Software Development

10 organizations that open sourced (at least a part of) their platforms

Some firsthand real talk about building a business around open source software.

From the 2014 New Zealand Open Source Awards (NZOSA). (Photo by Flickr user Kristina D.C. Hoeppner, used under a Creative Commons license)

Eric S. Raymond’s 1999 book The Cathedral and the Bazaar examines prominent dichotomies in software development: top-down or bottom-up, closed or open.

There’s the cathedral — where an exclusive team of developers build and produce a product that is later released with the source code, which is top-down and closed. Then there’s the bazaar — where the software is developed online and amongst numerous developers with different agendas and approaches, which is bottom-up and open.

Raymond ultimately concludes the bazaar provides a better development ecosystem saying, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”

More and more companies are adopting the bazaar approach to help with R&D. Others are finding value in opening their platforms for reasons of advertising, customer service and finding new and compatible staff.

Open source is eating proprietary software, because you have innovation coming from every direction.

With this growing trend in open source software development, we wanted to take a look at 10 different ways companies and nonprofits are using open source platforms. For this article, we use a very permissive definition of open source. For some of the companies on our list, open source means its most common usage: developing and releasing a platform publicly. For others we talked to, open source means building off of or consulting on open platforms.

In either iteration, the core of these projects is the community that holds them up.

Here are the 10 groups we checked in with:

1. NuCivic, New York

NuCivic builds open-source solutions to help governments create, manage and share information.

Born out of Andrew Hoppin’s experience as the CIO of the New York State Senate, NuCivic, built on Drupal, open sourced its entire platform to anyone that wants it. The outfit operates on an OpenSaaS model, that is software as a service built on an open platform.

“We think it’s the right thing to do,” said Hoppin. “We’re a mission-driven company that exclusively works for governments.”

For Hoppin and NuCivic, improving government meant scaling development on an open platform. One government might pay NuCivic for a new feature, but once it’s developed, the feature is folded into the base platform. This model helps NuCivic defray its R&D costs while helping 150 governments aggregate their work and budgets.

All of this wouldn’t be possible, says Hoppin, without the active Drupal community.

2. FrontlineSMS, Washington, D.C.

FrontlineSMS is a company that integrates text messaging into user experience.

This means creating opt-in structures that improve access to subscription and referral services. Of the three products FrontlineSMS offers, its desktop platform is open sourced. The decision to open the desktop platform came from weighing the overhead of opening the code and increasing use of their platform.

“[Open source] was a powerful tool to improve user adoption,” said FrontlineSMS CEO Sean McDonald. That being said, McDonald admits that their proprietary platform, a cloud service, is more easily consumer facing.

The organization’s experience in open sourcing its platform has helped further integrate FrontlineSMS into other platforms. But the move hasn’t come without cost. “Open source creates a big management issue,” McDonald said. While praising its contributors, FrontlineSMS has to spend a lot of time quality-checking inputs and commits. For McDonald, however, this isn’t a big deal, though he does acknowledge that it changes the way FrontlineSMS will grow and build.

3. Squareknot, Philadelphia

Squareknot is unique in our rundown, because it doesn’t have an open source platform. The startup makes this list for two other reasons: its staffers are active members of the Backbone.js community and its platform’s outputs are open, step-by-step guides that can be branched by anyone. (For an example of these guides, checkout how to make an origami samurai hat).

For Jason Rappaport, founder and CEO of Squareknot, it made more sense to foster an open source community than to open source the Squareknot platform. “Not everything needs to be open sourced. The best open sourced things are components to build something larger,” said Rappaport. “You build open source stuff to build a Squareknot.”

This approach doesn’t stop the Squareknot dev team from making commits to numerous open source projects that they use in the development of the Squareknot platform. The decision to keep their platform proprietary while being an active member of the open source community may seem counterintuitive, from a business perspective, however, it makes sense to Rappaport. He uses WordPress’ open platform to make his point: “You can get caught in a trap where you spend too much time in the community and not enough time with just your product.”

Squareknot devs Ian Stewart (left) and Jide Osan in the startup's Philadelphia offices. (Photo by Aidan Un for Philly)

Squareknot devs Ian Stewart (left) and Jide Osan in the startup’s Philadelphia offices. (Photo by Aidan Un for Philly)

4. Appsembler, Sommerville, Mass.

Appsembler uses open source in a different way, because it provides hosting, support and custom development for Open edX, an open platform that isn’t theirs.

Initially a joint project of Harvard and MIT, Open edX is a platform that develops online courses and MOOCs. Nate Aune, Appsembler’s CEO and founder, wrote the gap analysis for Open edX, which set the tone when edX shifted from closed to open source.

While firmly believing in open source, Aune speaks to the need of creating and fostering a community to make an open platform vibrant. “The community is critical,” said Aune. “If someone posts an issue and doesn’t hear back from you for a week, then they are going to think the project is dead.”

On account of Aune’s gap analysis, edX is fostering that community, and Appsembler is a part of it. While Appsembler may be independently contracted to build a custom feature for a university, Appsembler contributes the new feature back to the community. This symbiosis between Appsembler and edX provides edX a place to send referrals for custom builds and allows Appsembler, in Aune’s words “to stand on the shoulders of giants for what I can offer my clients.”

5. Eldarion, virtual

Eldarion thinks that you shouldn’t waste your time developing common elements of web design. By open sourcing things like user sign-up, invitations and other ubiquitous web components “the focus can be on what makes a particular website different as opposed to what makes websites the same,” said James Tauber, founder and CEO of Eldarion.

Plus, he adds, “If you care about getting your creations out there, this is a better way to do it than licensing.” You can check out Eldarion’s offerings through Pinax. Beyond the product itself, it’s been an opportunity for Tauber and his dev team to become a part of the Django and Python communities. They contribute code, speak at conferences, and often find future employees through the community.

“[Open source] is a fantastic way to find interested and compatible people to work in the team,” Tauber said.

6. DataStax, Santa Clara, Calif.

DataStax delivers database software in Apache Cassandra as both an open source and paid service. Open source was Datastax’s plan from the beginning.

“[The founders] saw potential in open source,” said Robin Schumacher, the VP of Products. “[Open source] is eating proprietary software, because you have innovation coming from every direction.”

For DataStax, this meant commitment to the Apache Cassandra Project, which is evident by the fact that 80 percent of commits to the project come from the DataStax dev team and that DataStax’s CTO is the project’s chair.

Shumacher believes that being open source allows DataStax to make its platform for as many people as possible. Through its Startup Program, Community Edition and other avenues, the company provides the basics for anyone in need of a NoSQL database. There are features that are proprietary, like advanced security, some automated services and analytics, but it’s open source that’s driving customers to these features.

Schumacher says the open platform is DataStax’s best form of advertising: He estimates that 75 percent of clients come to DataStax through the open source community.

7. Clinovo, Sunnyvale, Calif.

Clinovo develops cloud-based SaaS software that captures electronic data for the clinical trial industry.

“The use of open source in our specific industry (biotech) is very much a novelty,” said Clinovo CTO Marc Desgrousilliers. “Biotech is [a] technology laggard.”

Desgrousilliers’ introduction to open source was at Microsoft where open source was perceived as a threat. Today at Clinovo, they’ve opened their entire platform; in fact, their backend came from another open source project called OpenClinica.

The open source core at Clinovo runs deep. Using Linux, Apache Tomcat and Maven means that they pay nothing for software. Furthermore, opening the entire platform with a permissive license means Desgrousilliers is watching his product be iterated elsewhere. “It improves the product in some ways,” he said. Instead of seeing iterations as competitors, Clinovo sees them as collaborators.

Even with the heightened standards that come along with clinical testing, Desgrousilliers says that being open sourced hasn’t hindered Clinovo’s efforts. “Open source can meet FDA requirements,” he said.

Fostering an open source community means a lot of input from different cultural backgrounds and respecting them equally. There's no way to do that quickly.
8. MatterHackers, Lake Forest, Calif.

MatterHackers is the developer of MatterControl, an open source 3D-printing software.

“The amount of feedback you can get is tremendous,” Lars Brubaker, CEO of MatterHackers, said of the open source community. Brubaker thinks that feedback could also be leveraged with proprietary software, but “there is a bias from users to give feedback because we did open source the platform.”

This feedback is now integral to his dev team’s workflow. MatterHackers tries to fix three user issues a week, which has improved the outfit’s customer service. Brubaker encourages his team by telling them that bug reports are just presents. “Anyone that’s going to give us some of their time is just a gift,” he said.

Beyond improving customer service, Brubaker doesn’t believe that open sourcing the MatterHackers platform has cost the company revenue. When asked if he would open source his platform again knowing what he knows today, Brubaker is enthusiastic, “I would, without hesitation.”

9. Mapbox, Washington, D.C.

Mapbox proves that being open source wont hurt your bottom line. Recently off of a $52.55 million dollar Series B funding round, Mapbox is still committed to its open source ethos.

As Mapbox engineer Tom MacWright explains, open source was the default. “[Mapbox] was open from the beginning, it was a core value,” he said.

Beyond opening its code, Mapbox staffers are also open communicators. All internal discussions about their open platform take place in public forums, primarily on GitHub. This means no emails or backchannels.

All this openness does come at a cost, however. “The cost is, in a lot of cases, fear,” said MacWright. He’s referring to the fear that a competitor will take its platform.

But it’s a balance, MacWright concludes, between exclusivity and wanting people to use a product that helps strike the right amount of openness. When asked if Mapbox would do it again knowing what they know today, MacWright says yes but they would have created clearer standards and expectations around their open source approach earlier. Better late than never: you can read Mapbox’s policy on open source for yourself.

10. Ghost, London

Ghost is a simple, open source and not-for-profit publishing platform.

When Ghost founder John O’Nolan started this project it was a simple choice to open the platform. “It’s all I’ve ever really known,” said O’Nolan, who used to work at WordPress — another open source platform.

He believes that open sourcing the Ghost platform not only creates a common foundation for users, but it also helped the group raise money. Raising $300,000 on Kickstarter would have been impossible, O’Nolan argues, if Ghost was a proprietary software.

That isn’t to say that open source doesn’t have its costs, though. “Everything takes more time,” said O’Nolan. “When you’re coding in public, you’re more conservative. You’re less likely to put in a dirty hack, because you know people are going to be looking at it.”

O’Nolan, however, thinks this extra time is worth it. “Fostering an open source community means a lot of input from different cultural backgrounds and respecting them equally,” he said. “There’s no way to do that quickly.”

Companies: Mapbox / Squareknot

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