Compiere is free, open source software designed to give small retailers, wholesalers, and service businesses most of the same ERP and CRM capabilities SAP and other large-scale ERP and CRM providers sell to big businesses. But if a company wants and needs extra support and handholding beyond the usual open source user-to-user channels, ComPiere will provide that support for a fee. Compiere is one of the more active projects at SourceForge.net, and ComPiere is making money, so Jorg Janke, who founded and still runs both Compiere and ComPiere, is obviously doing something right.
This is not a project that started as a student hobby or college assignment, but one started by a man with many years of experience in the top end of the ERP and CRM software business. Janke wrote some of the code that went into early versions of SAP. He's worked for Unisys and for Oracle. And the first Compiere installation Janke did wasn't at a friend's small store for free; it was for Goodyear Germany, and it was decidedly not free.
Most Compiere end users do not have IT departments
This is the secret of "giving away" the program while earning a living providing service for it, especially since Compiere is generally being used in business environments where small service interruptions can be big profit killers.
Someone needs to install and maintain Compiere for these users -- and that someone is more often than not a local computer reseller or consultant who is responsible not only for Compiere but also for additional software a small business might need, the hardware on which it runs, and the network that hooks it all together. Naturally, few local IT consultants or systems vendors are going to be deeply versed in Compiere, so they need someone to turn to for advice when they have customization needs or specific questions beyond the the help they get from Compiere email lists and online forums.
Some resellers and end users also want specific training in Compiere, and Janke says this is a big deal for ComPiere -- the commercial company with the capital "P" -- to the point where their next training session "is very booked in an unpopular week -- the weeek before Christmas -- in Germany."
Getting rid of the Oracle requirement
A major problem with Compiere to many open source True Believers has been its dependence on the decidedly non-open source Oracle database, which Janke says is explained by his strong Oracle experience. Using Oracle when he was starting the program allowed for "quick delivery... and the initial targets were pure ASPs and you usually don't run Postgres or MySQL in those situations.... and since Compiere embeds the database we could get very favorable rates for the [Oracle] licenses. But we plan to move away from that and provide database independence."
Janke claims the current architecture provides "100 percent uptime, even if the application server dies or something like that."
He is in process of porting all Compiere code toe JBoss/J2EE, a move he says "is necessary for database independence. The new version will be able to use MySQL, Postgres, whatever to run the system. We don't want to lose the easy administration or the 100 percent uptime. So far JBoss is meeting the requirement."
Competitive ERP solutions for small businesses
I recently wrote about (not OSI-defined open source) OpenMFG recently. This package is aimed purely at small manufacturers. A free software ERP package, GNUEnterprise (upcoming story), is progressing nicely and has some interesting test installations up and running.
Janke isn't worried about competition from either one. "Our competition is Great Plains and Sequel Server packages," he says. "There seems to be no overlap competition between Compiere and either OpenMFG or GNUEnterprise."
He is not being dismissive of either one, merely pointing out that they are aimed at different end users. He notes that OpenMFG is directly targeted at manufacturers, and that although "there are some people who want to extend Compiere with manufacturing capabilities, we have made the decision to stick with what we know and let other extend the product."
He says the GNU people are not addressing a "real commercial environmnet, more an alternative to Great Plains but in a different area." He believes the real reason GNUEnterprise and Compiere will never directly compete is that "our user base -- retail, wholesale and service companies with 10 to 50 actual users -- like to have reliability of support, to know that it is there, particularly if the system is complex."
Janke is not dissing volunteer/free open source support, and provides plenty of it for the 400,000+ people who have downloaded Compiere, and points out that many of them never subscribe to paid ComPiere services; that "if you have sufficient resources available there is no need to subscribe to one of the support packages." But he is pointing out that most Compiere end users "don't have IT infrastructure to operate and maintain an open source application,so they rely usually on local or industry-specific VARs to provide that service. In that sense, we see ourselves as the backbone behind that."
ComPiere itself is a small business
Janke says, when it comes to salaried employees, "It's just me." He relies on a crew of about 15 independent subcontractors all over the world to provide commercial ComPiere support.
In other words, the commercial side of the Compiere project uses the same distributed methodology as the open source project. And it's working. Janke may not be making millions, but he says he is "satisfied" with his earnings, and is paying his subcontractors decently, too.
"If I didn't, they wouldn't keep working for me," he says.