Is SaaS a friend or foe of open source?

Dries Buytaert of Drupal and Acquia is warning that Software as a Service is becoming a threat to open source and that clouds could create the same vendor lock-in customers sought to avoid with open source.
Even where SaaS companies let customers take back their data, they often don’t let them take the code underlying it, he wrote in a blog post. Data without software is useless.
One of the main open source concerns about SaaS in the past has been that the largest open source outfits, like Google, don’t support true copyleft through the Affero license. Google itself prefers the Apache license to anything copyleft, and this is fast becoming the norm.
Buytaert believes open source companies can disrupt this model through services like his own Drupal Gardens, which allows exporting of codes, themes, and data to any other Drupal hosting environment.
My own problem with Drupal Gardens is more prosaic. It is entering what has become a mature space. It would be tough for me to move my current Typepad blog over there, for instance, or this WordPress blog. It would take technical expertise most users don’t have.
Also, the online excitement has moved on. Blogging, as a frontier, is so last decade. The talk today is all about social networking, about tweeting your tweets, either as part of a dialog or just for publicity. The lock-in, in other words, has already occurred and the world has moved on.
The good news is there are many areas of enterprise IT, like healthcare, that on the whole remain frontiers. SaaS is a big player in these frontiers. If users can be made to understand the issues they might press for the changes Dries seeks.


  • Hi,
    if we cant get the code of Saas application it is same as proprietary
    software in my opinion. isnt this a disservice to the developer community.

  • Drupal…is open source. but. crack open the core framework, make a change or two and you broke the vendor support agreement right there
    Not only that but you borked your whole drupal patch management chain too!
    The SaaS paradigm is undoubtedly, as you say, a new way to lock in innocent victims for to five-to-life.
    Furthermore there are some really serious concerns around privacy, security and solvency with some of these outfits. (CFR Cloud Security and Privacy published by O’Reilly media)
    Caveat Emptor

  • SaaS is not a competitor to open source. SaaS is a deployment model and competes with traditional on-premise off-the-shelf software. Companies that need custom software will still either build their own software (and host it on IaaS if they need cloud characteristics), OR customize SaaS. Look at salesforce for example, it is SaaS for CRM but it’s APIs are so rich, that there’s a ton of open source software that can be used to integrate, communicate, export to Salesforce etc.
    There are even situations where there’s a combination. Some open source software vendors offer their software both in a downloadable form and as a hosted SaaS solution. This is a viable business model that allows these vendors to invest in their software, which benefits their open source version as well.

  • “Open source” is not a religion. It is a business approach and a way of sharing useful information. It succeeds and dies in the marketplace based on these values.
    The original concept was not some idea of “openness” but, according to Richard Stallman, of freedom. Very particularly he believes that software should not be sold, only the service of providing it. Making source codes available was the means to that end.
    Therefore SaaS is quite true to the original concept as long as the sources used by the SaaS application are available to someone else who wants to compete by offering the same service.
    As Stallman has also said, his idea and its intentions are becoming corrupted. People are gaming the system. There are also so many variants and ways of putting a “typical system” together, the cost benefits are less apparent. It’s people that cost money, not licenses and open source projects tend to become larger in terms of people, especially after the first version. There are no consistent methodologies, as there are for Microsoft and this creates staffing and quality problems.
    The original vision was also that competition would be based on service quality. This is being lost too. Delivery quality is not competitive.
    There are other issues with the closed systems but they seem to be gaining in the market. My fundamental issue with the Open Source community is this sense of a Religion, of “them and us”. There seems to be some illusion of a higher purpose and a mission. Stallman and the other originators of the idea had this sense about them but they also were pragmatists and they were and are not in favor of “product” but for service and craft. That was lost and all that is left is fanaticism and commercial exploiters, sort of working at cross purposes to one another and also to the end user.

  • There is no imminent threat to open source from SaaS. But if open source communities want to take advantage of SaaS then they will have give up on the fallacy that open source means GPL and sharing the the code through GPL. Their are plenty of projects that do very well with the BSD and variants that allow companies to be built around open source. Nevertheless in Drupals case they are following which has had very good success with running the GPLed WordPress as SaaS.
    The open source community should be very careful about raising pitchforks and torches and looking for Frankenstein’s monster. Competition from SaaS companies is not going to hinder anything or anyone from doing the same things as open source. Because SaaS is nothing more than another business model and there are going to be good and bad versions of it.

  • As one who delivers SaaS solutions, neither is threatened by the other.
    As several rightly point out here, both have their place. Most of my clients can’t afford to begin their business, or are willing to put themselves at the mercy of developers and just want a ‘solution’ that has a fixed cost they can count on. SaaS becomes their platform of choice, or they don’t want to reinvent the wheel, they just need a wheel, a CRM, an email template generator. These are increasingly the ‘tools’ required to be in business.
    Developers need to understand this. Further, as a SaaS provider, if I’m smart, I’m going to open up parts of my app for you to enhance. I can’t think of all the cool things or have the time or resources to deploy them. But there is no reason I have to build an ‘open’ platform for some one else to swoop in, figure out, and become my competitor in 120 days. That part of ‘open source’ mentality boggles my mind.
    If my clients’ business grows and they need more special sauce, they can invest at that point in highly specialized apps that serve their needs, but again, I generally steer my clients away. Owning the ‘app’ can be very costly, especially to start up and small business.

  • As long as the vendor provides a rich enough API, SaaS and OSS can co-exist, and indeed flourish side by side. The open source model, in all it’s incarnations, seeks, in my opinion, to give the end user freedom. With SaaS, code is intimately tied to infrastructure. I don’t think small business owner would be all that keen to host her/his own cloud applications. But given an open API that provides choice when it comes to data processing and consumption, developers can provide that very freedom that Open Source software seeks to offer.

  • The license model has nothing to do with the delivery model. There are over 100 differnet licenses in the OSI model. Choosing an OSS host (SaaS) does not guarantee you access to data in every case so ther is always a bit of vendor lock-in when someone else handles your data.

  • For individuals and small businesses SaaS is a huge risk because not only do they not control the apps they do not control their own data residing in those apps. For larger companies, ones with enough dollars and lawyers to see to it, the contract can specify that the software and code be turned over to them in the even the company fails or discontinues its offering. The code is often held in escrow against that possibility. For the rest of us, if we can’t store the data on our own hard drives (at least complete backups) its a huge risk since many of these companies are start ups without enough revenue on their own to continue operations.

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