There is NO Open Source Business Model

Stephen Walli
8 min readOct 25, 2016


Preface: It has been brought to my attention by friends and trusted advisors that a valid interpretation of my point below is that open source is ultimately about “grubby commercialism”, and altruism equals naïveté. That was not my intent. I believe that economics is about behaviour not money. I believe in Drucker (a company exists to create a market for the solution), not Friedman (a company exists to provide a return to shareholders). I believe in the Generous Man. I believe in Rappaport’s solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemma to always start with the most generous choice. I believe we’ve known how communities work since you had a campfire and I wanted to sit beside it. I had the pleasure of watching Bob Young give a talk today at “All Things Open” where he reiterated that a successful company always focuses on the success of its customers. I think that was stamped on Red Hat’s DNA from its founding, and continues to contribute to its success with customers today. I believe sharing good software is the only way to make all of us as successful as we can be as a tribe. I believe there is no scale in software without discipline.

The open source definition is almost 20 years old. Red Hat at 22 is a $2B company. MySQL and JBoss have had great acquisition exits. Cloudera and Hortonworks are well on their way to becoming the next billion dollar software companies. But I would like to observe that despite these successes, there is no open source business model.

yosuke muroya (on Flickr)

I completely believe in the economic value of liberally-licensed collaboratively-developed software. We’ve shared software since we’ve developed software, all the way back into the late 40s and early 50s. This is because writing good software is inherently hard work. We’ve demonstrated that software reviews find more bugs than testing, so building a software development culture of review creates better software. Much of the invention in software engineering and programming systems has been directed towards re-use and writing more and better software in fewer lines of code. Software can’t scale without discipline and rigour in how it’s built and deployed. Software is inherently dynamic, and this dynamism has become clear in an Internet connected world. Well-run, disciplined, liberally-licensed collaborative communities seem to solve for these attributes of software and its development better than other ways of developing, evolving, and maintaining it. There is an engineering economic imperative behind open source software.

Here’s an example using open source that I believe closely demonstrates that reality.

Interix was a product in the late 90s that provided the UNIX face on Windows NT. It encompassed ~300 software packages covered by 25 licenses, plus a derivative of the Microsoft POSIX subsystem, plus our own code. This was before the open source definition. We started with the 4.4BSD-Lite distro because that’s what the AT&T/USL lawyers said we could use. The gcc compiler suite would provide critical support for our tool chain as well as an SDK to enable customers to port their UNIX application base to Windows NT.

It took a senior compiler developer on the order of 6–8 months to port gcc into the Interix environment. It was a little more work when you include testing and integration, etc., so round it up to on the order of $100K. The gcc suite was about 750K lines of code in those days, which the COCOMO calculation suggests was worth $10M-$20M worth of value depending on how much folks were earning. So that’s roughly two orders of magnitude in cost savings instead of writing a compiler suite on our own. That and this was a well-maintained, robust, hardened compiler suite, not a new creation created from scratch in a vacuum. That is the benefit of using open source. You can see a similar net return on the 10% year-on-year investment Red Hat makes on their Linux kernel contributions as they deliver Fedora and RHEL. Of course with Interix, we were now living on a fork. This means we are drifting further away from the functionality and fixes on the mainline.

The back of the envelop estimate suggested that every new major revision of gcc would cost us another 6+ months to re-integrate, but if we could get our changes contributed back into the mainline code base, we were probably looking at a month of integration testing instead. So from ~$100K we’re approaching $10K-$20K so possibly another order of magnitude cheaper by not living on a fork. We approached Cygnus Solutions as they were the premier gcc engineering team with several gcc committers. The price to integrate quoted to us was ~$120K, but they were successfully oversubscribed with enough other gcc work that they couldn’t begin for 14 months. Ada Core Technologies on the other hand would only charge ~$40K and could begin the following month. It was a very easy decision. (We were not in a position to participate directly in the five communities hiding under the gcc umbrella. While some projects respected the quality of engineering we were trying to contribute, others were hostile to the fact we were working on that Microsoft s***. There’s no pleasing some people.)

This wasn’t contributing back out of altruism. It was engineering economics. It was the right thing to do, and contributed back to the hardening of the compiler suite we were using ourselves. It was what makes well run open source projects work. I would argue that individuals make similar decisions because having your name on key contribution streams in the open source world is some of the best advertising and resume content you can provide as a developer on your ability to get work done, in a collaborative engineering setting, and demonstrating you well understand a technology base. It’s the fact with which you can lead in an interview. And it’s fun. It’s interesting and challenging in all the right ways. If you’re a good developer or interested in improving your skills, why wouldn’t you participate and increase your own value and skills?

Well run open source software communities are interesting buckets of technology. If they evolve to a particular size they become ecosystems of products, services (support, consulting, training), books and other related-content. To use an organic model, open source is trees, out of which people create lumber, out of which they build a myriad of other products.

Red Hat is presented as the epitome of an open source company. When I look at Red Hat, I don’t see an open source company. I see a software company that has had three CEOs making critical business decisions in three different market contexts as they grow a company focused on their customers. Bob Young founded a company building a Linux distro in the early days of Linux. He was focused on the Heinz ketchup model of branding. When you thought “Linux”, Bob wanted the next words in your head to be “Red Hat.” And this was the initial growth of Red Hat Linux in the early days of the Internet and through the building of the Internet bubble. It was all about brand management. Red Hat successfully took key rounds of funding, and successfully went public in 1999. The Red Hat stock boomed.

Matt Szulick took over the reins as CEO that Fall. Within a couple of years the Internet bubble burst and the stock tumbled from ~$140 down to $3.50. Over the next couple of years, Red Hat successfully made the pivot to server. RHEL was born. Soon after Fedora was delivered such that a Red Hat focused developer community would have an active place to collaborate while Red Hat maintained stability for enterprise customers on RHEL. They successfully crossed Moore’s Chasm in financial services. JBoss was acquired for $350M to provide enterprise middleware. Red Hat went after the UNIX ISV community before the other Linux distro vendors realized it was a race.

In 2008, Jim Whitehurst took over the helm. In Whitehurst, they had a successful executive that had navigated running an airline through its Chapter 11 restructuring. So he knows how to grow and maintain employee morale, while managing costs, and keeping customers happy in the viciously competitive cutthroat market of a commercial air travel. He arrives at Red Hat just in time for the economic collapse of 2008. Perfect. But he has also led them through steady stock growth since joining.

Through its history, Red Hat has remained focused on solving their customers problems. Harvard economist Theodore Levitt once observed that a customer didn’t want a quarter inch drill, what they wanted was a quarter inch hole. While lots of competing Linux distro companies tried to be the best Linux distro, Red Hat carefully positioned themselves not as the best Linux but as an enterprise quality, inexpensive alternative to Solaris on expensive SPARC machines in the data centre.

Red Hat certainly uses open source buckets of technology to shape their products and services, but it’s not a different business model from the creation of DEC Ultrix or Sun SunOS out of the BSD world, or the collaborative creation of OSF/1 and the evolution of DEC Ultrix and IBM AIX, or the evolution of SunOS to Solaris from a licensed System V base. At what point did Windows NT cease to be a Microsoft product with the addition of thousands of third party licensed pieces of software including the Berkeley sockets technology?

When companies share their own source code out of which they build their products and services, and attempt to develop their own collaborative communities, they gain different benefits. Their technology becomes stickier with customers and potential future customers. They gain advocates and experts. It builds inertia around the technology. The technology is hardened. Depending on the relationship between the bucket of technology and their products, they can evolve strong complements to their core offerings.

The engineering economic effects may not be as great as pulling from a well run external bucket of technology, but the other developer effects make up for the investment in a controlled and owned community. It’s why companies like IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Oracle all invest heavily in their developer networks regardless of the fact these historically had nothing to do with open source licensing. It creates stickiness. Red Hat gains different benefits from their engineering investments in Linux, their development of the Fedora community, and the acquisition of the JBoss technology, experts, and customers.

I believe open source licensed, disciplined, collaborative development communities will prove to be the best software development and maintenance methodology over the long term. It’s created a myriad of robust adaptive building blocks that have become central to modern life in a world that runs on software. But folks should never confuse the creation of those building blocks with the underlying business of solving customer problems in a marketplace. There is no “open source business model.”

Update, 19-October-2018: I have added additional insights from a software business perspective, rather than the engineering economic perspective presented here in ‘There is Still NO Open Source Business Model’.



Stephen Walli

Tech exec, Founder, Writer, Open Source Advocate, Software Business Consultant, working at Microsoft (again!) in the Azure Office of the CTO