Open source and visible source

Last year I wrote about my visit to Zope, where I sat in on a training session for Z4I (Zope4Intranets), a commercial product that's layered on top of the open source Zope platform.

Last year I wrote about my visit to Zope, where I sat in on a training session for Z4I (Zope4Intranets), a commercial product that’s layered on top of the open source Zope platform. Z4I is a toolkit for portal construction and content management. At the session, I met George Mengelberg, digital production engineer at JICPAC, a US Department of Defense organisation that chose Z4I over the likes of Documentum or Stellent. The big content management solutions can cost up to a million bucks, Mengelberg notes, not including the inevitable customisation. As a taxpayer, I was glad to know that JICPAC had embraced a little-known product that it judged would meet its requirements as well, if not better, than a higher profile and much more expensive solution.

Last week JICPAC decided to outsource its Z4I customisation to Zope. The enhancements will include more granular access control to documents, beefed-up task management and a mechanism to merge the work of multiple contributors into master reports. Because Z4I is licensed under Zope’s visible source licence, the work will benefit a number of parties in ways that illustrate a potent open source-based business model.

The government is already entitled to use JICPAC’s Z4I enhancements in other areas. That’s a condition of federal contracts for software customisation, according to Zope chairman Hadar Pedhazur. The enhancements will also flow back to the gated Z4I community. Because customers who have bought the maintenance option can selectively update the product, every member of the Z4I community benefits from improvements funded by any member. And because customers can access the CVS (concurrent versions system) repository and use (though not distribute) the code, any member can contribute fixes or enhancements. “We get to see the innovations other people make,” Mengelberg says, “and apply those concepts if appropriate.”

The free Zope product also benefits, indirectly, from funded improvements to its commercial add-ons. If Zope runs into a snag implementing a new feature for a customer, and if that snag can best be unravelled in the open source foundation, “we’ll go in there and make major improvements just to make our lives easier,” Pedhazur says. He adds that when NATO recently had Zope do a major security audit of Zope, all of the resulting work was rolled back into the open source product.

I’m delighted that some of my tax dollars will help to improve Zope and, indirectly, Python, the open source programming language in which Zope is largely written. Zope’s layered strategy of engagement with open source and visible-source communities is a compelling blend of the strengths of free and commercial software development.

In a previous column, Giving back to open source, explored the tendency of enterprises to fork open source projects rather than join them. Pedhazur suggests that a commercial entity supporting both an open source base and a visible-source layered product can reduce the need to fork. By outsourcing code enhancements, the argument goes, an enterprise can enjoy single-throat-to-choke control without seceding from a project’s community. It remains to be seen how broadly this model can apply, but in cases where it does, what’s not to like?

Udell is lead analyst for the InfoWorld Test Center.

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