April 17, 2007

Zenoss builds a competitive advantage with open source infrastructure

Author: Tina Gasperson

A few years ago, Erik Dahl was a network manager who knew that administrators needed a flexible network monitoring solution. In 2002, he began development of what would become Zenoss, an open source network monitoring product that runs on multiple platforms. Dahl found that the best way to deliver a product that is affordable and customizable is to use open source, and in the process he also discovered that using open source internally is the best way to build a successful business from scratch.

Creating, testing, and maintaining a network monitoring application takes a lot of servers. One of the biggest ways that open source software helped Zenoss take off is by making the build environment more affordable. "We get a huge advantage from building on top of Zope," says Mark Hinkle, Zenoss' vice president of business and community development. Zope is a Web application server written in the Python programming language. Because Zope is accessible over the Web, it has an added layer of built-in security that Zenoss likes. "We can depend on [it] for the plumbing, so that we can focus on adding our value and expertise."

Zenoss also uses Twisted, a Python-based networking engine, MySQL, and RRDTool, a data logger. "This is a very important and widely used tool, and the project lead Tobi Oetiker has been exceptionally good to work with," Hinkle says. "We've donated code to his project and we're a gold sponsor."

In addition to its use of open source to build products, Hinkle says that Zenoss uses a lot of other open source software internally, such as Zimbra's collaboration suite and SugarCRM. "Compared to commercial packages they seem to be more cost-effective, and we can do more with less. The fact that you can use Linux without a per-seat licensing fee helps us quite a bit. It keeps our costs down. Instead of spending a lot of money buying expensive proprietary software, we can pay salaries for developers and get our product to market quicker."

When asked if using open source software helps Zenoss to compete with larger companies, Hinkle says size isn't the issue. "I think we have a competitive advantage over anyone whose infrastructure costs are higher because they're using commercial software. Other small companies who may be developing on a proprietary platform, well, they're going to have higher costs."

Open source gives Zenoss greater flexibility too, Hinkle says. "It helps in integrating our systems. In our Web infrastructure we're using Zope and Plone and some other open source applications. It gives us the flexibility to hack them and make them work together." Hinkle says that Zenoss uses the commercial version of SugarCRM so that they have someone to call if they need support.

Hinkle says that the advantages of using open source throughout the company are "so great it's hard to pick one," but if he has to, it's leverage. "Because we can focus on the actual application we make, we gain leverage from using high-quality, proven open source products. We benefit from not having to do as much marketing [because] word of mouth in the open source community has allowed us to gain recognition very quickly. And it allows us to keep our cost of sales down. Since Zenoss Core is completely GPL, we don't have to invest in taking customers to lunch and snazzy sales presentations. Our customers typically know a fair amount about the product from their own trials before they call us [for the commercially supported product]." And that's how Zenoss makes money while offering a 100% open source product. "We offer service contracts or subscriptions with defined service levels, and professional services including installation, customization, and training."

Hinkle says that other entrepreneurs should know that building a company on open source "makes a lot of sense, especially for your core stuff: file and print servers, the firewall, all the things that have the largest base of users. For more specialized things, like accounting, your options for open source software are pretty limited in that space. Those are the places I'd shy away from."


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