July 10, 2007

Serial entrepreneurs find OSS "a no-brainer"

Author: Tina Gasperson

Together, Isaac Garcia and Arnulf Hsu have launched several successful businesses, including two that were eventually purchased by CNET. Garcia and Hsu were firmly in the Microsoft development camp, but recently they noticed what they call the increasing maturity of open source software. They decided to launch their latest endeavor, CentralDesktop.com (CD), using an open source platform.

Garcia and Hsu used to work at CNET -- Garcia in sales and Hsu in marketing. While there, they noticed how hard it was to collaborate across the company using email or other legacy information-sharing tools. In 2005 they left the company to start working on the Web-based CD site, their solution to the problem of unwieldy, resource-hungry collaboration tools. CD provides video and audio conferencing for real-time information sharing, and is wiki-based, which makes it easy to share documents, revisions, and comments. CD is available in a free version and a subscription-based value-added service.

Garcia and Hsu put their own capital into the CD launch, and after two years are only now seeking venture money. But the biggest risk for them may have been the decision to base the project on open source software. "In the companies we started previously, we developed everything on a Microsoft platform," says Hsu, CD's CTO as well as one of its cofounders. "Everyone I knew was developing on Microsoft. The open source projects weren't as mature -ââ¬â nowhere near what they've achieved today. So when we launched CD two years ago, I was a big Microsoft guy."

Hsu and Garcia were willing to take another look at open source, though, and what they found convinced them to move away from proprietary products. "There's a whole lot of benefit you get from open source," Hsu says. "On the pure economic side of things, it's free. It runs on commodity hardware. It's faster -- you can get better performance out of slower hardware. With Windows, you need to throw lots of hardware at it."

Hsu selected FreeBSD for the operating system at the foundation of CentralDesktop development because "it's more mature and stable than Linux," and PostgreSQL for the database because "we thought Postgres was more advanced. Coming from Microsoft's SQL, I was used to a lot of advanced stuff. MySQL lacks a lot of advanced features." Rounding out CentralDesktop's stack is the Apache Web server and PHP, plus plain JavaScript and AJAX.

Hsu says the biggest challenge to crop up as a result of switching to open source software is getting used to using it. "You have a learning curve coming from a Windows environment. With open source, most things don't have a GUI. And there can be support issues." Hsu was using an open source WYSIWYG editor when he ran into some problems. "We started with one that we thought was pretty good. The source was available, it seemed pretty extensive in scope, so we integrated it into CD. Within about six months, development had faded and there was no support for [recently released] Internet Explorer 7. We had to engineer some stuff to make it more compatible, and in the end, after tweaking it for nine months, we had to replace it completely."

Hsu experienced more problems with pgpool, an open source failover and caching application for PostgreSQL servers. "We played around with that and probably wasted many man-weeks dealing with lots of issues. It was a big pain in the butt. The project didn't deliver what it promised to deliver and we ended up writing our own scripts."

Still, Hsu says it has been "a hell of a lot easier" to bootstrap CentralDesktop using open source software than it would have been on a Microsoft platform. "We started with two servers and loaded a free operating system, free database server, and we're off and running."

Hsu recommends that enterpreneurs understand their goals right from the start. "Open source isn't the answer to everything. If you're developing an in-house solution and the company is already Microsoft-centric, there's no need to go open source. But with Web services, it's a no-brainer to use open source."


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