Note: An edited version of this story appeared last week at Open Source Delivers.
It's not pretty.
What happened to Java, OpenOffice and Solaris under Oracle was not pretty, but the community did all it could about it. Those projects had already been under a big company, Sun Microsystems, so Oracle's takeover was something in the natural order of things.
What we may soon see, however, what we're starting to see, are big companies taking on support of projects that already have a corporate sponsor. A small company devoted to the code that has been fighting to monetize it suddenly looks up and finds a giant hovering over it. The cat eating the mouse becomes food for the coyote.
Revolution Analytics recently found itself in this position. The corporate sponsor of the R big data language recently found out that Oracle will be offering support for R in its data center offerings.
David Smith, the company's vice president of marketing and community, doesn't feel like the cat before the coyote, however.
“Oracle is just catching up,” he told me, and their price of $23,000/core raises eyebrows. They may persuade some of their existing customers to use R at that price, but it's not going to keep him up at night.
Besides, Revolution has been swimming with big data sharks for years. The whole idea of R is to analyze big data. Big companies are the target market. Smith even has a white paper on that. So it doesn't surprise him that companies specializing in the creation and maintenance of big data are interested in his project.
So far, he reports, it's all been good.
Netezza, now part of IBM, brought R into their data appliance. Terradata, Greenplum, even the big statistical vendors have integrated R. “The statisticians and data scientists who have learned R at university want to use the environment they're productive in,” he said.
What has happened in the past is “we do joint sales deals. The customer buys from both the data warehousing vendor and from us. We provide integration between our software and the client's software. As a user I can be looking at my client and have those computations done within Netezza.
“For the R community it can mean that these big companies do contribute to the R ecosystem in general,” and IBM has already contributed packages using R to the community. “The way the software grows, via commits, isn't by modifications to the core engine, which is stable. The way it's set up is people put in changes via packages, or modules in the Linux world. As these companies contribute more packages the project grows.
“It's not clear how things will be with Oracle,” he added. “They haven't released a lot of information on how the integration works.”
That's often the way it is with Oracle. The company looks for profit, from its customers, where it can get profit. If it can buy out a company and then jack up its prices, using customer lock-in against customers, that's just business.
Just not in open source.
“Oracle is much more focused on Oracle than on R,” Smith concluded. “You need their stack and our module within it to get it. So there won't be many users. I don't see it as a big difference for us. I see no moves toward Oracle taking over the R community.”
What happens with bigger organizations is more delicate, but perhaps more profitable.
Take for example Amazon.Com, which recently announced it would provide support to Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) users within its AWS cloud.
For Red Hat it's all good.
AWS has been running RHEL for years, which has helped it launch Gluster virtual storage appliance technology within Amazon's cloud. Allowing license portability between AWS and other Red Hat installations is also part of Red Hat's larger plans for an open cloud, said Scott Crenshaw, vice president and general manager of its Cloud Business Unit.
“Organizations should be able to use all their resources,” and the AWS public cloud is going to be part of his customers' solution, he said. He called Red Hat-Amazon relations “a very strong partnership” adding “We've got many large enterprise customers using Red Hat on AWS. The usage of Red Hat on AWS is growing exponentially.”
Big open source companies like Red Hat can defend themselves from enterprise companies using their products as a halo over devil horns, even profiting from that. Smaller companies like Revolution Analytics can't, but so far they're not complaining.
The real question here may be for the future. It's clear that enterprise software companies see the “halo” over open source and want a piece of that. So far, most have played nice.
But what will happen when one company doesn't? What will happen when a big company “discovers” an open source project and sees it can grow that business, without needing to support the small open source company that's been trying to keep its flame alive?
We know what happens in other businesses. It's a cliché. The big agent poaches the small agent's clients. The big record company grabs the small one's stars. The big city clubs sign tomorrow's soccer stars at younger-and-younger ages, cutting local clubs out completely.
As the halo over open source grows, will the big companies continue to play nice? And if they don't, what will the community do in response?