A new direction for open source
Software vendors consider switch to fee-based model
- By Michael Arnone
- Jul 15, 2006
Editor's note: This story was updated at noon July 17, 2006, to correct that the 451 Group is an independent research group that analyzes the business of enterprise information technology. It also should have stated that OpenSSH runs in every federal agency and on every Linux- and Unix-based computer worldwide. Finally, it should have stated that federal IT systems administrators could participate in whatever group takes over for the OpenBSD Project running should the project run out of money.
Open-source software developers that move to a closed-source licensing model to help pay their bills can create challenges, but they also offer opportunities for federal agencies, experts say. Federal users who are increasingly reliant on open-source software are paying more attention to those decisions, and they are stepping in to get the outcomes they want.
For example, Tenable Network Security announced in October 2005 that it would make Version 3.0 of its ubiquitous open-source Nessus network-scanning tool closed source. It was probably the first major open-source IT security tool to become proprietary, said Nick Selby, senior analyst for enterprise security at the 451 Group, an independent research group that analyzes the business of enterprise IT.
Tenable officials said Nessus 3.0 would still be free to users, but the company would begin selling technical support contracts and would charge other firms that want to use the newest version of code in their products or services.
Nevertheless, the Tenable news shook up the IT community, including federal users. Government and the private sector rely so heavily on open-source tools that switching to proprietary replacements — even if the new software is better — is disruptive, Selby said. At a minimum, a switch requires organizations to change administrative routines, which is not always a simple task. It could involve a more significant infrastructure overhaul, he said.
“Even with warning, Tenable’s decision to take Nessus proprietary changed the way a lot of people do business. [Systems administrators] used to running a quick scan to determine a box’s posture suddenly had to find another tool that worked so simply for so little money,” Selby said.
No more working for free
It’s not surprising that some open-source software companies consider closing their source code, said Dennis Cox, chief technical officer at BreakingPoint Systems, a company that tests IT security tools. Traditional open-source licenses require developers to give software improvements and fixes back to the open-source community for free. Closing the code and selling future versions or becoming the official supplier of support services can be profitable, Cox said.
A move to closed source is part of the business plan for some open-source companies, Cox said. Companies and developers can issue a rough version of the software in open source, he said. Once the software becomes prominent, the originators can make it closed source and provide extra features at a cost.
The desire for more federal and commercial business can drive open-source providers to close their code for future versions, said Darryll Dewan, group president of SourceForge enterprise software at VA Software, which operates SourceForge.net, a major open-source development Web site.
That’s because government and private-sector enterprises often prefer the structured support that closed- and mixed-source solutions provide, Dewan said. Large organizations often move to proprietary versions of open-source products to obtain service-level agreements and other structured arrangements for paid support, said Paul Henry, vice president and security evangelist at Secure Computing.
But the move to closed source can backfire. Tenable’s switch became a public relations nightmare because many users felt that someone else would profit from the collaboration they put into the software, Selby said. “Does the community get owed something for promoting and fixing Nessus?” Cox asked.
How to respond
Switching to closed source could have national security implications in addition to financial and operational ones. For instance, Check Point Software Technologies announced in October 2005 that it planned to acquire Sourcefire Network Security. Sourcefire helps manage Snort, an open-source network intrusion-detection and -prevention software used worldwide. Many federal agencies that handle sensitive data, including the Defense Department and the National Security Agency, rely on Snort.
Congress, the FBI, the Pentagon and the Treasury Department balked when they learned that Check Point is an Israeli company. Many members of the federal IT community feared that a foreign company could make one of the government’s primary security tools proprietary and take control of the Snort source code. Under federal pressure, Sourcefire and Check Point scuttled the $225 million deal in March.
That situation emphasized the importance of open-source software to the federal government and why some open-source software should remain that way, Selby said.
The government likes open-source software for a number of reasons, said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at Federal Sources Inc. “Generally, it’s cheaper” than proprietary software, he said. “There’s a perception that it’s generally more secure” because there are more eyeballs to find flaws and hands to fix them, he said.
As long as the new closed-source version adheres to former standards, the government may pay to continue using it, Bjorklund said. But he said other companies will probably offer cheaper open-source products to replace proprietary ones.
If security-minded federal agencies worry that a company’s move to closed source could threaten their source code or databases, they should negotiate contract terms that resemble the terms of the open-source software license, said Frank Hecker, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation. If the company refuses, he said, the government should search for alternatives. Agencies could keep the original open-source software and develop it on their own.
Because open-source code is always available, the government could tell integrators to form subcontracting relationships to maintain the software agencies already use, Hecker said. “I’m surprised that the government doesn’t demand more of suppliers than it does,” he said.
The federal government is so used to working with the single-supplier model for proprietary software that it has been slow to pick up on the flexibility and leverage that open-source software provides, Hecker said. The federal government could make vendors compete with one another to get the best possible deal, he said.