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8/28/2008
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A New Model: Open Source Software After It's Acquired

From MySQL to XenSource, open source companies are in increasingly high demand. For users of the software, it presents a new set of questions.

WHO WILL LEAD THEM?

When Oracle acquired Sleepycat, a supplier of technical support for the BerkeleyDB embedded database, there was no pretense that Sleepycat would remain intact. Its salespeople became part of the Oracle sales organization, and its developers joined the larger engineering staff. Sleepycat CEO Mike Olson, a realistic, tough-minded team leader and salesman who in many ways fits the Oracle culture, became Oracle's VP of embedded databases. Olson said in an interview at the time that he enjoyed working at Oracle. But he left right at the two-year mark. Even when all goes well, open source team leaders, like many an acquired entrepreneur, don't stick around big companies for long.

When Red Hat acquired JBoss, JBoss customers heaved a sigh of relief that the acquirer wasn't Oracle, reported to have been pursuing JBoss a few weeks earlier. After all, both JBoss and Red Hat were open source companies. But within months, Fleury, JBoss' outspoken leader, took a "leave of absence." Soon after, nearly all former JBoss business executives were gone.

Despite their open source pedigrees, Red Hat and JBoss had plenty of differences. JBoss was organized as a business first and an open source project second. Its development ranks weren't open to all newcomers; key contributors were invited to join the company and asked to sign over ownership of contributed code.

Craig Muzilla, Red Hat's VP of middleware and former senior VP of marketing at Metamatrix, acquired by Red Hat 15 months after it bought JBoss, says the JBoss community has benefited from the acquisition by becoming more open to contributors. "In some respects, it's more vibrant," Muzilla says. "The majority of contributions come from outside the company now."

So in Red Hat's version, an acquisition of an open source firm by a large company can open up participation and improve community ties. If so, Red Hat is the exception that doesn't necessarily disprove that acquisitions of small open source companies test the company-project-community relationships.

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