Linux in Government: Providing a Successful Model for OSS Enterprise Users and Linux Companies

JBoss offers insight to raising open-source businesses.

Not too many years ago, I had an encounter with a subordinate who reported to me and another manager. I considered the event unpleasant, worthy of dismissal, so I met with the other boss to discuss it. During that discussion ,the question of coachability came up. We reached a consensus that perhaps we lacked the ability to coach our subordinate. We later met with the young man and asked him what it would take for us to coach him. Knowing his job sat on the bubble, the young man at first professed an eagerness for coaching but then finally admitted no one could coach him. He said that he was not coachable. At that moment, I knew the opposite was true, and over time he became an excellent manager himself.

Allowing oneself to become coachable requires what I sometimes call an existential moment of courage. It requires an ability to allow someone else to reach us with our defenses down and to admit we do not know something. It also requires a high degree of self confidence and knowledge that we need to have the same courage and vulnerability each time our need for coaching surfaces.

Bob Dylan once wrote, "he not busy being born/Is busy dying". Most people interpret that to mean the when we stop growing and learning, we start the final journey of our lives.

People who reach a certain level of competency in any field often forget that learning and growing continue to be requirements for excelling. For that reason, we all need to find strong models of success to emulate. The most successful man I ever met told me that he spent every moment he could studying the lives of great men. That man once served as the Chief of Staff to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In the emerging industry we call open source, finding people to emulate does not come easily. One company in particular, however, has demonstrated a successful commercial model, about which few Linux people know and fewer understand. When I mention the name JBoss, I'm surprised by how few Linux advocates and government CIOs have much awareness of the project or the company.

On Freshmeat, you can find this description of JBoss:

JBoss is an Open Source, standards-compliant, Enterprise JavaBeans application server implemented in pure Java. JBoss provides JBossServer, the basic EJB container and JMX infrastructure, JBossMQ for JMS messaging, JBossMail for mail, JBossTX for JTA/JTS transactions, JBossSX for JAAS based security, JBossCX for JCA connectivity, and JBossCMP for CMP persistence. It integrates with Tomcat Servlet/JSP container and Jetty Web server/servlet container, and enables you to mix and match these components through JMX by replacing any component you wish with a JMX-compliant implementation for the same APIs. The goal is to provide a full J2EE stack in the Free/Open Source software world.

This description tells us little, though, about a company that now owns the market in which IBM's Websphere and BEA's WebLogic once fought each other for control of the J2EE application server space. How did an open-source company that gives away its product with an LGPL license and that allows developers to bundle, include and redistribute freely its software in their own products become the industry bell-weather? In answering that question, you basically answer what everyone has been asking open-source software: How do you make money with a straight Free Software license?

Evolution of an Enterprise Open-Source Company

Figure 1 provides a visual depiction of JBoss's growth. Last summer, I conducted an interview with the founder of JBoss, Marc Fleury. I learned that as with most open-source advocates, he started the company in a garage, set up a project, attracted like-minded developers and strove toward building and releasing working software.

Figure 1. Courtesy of Shaun Connolly, JBoss

Unlike other open-source projects, however, Fleury began generating revenue by offering training and personal support. He worked to train developers to use his product and answered their questions when they ran into trouble. While providing an income for himself, he also established a community of interest that ultimately blossomed into a robust Open Source community.

Fleury's initial activities as a small consultancy may provide the point of delineation between JBoss and other similar ventures. In fact, my own success in business occurred when I began offering training, seminars and a lot of content about my products, waiting patiently for the business to develop.

Fleury solved the problem that we often hear about open-source companies and projects: He provided people with clear information on how to use the software and always was ready to help. Contrast that with projects in which you're expected to find information from mailing lists or forums--the same forums in which you are blasted for asking questions already answered in a previous thread.