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Rotten at the Core: The Open Source vs. Open Core Stakes Keep Ratcheting Up

"Open core is a zombie business model that deserves to be put to rest"

Pure open source technologies are the forward evolution of the software industry. Ongoing acceleration in enterprise open source adoption continues to reaffirm the trendline. The collaborative talent of robust open source communities regularly achieve results that eclipse the strengths – and expose the limitations – of proprietary alternatives, writes Instaclustr CEO Peter Lilley. It’s not dreamy ideals that have driven countless open source projects to their positions as first-choice technologies among an ever-increasing majority of enterprises. It’s the fact that they flat out work. Pure open source offers unmatched reliability, scalability, and performance. The cost can’t be beat, either.

So how do you get a business to pay for something that’s free? Proprietary “open core” solutions that masquerade as open source want to pull enterprises back into the past, tacking proprietary features and expenses onto otherwise freely available technology. Of course, enterprises aren’t interested in outdated proprietary models anymore – that’s why open core vendors set a trap. These companies hawk their wares by claiming that the closed-source features they build atop open source projects make their expensive, limiting, antiquated proprietary licensing reasonable. At the same time, they allow their customers to believe that open core solutions carry the advantages and freedoms of the pure open source projects they’re based on when, well this more often than not isn’t the case.

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It’s only when enterprises shelling out for open core technology then examine the prospect of shifting to truly open source alternatives that the trap sprung around them comes into full view. Vendor and technical lock-in are the teeth of this trap. The painful clarity of the predicament arrives as a brutal series of surprises. Enterprises realize that in fact, no, the “open source-based” code now essential and ingrained within their business offerings isn’t portable at all. Many open core-based businesses even make certain that enterprise users do not own their own code. If pure open source is a crisp red apple available for free off the tree, open core is that same apple shined up and brought to market, but with a worm nestled inside, turning it rotten from the inside out. For enterprises, the end result is almost always a bad taste in the mouth, punctuated by bitter flavors of entrapment and betrayal.

But for open core vendors, these nefarious traps aren’t an accident: they’re the business model. The ability to co-opt “open source” and ensnare enterprises with lock-in while keeping them blind to it is a point of professional pride. Once enterprises are invested in an open core offering and have it integrated as a cornerstone of their solutions, those vendors know they’ve earned long-term customers that can’t leave without painful consequences. Once open core software worms its way into an enterprise, it’s awfully hard for enterprises to worm their way out. And when enterprises get wise to the situation and consider an exit, many open core vendors have a reputation for not honorably offering assistance in making those migration. They dare them to go ahead and try it. It is possible for enterprises to loosen themselves from the open core trap, but winning that freedom is arduous and expensive, even considering that the pure open source technologies they escape to are entirely free.

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The fact is that the open core model is dying, and its faction knows it. Most open core offerings initially bait enterprises with the additional features they tack onto open source solutions with their proprietary code. However, open source communities continuously evolve their projects to include useful new features as a natural process. If unique open core features are worthy of ending up on a community’s radar, the pure open source project will implement those capabilities. This eliminates open core vendors’ differentiation, and their reason for being. As this natural process continues, open core vendors have ever-diminishing room to breathe when carving out their proprietary niches in the feature landscape. Each advance for pure open source technologies reduces the territory where open core vendors can set their traps. At the same time, enterprises are increasingly savvy in vetting software licensing and recognizing potential pitfalls for what they are.

Open core is a zombie business model that deserves to be put to rest. As a relic of the proprietary software past, the unjustifiable costs and ugly lock-in strategies still practiced by open core vendors must – and will – be retired.

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