Community Support – Your Mileage May Vary


I've been doing research on open source licensing strategies and community interactions for an upcoming report.  My research brought me to the Ingres Community Forum, where I hoped to gain some insight about Ingres' traction as an open source player.  Ingres uses a dual-license model (GPL v2 with FLOSS exception) and runs a vendor-managed community.

Forums and list servers are excellent proxies for real open source adoption, because they are where the hardcore community participants congregate and interact.  At Ingres, I was primarily looking to gauge the volume of posts, depth of product use, community leader responsiveness and degree to which community members help each other.

One interaction did catch my eye, however, because it reminded me of how quickly the allure of an open source solution can evolve into a relationship that is anything but open.  Below is the verbatim question and answer exchange between a forum member and an Ingres representative (emphasis mine).

Date: On or about Aug 6, 2009
Posted by:  Osvaldo Muzzio

What are the licensing implications of using Ingres 9.3 GPL in production?


Date:  On or about Aug 6, 2009
Posted by:  stephenb, Ingres Corp.

Just replied to another person on this…..The key is whether or not you intend to re-distribute any code you write against Ingres outside your company..if you do, then it also needs to be licensed under GPL (which requires releasing the source); if you don't then there's not much to worry about on the licensing front.

What is a much bigger problem with the community version is that Ingres Corp does not offer support for it (and that includes patching and bug fix support). As most people on this list will tell you, using a database server in production without buying support is like driving a car without buying insurance…it's just a crazy idea. Just think about how much it will cost your company in lost productivity if your Ingres production system went out, and remember you won't be able to get a patch to fix any bugs you find…Ingres support is just about the cheapest insurance you will buy (and the best quality one available….but that's a biased opinion).

After reading the above exchange, I searched the Ingres commercial and community websites for further clarification on whether or not Ingres offers production support for their community products.  I found nothing.  This lead me to conclude that Stephenb, an Ingres employee and frequent Ingres Community Forum poster, had his facts straight.

My next thought was that Ingres probably offers production support on their "commercial open source" database product, so I visited their enterprise database download page.  I learned that a download would be available to me "for 60 days evaluation", and I would have to register in order to complete the download process.  In a few mouse clicks, I had gone from the fresh air of the community to the cigar smoke filled corridors of forced registration and time-bombed evals.

My intention is not to pick on Ingres.  They are far from the only open source vendor that leaves production support for their community version in the hands of, well, their community.  The problem is that, with few notable exceptions like MySQL, vendor-managed communities are small and insular in comparison to public communities like Apache, Linux and Postgres.  So the production support ecosystems of vendor-managed projects tend to be limited to the sponsoring vendors and, in some cases, a small number of close-in partners.

My advice to anyone evaluating open source solutions is to begin with the ones that are comprised of large public communities.  While you will ultimately wind up selecting a specific vendor to support your production deployments, you will likely choose that vendor from among several qualified candidates, any of which can be replaced fairly easily down the road.  If you do find yourself leaning toward a vendor-driven open source solution, go into the evaluation with your eyes wide open, understanding that you will transition very quickly from a community-oriented interaction to a (potentially exclusive) relationship with a commercial software vendor.

Full disclosure.  Open Source Advisory maintains consulting relationships with several open source software companies, one or more of which may compete with Ingres Corporation.  That said, research leading to this article was conducted as an independent undertaking.


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