Why We Release GroupServer as Open Source

OnlineGroups.Net has released the source code of GroupServer, the software that powers our web and email collaboration service. This means that, if you are technically savvy and have access to a server, you can download, install and run GroupServer sites for free. You can inspect the inner workings of GroupServer and even make changes to it, if you like. Why would we do this, when we charge money for premium online groups sites here? Here are the reasons we do this.

Transparency Builds Trust

People who use our online groups trust us with their data. Like other service providers, we have a privacy policy, but think words should be backed up with actions. We want our customers to know what’s under the hood of the system they trust with their data. Of course, not everyone has the technical skills to understand the workings of the systems, but the option is there for those who do.

GroupServer is a fairly sophisticated system to administer, so we make it easy to start sites and online groups, here at OnlineGroups.Net. Sites with only public groups are free, but we charge a subscription for sites with private groups. Even though that’s how we make money (there are no ads on our sites), we want our customers to use that service by choice, not because it’s their only option.

We want people to feel good about us, so that our customers spread the word about our service.

GroupServer will Get Better Faster

One of the main things that makes open source software successful is that people who like the software help to make it better. People who use OnlineGroups.Net already do that, by providing feedback in the OnlineGroups.Net Administrators online group, by only people who adminster GroupServer behind-the-scenes can give us technical feedback about it.

As organisations use and benefit from GroupServer, they are likely to want improvements to it. Some of our customers engage us to improve GroupServer now. There is no penalty to them if we give those improvements to all our customers, and they benefit because other customers do the same. In many open source projects, organisations who use the software engage their own developers to make the improvements, and contribute those back to the core of the system.

GroupServer is built in a modular way, so that it can easily support a large community of developers working on it at the same time.

We Like Interesting Gigs

Believe it or not, we like doing real work that makes a real difference. By giving away GroupServer, we know that we’ll get asked to do consulting and development on interesting projects: we already are. We also provide custom hosting for GroupServer sites, and software maintenance to keep sites running on the latest version of GroupServer.

Open Source Software Attracts Awesome Developers

One of the challenges in the software business is finding awesome developers, when you need them. One of our goals in building a developer community is to get to know people who are experienced with our product, whom we can call on to work with us on projects.

Collaboration Software Should be Built by Collaboration

Releasing the source is consistent with our philosophy of collaboration, where it makes sense. After all, collaboration is what our software is for. We believe that software that is built by collaboration is better at supporting collaboration. We’re building it for something that we do, not something that only other people do.

Of course the tools that we use, Linux, Zope, Python, PostgreSQL, Apache, Postfix and others are all open source. Because we benefit from those tools, it makes sense to contribute back.

Giving Software Away Just Feels Right

We want to make significant, widely-installed software. It doesn’t cost us to give away software. We figure that the more we can give away, the more good things will come back to us.

Protect IP by Giving it Away

The fact that there is no licence fee for GroupServer doesn’t mean there is no licence. GroupServer uses the GPL, which strictly specifies that anyone releasing modified versions of GroupServer, must apply the same open licence to their code. This does not guarantee that everyone will play nicely and keep GroupServer open, but the bigger the community that uses GroupServer, the less the impact of breaches will be.

It is even possible that a competitor could start offering a service providing sites and online groups like we do. That competitor, however, would be just as exposed as we are to a second competitor and a third entering the scene. Actually, if you’d like to get involved with GroupServer, come and talk to us. Maybe there’s some way we can work together. Or just go ahead and install it. We are creating an ecosystem here, not an empire.

We’re Not The Only Ones Doing This

Finally, we didn’t think this up for ourselves. Automattic have built a successful business based on the open source blogging tool WordPress. SugarCRM give away their software, as well as providing hosted access to it. Read/Write Web recently described how you can Build Your Own Reddit With Reddit, discussed how niche software service companies can benefit from open sourcing their code.

Collaboration platform provider Grou.ps (who, like, us are not advertising-based, and do email lists with a forum interface) have just raised $1.1 million, and open sourced a version of their software, as discussued on Read/Write Web and TechCrunch.

Update: Scott Dietzen of Zimbralog writes about The Merge of SaaS and Open Source echoes our views about customer like-in, vs lock-in. Zimbra has blended SaaS and OSS from the outset.

“The cynic would argue why give up proprietary intellectual property and lock-in unless your customers or competitive pressures are forcing you to do so? Indeed, the lock-in with SaaS may prove to be more onerous than it has been with proprietary software—not only is an organization tied to a proprietary software service, but its data is now resident in someone else’s data center.”

Data portability is a topic that I will cover in a future post to this blog (we can provide it, but it is not yet standard on OnlineGroups.Net). Scott also writes about the choice between hosted and in-house provision.

“While SaaS allows organizations to ramp up new software with minimal investment, open source means they could always bring it in house later or move to an alternative provider (or at least have the negotiating leverage for doing the same).”

2 Responses to “Why We Release GroupServer as Open Source”

  1. Bevan

    Have you considered using the Affero GPL (aka AGPL)?

    I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that the GPL does NOT require that third parties make freely available any of their modifications to source code, if the modified software is only distributed within that third party; Which includes deployment to a public-facing web server belonging to said third party in order to sell the modified software as a service.

    Such a competitor could thus add significant value-adding features to GroupServer, sell it as a service under a different name, and never be obliged to release those changes back to the GroupServer community.

    Yes this means that open source web tools are not well ‘covered’ by the GPL IRT the ability to enforce collaboration if or when required. At the end of the day the issue is that the GPL was designed for software that is distributed, compiled, redistributed, and executed all on the end user’s machine. The GPL was not written with interpreted languages like PHP or server-side software that is not distributed to the end-user’s machine in mind.

    Drupal has been a bitten by this issue in it’s (ab)use by a certain popular web hosting vendor.

    If my understanding is correct, the issue I’ve outlined here was the motivation for the creation of Affero GPL, which covers this particular issue.

    The AGPL (http://www.fsf.org/licensing/licenses/agpl-3.0.html) was created by Henry Poole (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Poole) of CivicActions (http://www.civicactions.com/team/henrypoole), and Eben Moglen (http://moglen.law.columbia.edu/) of the Software Freedom Law Center (http://www.softwarefreedom.org/about/team/#eben) and the Free Software Foundation (http://www.fsf.org/) — who co-authored the GPL (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eben_Moglen) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affero_General_Public_License).

  2. Dan Randow

    Bevan, the more liberal the licence, the more chance of uptake. It is better to have a tight hold on something small or a loose hold on something large?

    If a competitor is large enough to develop and market GroupServer better than we can — or than they could without collaborating with us — then they are large enough that they can do what they like regardless of the licence. Bring the adoption in all its diversity, I say.

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