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Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

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Open Enterprise Interview: Bill Karpovich

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Open source's roots lie in the hacker world, where the ability to monitor and manage every aspect of a computer is fundamental. So perhaps it's no surprise that one of the most fruitful areas for open source companies has been systems management – essentially offering the same capabilities at the enterprise level, but without the need for low-level coding.

Moreover, supporting heterogeneous environments is hard for even the biggest company, which only has limited engineering resources to spread around. Open source communities, by contrast, are well placed to deal with even the most obscure system components if it's in their own interests. As a result, it could be argued that open source is not just better for system management, but actually the only way to provide comprehensive and scalable coverage.

One of the leaders in this field is Zenoss, which, like many open source companies, offers both free and commercial licences to its products. Here Bill Karpovich, CEO and co-founder of Zenoss, talks about where the company and its name came from, why IT management is broken, and the role of Zenoss as cloud computing and software as a service become more common in enterprise IT.

GM: What's the background to Zenoss – when and why was it founded?

BK: Zenoss is a commercial open source IT management software company, originally conceived by me and my Zenoss co-founder Erik Dahl in 2002 while we were both working at USinternetworking (USi). USi’s IT management solution at the time, HP OpenView, was so difficult to configure and use we decided to develop our own in-house IT management solution. The project, spearheaded by Erik, not only provided us a deep working knowledge of IT management, but also informed us that USi wasn’t the only company eager for an alternative to solutions offered by the Big 4 vendors (IBM, HP, BMC and CA). Therefore, after delivering and operating USi’s in-house IT management solution for two years, we left USi to start Zenoss.

GM: Where does the name come from?

BK: The name Zenoss is the combination of the words Zen (a school of Buddhism suggesting that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition) and OSS (the abbreviation for Open Source Software). Translation: a harmonious commercial open source alternative to proprietary IT management software.

GM: What business problem was it set up to solve, and how does it do that?

BK: Has a data server at your company ever crashed or an email server ever come to a crawl? Remember what a productivity killer that was? Our software helps companies to avoid those situations by monitoring and managing their servers, networks, applications and end-user desktops, detecting potential problems and helping IT administrators to remediate them before serious issues occur. With Zenoss, companies can auto-detect and catalogue all their servers, network devices, applications, etc.; track changes to their configurations; monitor their availability and performance; be alerted to potential issues and remediate them before major issues occur.

Our software enables this by first sending out standards-based (SNMP) agents that scour a company’s IT infrastructure and automatically detect and catalogue the different IT devices. Once all these devices are catalogued, users can then establish rules (i.e., monitoring frequency, acceptable performance ranges, etc.) that govern how they’ll be monitored and what alerts will be provided when potential issues are encountered. Finally the system helps users determine root causes and resolve issues.

The bottom line is that is enables a small staff of IT personnel to proactively monitor and manage an extensive IT infrastructure from a single, easy to use dashboard.

GM: What products do you have, and under which licences?

BK: We have a community version of the software, called Zenoss Core, that’s available to users for free under the GNU Public Licence.

We also have a commercial certified version, Zenoss Enterprise, with additional features including indemnification, multi-instance dashboards and instrumentation for enterprise software typical of large corporate installations.

GM: Which of these is open source, or uses open source code from other projects? When and why did you decide to offer an open source version? What's the advantage – for users, and for you?

BK: Both versions are open source. The community version just happens to be the free version of our open source software, whereas the enterprise version is the paid version that includes many advantages not found in the community edition.

There are advantages of both editions to our users and to us.

Advantages to users of the community version include price (free is a pretty good deal) and open collaboration/sharing with a huge community whereby users can take advantage of community generated extensions and documentation immediately. Advantages to us from the community version include extensive contributions which we evaluate and include many in our enterprise edition and an opportunity for companies to evaluate software risk-free and eventually become paying customers of the enterprise edition.

Advantages to users of the enterprise edition include a more stable release, deeper functionality, help-desk support and various licensing options such as indemnification, if chosen. Advantages to us from the enterprise edition is a revenue stream that makes it all sustainable (which is also a pretty good deal).

GM: How important is your community of users? How do you work with them? What concrete contributions have they made to your products?

BK: Our community is a huge part of our success. We currently have over 30,000 registered community members and 4,000 active deployments of Zenoss Core. We facilitate collaboration between community members, offer tips and documentation that helps them get the most out of our software, and proactively reach out to them to get their input on our product roadmap and identify industry trends. They also provide us with a lot of wonderful product extensions, many of which we evaluate and build into our enterprise edition. In just the last quarter alone, our community members contributed 11 product extensions.

GM: Who are your main proprietary rivals – and why are your solutions better?

BK: Our proprietary rivals fall into two categories: 1) big enterprise suite vendors such as IBM, HP, BMC and CA, and 2) smaller niche vendors including SolarWinds, What’s Up Gold and Big Brother. We’ve consistently heard that the solutions from the big enterprise suite vendors are too much (i.e., too complex, too hard to configure, too expensive) and the solutions from the niche vendors too little (i.e., not enough functionality, inability to scale). Our solutions fall somewhere in the middle of these two options, and, we like to think, strike the right balance of functionality, flexibility, scalability and affordability.

GM: Recently Zenoss launched an open systems monitoring product for Managed Service Providers: what are they, and why are they important?

BK: Managed Service Providers are companies that provide some combination of hosted IT infrastructure, applications and/or services to their customers. There are many different flavours of service providers, but the major categories are IT hosting providers (e.g., Rackspace), managed service providers – MSPs (e.g., OmniPresence), application service providers/Software as a Service – ASPs/SaaS (e.g., SugarCRM) and internet service providers (e.g., AT&T). Service providers are becoming an increasingly important part of how business gets done today. There’s been more and more discussion about “cloud computing” which basically refers to this massive virtual world of systems that support business over the Internet. Service providers are an essential part of that ecosystem.

GM: Why is open source a good solution for them?

BK: Open source solutions are a great fit for services providers for a couple reasons. First and foremost, price. Service providers are under tremendous price pressure and are constantly having to think about cutting costs to stay competitive. Open source solutions are at best free and at worst much less expensive than most proprietary solutions. The second major advantage is flexibility. Service providers all have unique environments and highly evolved business processes that don’t translate to a one-size-fits-all software solution. Open source gives them the flexibility to configure a solution, and develop entirely new functionality to meet their specific needs.

GM: In a world where software as a service (SaaS) and cloud computing become more common, what role do you see for Zenoss?

BK: There’s a huge need for IT management solutions like Zenoss in the software as a service and cloud computing world. Think about the massive investment that has gone into the IT infrastructure and applications upon which SaaS and cloud computing function. If that infrastructure fails —recently evidenced by Blackberry servers going down — productivity comes grinding to a halt. Zenoss is all about making sure that infrastructure is up and running and performing well, so the value of SaaS and cloud computing can be realized day-in and day-out.

GM: More generally, how do you see Zenoss and the systems management market evolving in the future?

BK: IT management is broken. Most organizations incur considerable expense just supporting and managing their infrastructures - 75% of the average IT budget goes to management and support yet they struggle to keep up; over 50% of downtime is still reported by end users and 85% of orgs are "reactive" according to Gartner. The future of IT management is an evolution towards more open software architectures and business models that reduce costs by collaborating with their users and even other vendors to reduce those burdens. Open source software manifests this vision as developers of software interact with large communities of users giving feedback not only on the software but discretely incorporating their domain knowledge through extensions and plugins. The key is the addition of this large knowledge pool in addition to the software that makes the software inherently more useful and allows that collective knowledge to be applied by all users allowing them to be better armed to manage their software and improve their efficiency.

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