Monday, August 4, 2008

Alfresco - "Commercial Open Source"

So I don't want to sound like too much of a hater, although the purpose of this blog is to give me a place to vent, but I'm very unimpressed with Alfresco's "open source" business model.

While the Church of the Free Software Foundation would have us believe that source code is a basic human right, other companies like Alfresco have a more restrictive view when it comes to the licensing of their code. And really I'm ok with that. Just because something is trivial to duplicate and distribute does not mean that it has no monetary value. Work is work.

What I do have a problem with are various voices from the Alfresco blogs ripping on closed source vendors and patting themselves on the back as if they were on the same level as "real" open source companies like, for instance, the Apache Software Foundation. There's a big difference between commercial open source companies like Alfresco and less restrictive entities like Apache.

Alfresco maintains two open source branches of their software. One for the so-called community, and one for the Starship Enterprise (i.e. paying customers). What's wrong with that?

Well, for starters I've come across bugs in Community version of Alfresco that I know are fixed in Enterprise. Even though the Community or "Labs" version of Alfresco continues to plow along and is nearly at version 3.0, show-stopper bug fixes from Enterprise 2.1+ are still not merged into Community. Ok, it's open source, so I can fix them, right?

Let me ask you this: why should I? If I were to fix the JSR-168 authentication flaw that's holding me back from actually using Alfresco, then I would be duplicating work that has already been done. Not only that, but the severity of the flaw would almost certainly mean that my fix would be of lesser quality than the fix that already exists because I am not an Alfresco developer. Even if I did fix it, and fix it well, there's nobody to give my fix back to because Alfresco doesn't take a lot of community contributions, and (have I mentioned this?), it's already fixed.

So let's talk about the Alfresco Community for a moment. Where is it? I'm seeing an outdated Wiki and some very inactive forums where moderators spend more time moving threads around to "appropriate" forums than answering questions. The use of the word Community here is a bit of a stretch, and has no greater value than I'd expect to get from a closed-source product. The Alfresco Community is less of an "open source community" and more like a gathering of frustrated but oddly grateful beta testers.

In addition to these not-so-opensourcey qualities of Alfresco is the biggest slap in the face of all: the cute little "nag screen" at the bottom of every page rendered by the Community version. You know, the one that reads: "This software might not be any good because the company running it hasn't paid any money." While much of the look and feel of Alfresco can be easily changed, this little gem is actually buried in the Java source. On purpose. To irritate you into paying. Cute.

"Dude, why don't you just shut up and pay for the software?"

I'm not convinced that it's worth paying for yet. If Alfresco has a similar pricing structure to other open source commercial/support companies, then it's probably more expensive than its closed source competitors. Whoa, did I say that? Yeah. Despite what you might have been led to believe, products like Sharepoint from terrible companies like Microsoft are actually dirt cheap for small to medium sized companies. Sure, you don't get free support with the license fees, but at least I'm not forced to pay extra for something I haven't to this day had to use.

So why should I fork over the cash if the "demo" version I'm using doesn't even correctly implement a fairly straight-foward feature? A feature that is actually specified in a formal standard no less!

"Yeah, but it's worth the price because it's open source, which is all open and not all closed 'n' stuff."

I love open source, but in this case I'm not really sure what the benefit is. I don't use open source software because I'm afraid that some day the vendor will go out of business and I'll be able to continue modifying the software myself. I'm certainly not going to just assume that the "community" is going to pick it up and save the day. I do like open source because I can modify the behavior of the software and fix bugs if need be, but this is really something that I rarely want to do. I'm interested in the software because I want to use the software. And I certainly don't want to be fixing bugs in software that I'm paying support fees for.

If an open source application isn't fully open source then its appeal is greatly diminished. The community around it is diminished. It's really only slightly more interesting than closed source alternatives.

"Ok, so you're still saying that Alfresco is more intersting than its closed source competitors. What the hell is your problem?"

Well, frankly I'm just sick and tired of the Alfresco bloggers ripping on closed source companies. Alfresco is not a community driven open source project, and I certainly don't feel that they have any business taking the moral highground and ripping on their closed source competition. Suck it up, Alfresco, and open the the real source. Microsoft might have its head up its ass when it comes to understanding the benefits of open source, but you've only got one eye peeking out.

"Does it make you feel better to make up these insulting questions that I, the reader, am supposedly dying to ask you?"

Why, yes. Yes it does. Thanks.


Matrika said...

Interesting to know.

Anonymous said...


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Anonymous said...

Yeah, you nailed it. Still the problem, 2 years later. I also just discovered that Alfresco Partners are forbidden to deploy or promote the Alfresco Community Edition. Way to give back...

Sam said...

I also think this model is terribly flawed and we are in the process of migrating from alfresco. It's a terrible product.

Anonymous said...

I was in touch with alfresco trying to customize it to fit my needs. I thought it has been designed to allow enhancement, but actually even customizing it is a nightmare. How to get things done, seems to change from version to version. The Alfresco guys even do not provide definitions of the XML-languages they formulated! Well, the source of Alfresco is partially open source, therefore one could say refer to the source, but isn't that quite ineffective? Especially Content Management systems need to be easily customizable, as requirements on content management systems are different depending of who uses the system. From my point of view even the documentation of M$-sharepoint seems to be more usable. That, from my point of view, is not a compliment to M$, its pointing out how badly the state of alfresco documentation is. Well it's true, the source of alfresco is somehow open, but overall the stuff is the closest open source project I'd ever took an eye on. Who ever has the need to choose a content management system, is well advised to look for other possibilities, except if the target is to waste time and money, or to create headache to the developer. Overall it seems as if alfresco strategy is to shine in the light of open source or maybe to find developers which are fixing their issues for low. Therefore I would never fix any bug for them, nor would I report issue to them, except if they pay me quite good to do that. It's a pity that Alfresco acts as they are acting. The features are interesting and the standard look and feel is nice. But beyond it's a mess and the worst it seems to be like that intentionally.

(Hope my English is well enough, non native speaker)

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