Has SaaS Killed Open Source?

I’ve been thinking about SaaS (in the form of Spinn3r) and how it relates to Open Source for the past few months and I think I’ve come to some interesting conclusions. I think SaaS might be a strong competitor to Open Source in that it’s cheaper and higher quality in a number of situations.

Apparently, I’m no the only one:

Open source is always driven by some organisation – a central body that leads community development efforts to support developers and build revenue streams. In essence, that body gives away the base code and knowledge of the community version to encourage development of the service and expand distribution; to make the software go ‘viral’.

However, I believe software as a service (SAAS) has undermined this model.

SAAS offers ready access to beautifully crafted applications and services through the browser for little or no initial cost. These applications supersede centrally-held open source projects since a. they are finished products (rather than base codes, which must be developed into end-user services) and b. can be easily found, used and shared by the end users of the application/service.

More thoughts on the subject are floating in the blogosphere as well:

Opensource tends to build passionate users that consider themselves, to a certain extent “owners” and “developers” of the product in question. These communities tend to be rabidly loyal and have a tendency towards evangelisation. This is clearly a hugely powerful aspect of OSS and should be harnessed.

SaaS on the other hand tends to build networks or communities of individuals that share a commonality – be it use, interest whatever. SaaS users tend to be loyal to a point, but not nearly as loyal as opensource-ers.

To a certain extent SaaS enterprises have attempted to create the opensource level of community by embracing the concepts of beta-testing and user feedback and development. This however has been reasonably limited (mainly due to the fact that opensource is free, at some point a free beta-test of a SaaS product will generally swing over to a subscription based service).

My experience running Spinn3r has be coming to similar conclusions.

First, we don’t compete with Open Source crawlers in our interactions with customers. Why? they’re amazingly expensive in comparison.

We run a cluster of 20-30 boxes and handle all aspects of running the crawler. We’re about 1/10th of the cost vs doing it yourself since we can amortize our operations across dozens of customers.

In our situation. Open Source isn’t free. It’s 10x the cost of using Spinn3r. It seems counter intuitive but TCO really comes into play here.

Second. We’re profitable and have no problem paying our developers, buying hardware, outsourcing development, buying tools, etc. Open Source (at least in its purest form) has traditionally had problems raising capital and has often depended on the patronage model. What’s worse, if they follow the MySQL/RedHat model they often put themselves at odds with their original community which can lead to tension.

This isn’t to say that Open Source is going to go away. We’re big fans of Open Source. Most or our architecture is OSS. Heck. Even our reference client is Open Source.

It just seems that SaaS is going to grow to push Open Source out of certain areas due to price, efficiency, and quality issues.

In the end I think this is good for the market and the industry as a whole.

Certainly, our customers are very happy.

PS. As an aside. I’ve always felt that free market economics and Open Source were always hand in hand. When I was doing News Monster (which was both Open Source and Free Software) I would joke that it wasn’t “free as in beer” it was “free as in $29.95.”

We made it easy to checkout NewsMonster directly from CVS and build your own version if you wanted but if you wanted the easy one click install (which included support) then you needed to pay $29.95. Most of our users (99%) opted to pay…


  1. Is SaaS putting pressure on Open Source Software or is it putting pressure on closed source software, both?

  2. As a developer of InDefero (http://www.indefero.net), which is a kind of clone of GoogleCode in GPL, I do not consider SaaS as an issue. In fact, I just started to offer InDefero as a service as a way to fund the project. I really think that OSS and SaaS are just complementing each other.

    Of course when you start to require a bit of an infrastructure to run the software, sometimes it is better to go the SaaS way, as long as you have a clean exit from SaaS to the OSS (export of the data etc.).

  3. I think SaaS + Open Source might be a good way to compete in the SaaS arena.

    You can just OSS your stack and then charge for hosting it… If it’s more money to use a 3rd party or to host it yourself everyone will just become your customer.

  4. This is more than a bit of apples-and-oranges. SaaS tends to work great is some circumstances, and is completely useless in others.

    I think Spinn3r is a great solution if I want to crawl blogs and news. But what if I want to crawl the whole web? There is a company providing this service, but they may not crawl the content that you want (everyone is selective, everyone has a different opinion about it), and the result is so big that it wold be expensive to download it (you pay for every byte 3 times instead of 1… times hundreds of terabytes per week.)

    So people doing general purpose search engines still write and run their own crawlers.

    I think that Open Source projects which are annoying and expensive to install could use SaaS as a deployment option… and you certainly see people doing that already.

  5. Raffael

    I don’t think that SaaS will kill Open Source. It probably will kill some open source software project and at the same time will make other stronger. In my opinion all the Apache project and other “large” web related projects like PHP, Ruby, etc. will be the big winners.

    I would say that in general the open source project where the customers/users are developers themselves have it easier to survive.

  6. SaaS + Open Source I think is a killer combo, and actually you make a fantastic argument for doing it in your TCO point.

  7. One thing that’s easily being overlooked in SaaS (despite of all its upsides): As a customer you give away your data.

    Essentially, you have to trust the SaaS provider with your potentially business-critical and/or confidential data. Now you might argue that by signing the appropriate agreements that’s a non-issue, but for some people it _is_ an issue, especially if the data the business is handling is in fact third-party data (think social networking applications or other customer-specific data).

    Now, I’m not saying SaaS is generally a bad idea, but there are considerations in choosing such a service: It is essentially non-free (in a loose definition of the term) because you do not control the means of storing the data. Part of the free software movement is controlling everything related to that piece of software. The ability to access data you’ve generated even after all of the initial providers of that software have vanished from the marketplace or even the earth. Having the complete source code enables you to do exactly that (however there’s a cost involved: your time and expertise!).

    I think open source and SaaS are orthogonal. Open source software often is “free” in both of the usual definitions of that term, i.e. as in free speech and free beer.
    Running a system based on free beer^Wsoftware is of course not gratis, but neither is SaaS. You can have open source as Saas and non-SaaS. You can have SaaS as proprietary software and open source. Nothing in either model determines anything in the other.

    Might SaaS be the “greener” alternative? Sure, if there’s synergy in consolidating deployments, it probably trumps dedicated hosting of the same app, but it does come with drawbacks, notable the privacy and control issues I’ve mentioned above.

  8. I do not see it as such a gigantic issue either.

    There will be parts in the tool chain of each SaaS that are not differentiators, which are not worthwhile to do closed source in house. Of course whatever these pieces are will be different from company to company and so the eco system thrives.

    Even Google publishes patches they do to MySQL. They do not have to, but they still do. So open source used by SaaS company still gets patch contributions upstream. And for those people that worry about this there is the AGPL3.

  9. I think you’re mixing a few things…

    First of all, there’s a distinction between using open source to run your business, and using an open source development model which is accessible to clients.

    Cheaper is a relative. While price may be an aspect that is relevant for some Open Source deployments, there are also other benefits – in particular when an open source development model is used. Now, we have to note here that by no means all OSS products actually use an OSS development model, many develop in-house and just publish something that’s OSS licensed. That’s not the same thing, and does not gain the community involvement benefits that can enhance quality.

    On the other hand, non-OSS products can have an excellent interaction with their community, using for instance early feedback during the development cycle. That also makes for better quality.

    I don’t believe that SaaS has any intrinsic benefit in this arena, just like (as shown above) OSS and non-OSS products. There’s no direct relationship between something having a certain license or deployment technique, and delivering a certain level of quality or community involvement. These are independent factors.

  10. Dedi

    Good post, my mind idle for a second after read this blog.Then googling around buzzword. Looks like interesting. But this implementation maybe suit for Next Generation company, who company consist not more than 2 people. So for running their daily business, their backup support may be some hosted application like SaaS implementation. Cause, for my perspective, in Indonesia there is need time for Manager or Professional individual (basically in company > 300 people) who barely new in Web API service to know what is benefit of Saas. Maybe barrier of culture, still make open source model in Indonesia still works. But new thing in my mind, that Saas is powerful. As developer i think it’s hot.

    @burtonator : i agree

    regards,

    Dedi
    http://www.clarisense.co.id






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