June 16, 2007

Agile Metadot serves up open source Web apps

Author: Tina Gasperson

Ten years ago, when Metadot founder and CEO Daniel Guermeur was working for a large technology company, he discovered that the Web-based content management systems he was developing were too complicated for his customers, who kept saying they needed a Web-based portal application that was easy to learn and easy to use. Guermeur wanted to provide that, but he was stymied by the closed aspect of the technologies he was developing with: with no access to the source code and long waits for product upgrades from vendors, it would be too slow and expensive to roll out more efficient solutions. So Guermeur started looking at open source.

"I wanted to see what tools were available for creating a Web application anybody could use to maintain a Web site and do online collaboration," Guermeur says. He found that the classic LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and Perl) was exactly what he needed to create a full-featured content management system.

Guermeur built an application that includes file management, Web page templates and themes, a discussion forum, calendaring, group and user controls, a task manager, and MySQL database tools. When he was done, he was impressed with what he'd done. "I said, 'I'm pretty sure everybody needs what I've just created. Let's put it up on the Internet.' Within 30 days we were in the top 10 downloads on SourceForge.net. I quit my day job," and launched a company, Metadot, to support his creation, dubbed Metadot Portal Server, or just Metadot.

Guermeur says his company's main income stream comes from the technical support it provides for some of the larger companies and entities using Metadot. "We have 10,000 downloads every month. Out of these, anywhere between one and 10 will buy something." He says the US Navy buys a lot of tech support, but the universities and colleges on his user list usually have plenty of experienced admins on campus, "and they don't need us at all." Guermeur doesn't mind. He says doesn't want his company to get too big because he likes what he calls the "open source lifestyle."

"We are trying to stay small," he says. Metadot employs 10 people including Guermeur. "The benefit is that you control the destiny of your software. You can be very agile and address your user base needs very quickly. When you are a big company, you become part of a big system that will evolve on the market demands. It's a bigger machine."

Part of Metadot's agility is the community surrounding its development. "The main advantage [of having access to the community] is that the marketing is free [because of word-of-mouth advertising]. Also, we get lots of feedback and help," Guermeur says. "They say, 'Hey, you have a bug and here's a way to fix it. Sometimes they fix it for us." Even so, Guermeur cannot rely completely on an itch-scratching community. "They're working for free, so they don't work on our schedule, they work on their schedule. The more we have of these people the better, but there is still some overheard because we need to keep the software available and we need to make sure that when there is a new version it works for everyone. There is a cost there."

Guermeur says he uses open source throughout the company. "We run Ubuntu on workstations and Red Hat on the servers." He and his development team use the Eclipse development environment, as well as Ruby on Rails, the MySQL database, and "sometimes Java." Since Metadot runs on Windows and Mac OS X, they keep a few workstations around with those operating systems loaded. "But most of us use Linux," he says.

Even though Guermeur is content to keep Metadot small, he still keeps expanding the product line, which now includes a hosted help desk application called Mojo, and his latest offering, Montastic, a free Web-based server monitoring application. He says the key to his success has been his enthusiasm for providing great technology to his customers. "You start a business because you have a passion for your product and you want to share it with your user base. It's peer relations. If you have an idea of making a million dollars, you may want to look at another business model."


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