Interview: 9 Questions For Alfresco Software's Chairman, John Newton

by Ostatic Staff - Apr. 23, 2009

Launched in 2005, Alfresco Software provides a leading open source enterprise content management (ECM) system, known for its modularity and scalability. The company was founded by John Newton, co-founder of document management company Documentum, and John Powell, who was the former COO of Business Objects. Alfresco has achieved remarkable growth as a commercial open source firm, has many partners, employs roughly 110 people, and is a member of the Open Source Channel Alliance. John Newton, CTO, Chairman and Co-Founder of Alfresco, was kind enough to take some questions from us on Alfresco's software, its strategy  as a commercial open source company, and the state and future of open source. Here are his thoughts.

OStatic: Please tell us how Alfresco’s ECM solution differs from other open source content management solutions.

Alfresco is the only open source content management solution to offer a truly enterprise-scale solution spanning the breadth of the ECM solution – Alfresco provides a content platform and repository spanning WCM, RM, DM, Image Management and Collaboration. Additionally, Alfresco software is primarily developed and maintained by our own engineering team, whereas compared with many other open source CMS projects, which are unsupported. We offer our customers the innovation and flexibility of the open source development model, but back this with support and maintenance at enterprise service levels:

· Breadth of ECM solution

· Content Platform (used in many OEM solutions)

· Enterprise scale deployment (see Unisys benchmark)

· Enterprise SLAs

OStatic: What are the primary differences between your community-driven open source platform and your fee-based Enterprise Edition?

The Alfresco Labs product is unsupported and intended for use by developers in non-critical environments. The Alfresco Enterprise Edition is a production ready open source product that has a stress-tested certified build that is supported by Alfresco Software Inc. The Alfresco engineering team wrote over 95 percent of the source code and Version 3.1 was released during March 2009, which introduces a number of new components.

As you mention, the Labs version is completely free while the Enterprise edition’s pricing is based on a yearly support subscription fee metered by the number of CPUs (aka ’sockets’) on the server(s) you’re installing on. Up to 4 cores are allowed per CPU.

OStatic: In a recent story we did on survey results from North Bridge Partners on open source, respondents said the number one roadblock to adoption of open source in enterprises is simply lack of familiarity with the available options. Do you address this problem with any unusual approaches to evangelizing Alfresco’s solutions for enterprises?

Education of the market is certainly an ongoing process. However, increasingly IT and procurement departments are gaining experience with a variety of commercial open source vendors such as Sun/MySQL, Alfresco, SugarCRM, Zimbra and Red Hat – who have adopted similar subscription models providing a range of technical support and maintenance subscription services via enterprise service level agreements (SLAs).

It is also important for enterprises to realize that not only does open source lower the acquisition cost for software, but also dramatically decreases risk. A CIO doesn't have to guess whether our software is going to work for his/her organization; they can download the software, try it out, pilot it and then come back to buy a support subscription. CIOs have less risk of failed IT projects with open source and as your readers are well aware, efficiency is the name of the game in a downturn.

OStatic: To what extent do you think insufficient support is a roadblock to enterprise open source adoption?

When considering the resources and support required for an open source deployment, it is important to differentiate between commercial open source vendors and unsupported open source projects. Commercial open source vendors have built successful businesses based on a model that is all about providing a range of technical support and maintenance subscription services via enterprise service level agreements (SLAs) - all at a fraction of the cost of traditional software vendors licensing and maintenance agreements.

In addition, the majority of open source vendors have invested in building a community of developers and SI partners to provide implementation and integration services and expertise to their client base.

Organizations looking to utilize commercial open source software should expect to incur no more issues with regards to IT support than any other software under an SLA, in fact as they are based on open standards IT departments should be able to leverage existing skills sets more readily.

OStatic: Not long ago, you added interoperability with Microsoft SharePoint, for collaboration. Are you finding it easier to interoperate with Microsoft’s products at this point. Has anything changed to make that true?

Microsoft’s compliance with the EC directives to provide protocol specifications has been very helpful and accelerated the process of being able to implement these protocols. We had been in process of understanding the protocol using on-the-wire network analysis, but having the specification has dramatically simplified this. Most protocols that we would use are now available. Microsoft has worked closely with the Samba team to work on SMB interoperability and we have discussed with Microsoft the possibility of working in similar fashion on SharePoint protocol interoperability. In addition, Microsoft has been a very active member of CMIS and we anticipate a lot of interoperability provided through the CMIS protocol, especially in Office 2010 and SharePoint 2010.

OStatic: Can users try Alfresco’s platforms without doing a full installation, just to get a feeling for the capabilities?

So glad you asked! Alfresco offers a number of ways for organizations to try Alfresco and even pilot projects before making a commitment to a subscription. A fully functional trial of Alfresco Enterprise is available either as a download or as a hosted trial.

OStatic: Are you seeing more interest in open source solutions within enterprises with the economic downturn?

As the recession takes its toll on IT budgets, a new study suggests that companies can save $387 billion in development costs by using open-source software. From what we’ve been seeing, two issues that are highlighted by IT executives in relation to budget management during the downturn include:

  * IT industry consolidation (M&A) is a threat to the IT customer, driving out choice and innovation and raising prices - in particular the arbitrary end of life of overlapping products and the re-licencing cost for the enterprise.

* The notion of calculating into the ROI the “exit cost,” for example having to switch off the Oracle DBMS and migrate the data.

In conversations with both public and private sector clients we see IT executives looking for architecture components, often open source and certainly based on open standards, that deliver immediate business value, but that also offer a degree of future-proofing for their IT infrastructures.

The re-use of flexible technology stacks for multiple projects is a trend that we are increasingly seeing within the collaborative content management. They are also exploring ways to drive out exposure to costly license and replace with more flexible, sustainable subscription-based procurement options offered by both commercial open source and SaaS models.

Not only does open source lower the acquisition cost for software, but also dramatically decreases risk, as I mentioned above.

OStatic: Do you foresee many more upcoming open source applications offered online as software-as-a-service solutions?

Software-as-a-Service and Cloud applications are almost exclusively powered by open source. The only question is how much of the solution is open source. Very few components are powered by vendors such as Oracle or Microsoft, which very late in the game introduced the Biz Spark program. With Alfresco, we see content services as being an important component of any software as a service -- for instance accessing User Generated Content.

CMIS has the advantage of being created in a post-Web 2.0 world. Its REST interface fits neatly in creating content services for SaaS platforms and even being the basis for SaaS applications -- either User Generated Content applications or Content-centric applications like publishing or information or knowledge collection and publishing. The possibilities of applications built on CMIS are as endless as database applications and we see Alfresco as providing the infrastructure for those applications.

OStatic: What does the open source movement need to get more traction? Better evangelists? Better marketing at commercial open source firms?

Open source is growing faster than proprietary commercial vendors did at the same stage. What we have found in the past is that an emergent leader in a sector can come to take a significant market share position relative to the proprietary vendors. We have seen that with Linux vs. Unix, JBoss vs. proprietary Java application servers and MySQL vs. the proprietary database vendors. Not all of these will turn into enterprise sales, but the purpose of open source in a software category is to commoditize that sector of the industry.

We’re currently in the middle of that process in the ECM market and traction is building. Open source is forcing all software vendors to provide ongoing value to justify CIOs spending money with them. Red Hat has led this shift, but it's a movement that is accelerating as open source permeates all areas of the technology stack, from applications like Openbravo (ERP) and MindTouch (collaboration) to core infrastructure like Lucid Imagination (search) and MySQL (database).

As enterprises get squeezed by the recession, they're starting to squeeze their vendors for cost savings. At some point, those vendors' cost structures and business models won't support the pressure. In a way, this movement, as we see it, is inevitable. Better evangelists, marketing and perhaps most importantly the ability to successfully leverage the power of the open source community can only make the change come more quickly.