like NASA will simply refuse to go along with it. In this case, it was even worse than not getting a paid customer: refusing NASA's code contributions led to a new pure-play, open source competitor for Eucalyptus.

The community's reaction to open core could also be a source for Mickos' statement about profit immorality, since slapping Eucalyptus around for what appeared to be a colossal mistake was practically a team sport in the open source community last year.

Regardless of which version of history is correct, even Mickos seems to acknowledge there was a problem, though he has a different theory about the why. As he told my friend Joe Brockmeier back in November:

"While Mickos wasn't wringing his hands over OpenStack's growth so far, he did note that Eucalyptus had 'not handled its open source work properly.' Mickos says that the company failed to engage the community in its work, and did not have 'an architecture of participation where it's fun' to contribute."

And, to be fair, Eucalyptus may have the last laugh: they are growing very strongly in this sector, despite all the vendor hype around OpenStack.

The problem is this: while many people in the FLOSS community (including me) are less then thrilled with the open core model, I object to the notion that those same people find it immoral. I certainly don't. I find the open core model limiting and self-defeating for both the vendor and the community. That's not a moral judgement.

Nor do I think a majority of people in the FLOSS community have a morality problem with profits in general (because open core is not the only way to generate a profit in the open source ecosystem). While there are load of people who have issues with Red Hat, SUSE Linux, and Canonical (to name three commercial vendors), those issues don't seem to center around that these companies are out to make a buck (or euro or pound).

Making a profit is not immoral. People recognize that delivering value, be it human or code or materials, deserves to get paid. The moral issues come into play when someone goes too far and takes advantage of the customer.

I would be interested to read what others in the FLOSS community think on this, because this may be an area where my Hoosier egalitarianism is--pardon the pun--clouding my point of view. Mickos may be ticked off, but he's no stranger to the FLOSS community.

Does Mickos have a point?

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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