The value of Open*

Introduction

Last week, something exciting happened: We were actually able to physically attend an event hosted by the Research Center for Digital Sustainability from the University of Bern. The main reason for the event was the publication of this year’s Open Source Survey, but for us it was also a great opportunity to learn more about how other companies use or develop Open Source, build communities, and define the cultural aspect around Open Source. And if that was not exciting enough: actually being able to talk to other people over a cold beverage was definitely a big plus after the past months.

I want to share some insights and thoughts about the study, conversations and talks from the event, and finally about our Open* journey with you.

Open*

In the first talk of the event, Dominic Brander introduced us to the term Open*. That term not only suggests being mindful about including others [1], but also makes it easy to refer to the broader context of Open Source, Open Data, and Open Standards.

I like this term. It makes things easier. And what I realized is that for us, and apparently for others as well, Open Source is not only about letting others see your code, Open Standards is not only about agreeing on a common denominator, and Open Data is not only about getting free data for your school work. It’s much more a cultural thing, for example a culture of trust, enabling collaboration yet not only through interoperability, but of transparency.

I will use the term in this article and most likely in the future.

[1] ‘*’ is also referred to as ‘Gender star’ and is a form to provide gender neutrality in a language that otherwise has a grammatical gender.

Insights from Swiss companies

My intention is not to comment on the study, but rather point out some subjectively interesting points for our business and our business area. I realize the study is only available in German, even more motivation to share some insights.

49% of participating companies (N ~150) declare themselves as “heavy users”, using Open Source in more than half of the suggested 28 categories. This figure is up from 29% in 2018. The study offers no more insight on share of total software used within a company, but this is still a good indicator that Open* solutions are valued broadly.

Interestingly, “Interoperability” is both the top reason FOR and second most important obstacle AGAINST adoption of Open Source in organizations. This point was also discussed by Dominic in his talk: Open != Interoperability, meaning being an Open product is not a sufficient condition for being interoperable with every other product. We have to work on interoperability and need to get better at it.

Overall the top 5 objections mentioned against using Open Source:

  • Uncertain future of Open Source projects, unclear business model
  • Missing integration with other systems
  • Lock-ins with current, proprietary system
  • Missing features, no matching Open Source alternatives
  • Lack of acceptance by end-users, not user-friendly

The authors argue that maintainers/vendors must provide more transparency on the long-term development of their products, coupled with overall more information about the Open Source business model. Likewise the authors urge Open Source communities to become more (end-)customer-centric and generally more accessible.

I fully support that. The same seems to be valid here as for the interoperability argument:
Releasing your product under an Open License is not sufficient to immediately establish trust and gain a dominant competitive advantage over other solutions out there. Trust and product-leadership also comes from a clear goal with a plan and means to reach and satisfy your users’ needs (aka. “business model”).

Similarly, sharing your project using an Open License and making some processes more transparent out in the open, does not mean these processes are customer-centric. Customer centricity does not mean to collect and work through feedback, but rather to go through a phase of pattern finding, developing innovative ideas for these problem fields, and iterating potential solutions as early as possible with end-users (aka. “innovation process”)

So despite the objections, why are we in the Open* game?

Our motivation for Open*

Open Standards: Thoroughly reviewed, battle-tested protocols and processes are key for developing an application like ZITADEL, that serves as a serious trust anchor and holds sensitive data. We implement open standards wherever possible to guarantee the security and interoperability of our systems.

Open Source: Use of our application is based on trust. Building this trust is demanding, but can be achieved amongst others with transparency and security at the core. Thus our code that runs on our shared-cloud service is shared openly along with our processes, availability strategies and providers (see Trust).

Open Licence: We say “Own your data!”, some others call it “Digital sovereignty”. We both mean the same thing: Reducing vendor lock-in, dependence on a single platform, and the ability to process and store the data wherever you want - even without commercial support. Our software is licensed under Apache 2.0.

Open Platform: We want to focus on what we do best, namely developing and operating an identity and access management system for SaaS-providers. Our users should be able to build their use cases on our platform, and integrate their favorite services with it. That’s why we employ an API-first approach and expose all functions via gRCP, REST and Webhooks.

Open Community: We welcome contributions in every shape and form, and appreciate the time people invest. Eventually the discussions, external challenges, contributions to the platform or our business help us to get better every day and be open for new and innovative ideas.

For us the use of Open* is much more a mindset that is reflected in our vision, strategy and architecture of our products, than just a process to follow or licence to grant.

What I realized while reflecting on this article is that we might want to figure out how we want to deal with Open Data in the future.

Now to the party-crasher: Sure, we can talk about Open Licenses etc, but should you trust us not pulling a MongoDB license stunt?

Thoughts on SSPL license

Another particularly interesting talk at the event was held by Simon Schlauri on the Server Side Public License (SSPL) and its implications. The situation is as expected: Organizations can publish their code under an SSPL license, so that a SaaS offering would be conditional to a copy-left license. This is concerning for many users who are not the main target of this license (ie. ‘Big Tech’). Lawyers already found clever ways to circumvent the copy-left part, if you still don’t want to pay a license. Frankly, it’s a messy business.

We have discussed the different options for licenses and decided for an Apache 2.0 license. Our business model is inspired by companies like Gitlab that are known for their great Open Source community and through that also being successful as a company.

Does Open* have any value, then?

Just right away - the thoughts mentioned above have non-monetary value on their own. Both for us and our users. Trust in our product and our team holds for us as a company and maintainer the greatest value.

We earn our salaries by offering ZITADEL, our identity and access management platform, as a service and charging a monthly subscription for support and some non-security related features. Moreover we offer managed instances or 3rd level support for customer instances. Yet you can use ZITADEL completely for free either by running it yourself or by using our free tier. Keeping up to date with security risks and operating the system in more complex and highly scalable scenarios (e.g. geo-redundant or hybrid setups), that is where we excel through our knowledge and experience. Hence our slogan “always run a changing system”. And ,at least for now, customers are happy to pay for this.

Regarding company value: From my experience until now I can say that neither the tax office nor investors make a big difference between open and closed source. Both parties are whether you have the ability to generate sustainable cash flows with the product. Sure, a patent would help to secure some kind of competitive advantage for a certain time, but in the SaaS world the proof lies in the scalable customer base.

During the event Peter Balsiger also remarked in his talk that IBM paid $34bn in 2018 to acquire Red Hat. That has been by far the biggest deal yet, but 2018 was really a breakthrough year regarding Open Source deals, affirming that Open Source companies are valuable.

Afterthought: Contributing to Open Source as non-techie

After the end of the official event, I had a great conversation with Jannis Valaulta. You can check out his talk on digital sovereignty (“Own your data!”, remember?).

I posted the question how “non-techies” could approach contributing to Open Source. For me, as someone with an economics rather than engineering background, the contribution to Open Source projects seemed limited, since “I can’t contribute to fixing or improving stuff”. Other areas as Open Data seem much more approachable for me.

His recommendation was to start with contributing in your area of expertise, optimally in an upcoming hackathon. As an example a designer could contribute with graphics, logos or websites during the hackathon. Similarly, someone with an UX background could help to improve acceptance of users, and someone with a business background could support with figuring out the economic feasibility of the solution for both, customers and providers.

That suggestion seems trivial, but for me that was not so explicitly clear. I realize from my own experience that you most likely can’t excel in all areas that are required to operate a successful Open Source business and outside suggestions are always appreciated. So I think, the next time I might just offer my support, being also open to receive a “no thanks”.

Great, now what?

If you want to learn more about the study and the talks:

  • View and download the study (German)
  • View and download all slides and view the talks (German)
  • Checkout the Association for the promotion of Open Source Software and Open Standards in Switzerland
  • Open Source activity tracker of Swiss companies
  • Directory of Swiss open source solutions

Unfortunately the event was hosted in German only. Translating the website worked for me partially. Let me know in case you are interested but need help with the language part.

If you’re interested in our projects: