Zentyal, five years alive and kicking

Cake ZentyalTime flies! It seems as it was yesterday when we presented Zentyal (then called eBox Platform) at the Chamber of Commerce of Zaragoza five years ago. It was a big thing, because that very day we were making the project open source software, allowing anyone to download and redistribute it, publishing the source code for free public scrutiny and starting the creation of a community.

As 5 years sounds like a round number, this might be a good moment to look back and summarize the lessons learned. I guess the main questions to answer are “If we could travel back in time, would we still make Zentyal open source? Is it worth it?” and “What would we have done differently?”

The first question is easy to answer: definitely yes. I cannot conceive Zentyal as closed source software and I wonder whether the project would exist today hadn’t we open it up then. I could sum up the lessons learned on the way in the following three points:

  • Open source is the best market test: you will learn quickly whether the product has any interest among users and whether it is wise to continue investing your time and money in it.
  • Nowadays in the software market, if you want fast growth and to become a relevant player in your market quickly, you need to be open source. If you prefer a slower, more traditional path of growth, you will probably be obsolete before you can become international.
  • You need to know what you make open source and why: on one hand, once you open up the code you cannot take it back, and it is not straightforward to generate a sustainable business model based on a free product; on the other hand, turning a user forum into a user community is a long and costly process, so you have to be ready to invest time and effort in the community, probably more than what you would initially expect.

And what would we have done differently? I would have had a community manager/responsible since day 1. And I would have created a community-based organization/rules since day 2 (if not since the very day 1). These are key aspects that will define how your users will interact with your project and how your community will evolve. And most importantly, you can only see the results in the long term, so spending a bit of effort in the beginning means big gains in the future.

Anyway, let’s not become too philosophical. This is a time of joy and there is a big chocolate cake waiting to be tasted (courtesy of Heidi, thanks!). Happy anniversary Zentyal and cheers everyone!

 Tagged:  , , , 2 December, 2010

The pronunciation of Zentyal

ZentyalSome people have asked in the community forum how to pronounce Zentyal, as it does not seem straightforward in some languages. Well, the short answer is that we don’t care much about how people say it, as long as they say it :-) The long answer is to mix Zen and Essential and pronounce it your way.

However, if you still want more detailed indications, here is a list of how we believe Zentyal should be pronounced in different languages:

Flags borrowed from Wikimedia.

1 comment  Tagged:  , 23 August, 2010

Opening up to the community

NewNameAs I pre-announced in my previous post in this blog, we are planning to change the way eBox Platform is developed. During the past seven years the project has followed a classic in-house development approach, where a company (us) has taken most of the responsibility. And as eBox Platform is an open source product, it has benefited from the help of a community of users. The community contributions have been very valuable, specially when it comes to product feedback, localization, testing and debugging. And thanks to all of us, eBox Platform is becoming a real alternative to Windows Small Business Server.

However, during the last few months, quite a bunch of community members have proposed to become more involved in the project, assuming some of the responsibilities that we are doing (or should be doing) now. From the start, back in 2004, we believed this was the right approach: to take the project to a stage where the community can lead its development, a true open source product. And now we think is that moment! Of course this does not mean that we are stepping out. Quite the contrary, our involvement can only increase from now on. But we believe that more people, not just the employees of one single company, should have the chance to get involved in the project and have the right to assume responsibilities, give their opinion and help taking decisions.

So, following the spirit of the Ubuntu community teams we are launching the Localization Team, a combination of language-specific, self-governed groups which will collaborate to achieve native-quality translations of eBox Platform. This team is just the first step towards a true Ubuntu-like community, with boards governing the community and the technical development and specific teams working on particular areas.

In order to coordinate the Localization Team, we have developed an initial set of simple rules which we consider logical and positive for the organization of translation groups. The team consists of a Localization Leader, elected for two years, as well as a Language Leader and a Quality Supervisor for each language, together with any translator who wants to join a translation group. The Localization Team will coordinate through the Forum and language-specific mailing lists and will meet via IRC once every three months to establish goals and take the main decisions. None of these rules are written in stone and we will be more than happy to see groups adjusting their functioning to maximize their own efficiency. Initially Mateo Burillo, from the eBox staff, will take the lead of the Localization Team, but we hope to see soon candidates from the community interested in coordinating the whole team.

So, if you want to help in localizing eBox to your language, you just need to register in our translation platform and start posting. It is advisable to register in the general translation mailing list too, in order to coordinate with other translators. And if you consider becoming Language Leader, do not hesitate to contact Mateo Burillo (mburillo at ebox-platform dot com) so that he can set up the needed infrastructure (mail lists and such).

Feel free to leave any comments to this post or in the Forum!

 Tagged:  , , , , 11 August, 2010

Changing the name of eBox Platform

NewNameI am excited to break the news on behalf of the whole eBox team: We are going to change the name of eBox Platform! And although this is positive news, the decision was not taken lightly nor it has been easy to say goodbye to our former identity and find and embrace a new one. However, we have found that this decision was necessary, and the sooner we took it the better

As you can imagine, any name change is a complex process and there should always be a very good reason to do it. So, why do we do it? Why did we think that eBox is not a good name for us anymore? Well, basically because there is no box! Although our initial idea, when we started with the project seven years ago, was to embed the software in a particular appliance and sell boxes, we soon realized that it was much more interesting to focus solely on the software and develop a well-integrated, semi-automated, versatile open source server.

But this change in our approach has lead to a growing difference between what we do and what our name means. In fact, many people are convinced that we sell boxes when they first hear about us. Only once we explain what eBox really is and what is our subscription-based value proposition, they start to become interested in the product.

We have been thinking about making the change a number of times earlier, but as you can imagine, it is never a good time for something like this. However, during the past year the number of downloads, community members and general interest in eBox Platform has started to grow exponentially and we’ve become even more painfully aware of the faults of our current name. This has made us feel that it is kind of “now or never” momentum, and that the problem will not be solved by waiting longer.

Something that we would like to stress above all, is that only the name changes. We are still the same team, with the same goals, same open source license, and same everything. In fact, we are working on increasing our commitment on open source and adopting a more community-driven development model, but I will come back with that in a different post.

The new name will be made public in a few weeks and there will be additional information regarding the change in the Planet eBox and the Forum. Feel free to leave any comments to the post or the Forum and stay tuned!

Update: it has been disclosed, the new name is Zentyal!

8 comments  Tagged:  , , 5 August, 2010

Getting popular, step-by-step

CrowdCheerWhen developing an open source project you start to see some traction relatively soon after the first release. A few months later there come encouraging comments from enthusiastic users who soon become regular posters in the forum, mailing lists and IRC. The downloads figures and web traffic statistics start to rise, slow but steady. You start receiving contributions, appearing on magazines and blogs, seeing a word-of-mouth effect being constantly spread on twitter, receiving a flow of partnership proposals all around the world, and you start wondering “Did we really do it? Do we have a product that really solves an important problem better than any other product? Are we the best thing since sliced bread? Are we going to become really popular, like Janet Jackson after showing her boobie at the Superblow?”. And then, back to earth, the questions in mind are rather “So, how could we keep in track and reach our full potential?”.

Getting the first enthusiastic supporters and starting a word-of-mouth effect is just the beginning. Unless you try to push it somehow, it will take many years before you become a little bit known mainstream, if you ever get to that point. And when you push forward, there is still a long and exhausting road to take your project to a tipping point, after which the whole word-of-mouth process accelerates and takes traction by itself. And just bear in mind that the effort you will need to invest is very considerable and the results can only be seen in the mid-term, so you need to remain constant.

At eBox, we considered from the start that communication and promotion of our project was crucial if we ever wanted to get to a critical mass of users, and we knew that sporadic appearances in media or blogs was not enough to take us there. So, for the last 18 months we have had a full-time person in communication, which is a lot for a startup with no external funding and with strong needs in resources for R&D, service delivery and sales. There was a lot of work to do first setting up the communication basis before we could start with any visible action, but now things are up and running and we have well-established processes that can help us, for example, to start, spot and participate in discussions about eBox on the Internet.

However, having full-time professionals in communication do not generate popularity overnight. Although we had a healthy growth in all our indicators for the past 12 months (around 5-10% monthly growth in downloads, in new forum members, in incoming links, etc), we are just now really harvesting the fruits of our communication efforts. There are at least three facts that prove that eBox is becoming popular and getting closer to the tipping point:

  • Linux Format, the leading Linux magazine in the UK, made a benchmark about Linux firewalls for its June 2010 issue, where it included all the best-known firewall-specific Linux distributions, and eBox. The fact that eBox was included would be just a good reason to celebrate, but it becomes better, as it was actually chosen as the best firewall solution!
  • Security researcher Russ McRee found a security vulnerability in eBox during last month, which was promptly solved. Although we cannot be proud of any security vulnerability in eBox, it is definitely an important milestone that security experts start to specifically look for issues in our technology.
  • The average number of eBox downloads during the past 6 months has more than doubled last year’s average. We are now close to 30,000 downloads per month, which looks like a pretty good number. Last month at LinuxTag I attended a presentation by Larry Augustin claiming that SugarCRM had 60,000 downloads per month. This means that eBox, without the $30M+ in VC funds of SugarCRM, has managed to reach almost half of their numbers. I agree the comparison is not direct: a small business server is not the same product as a CRM, but we are both aiming at the SMB server market, which makes the comparison still valid.

So, things seem to be accelerating now. In my view, there is still a lot of work to do to get to that tipping point, but we are getting closer everyday. This would be a good timing for us to reassess our identity and make sure that all our communication elements are right and in place, before any further change becomes painfully costly.

2 comments 5 July, 2010

Disrupting the market of SMB servers

DisruptiveTechnology< borrowed from Wikipedia >Disruptive technologies are innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically by being lower priced (“low-end disruption”) or designed for a different set of consumers (“new-market disruption”). Disruptive technologies are particularly threatening to the leaders of an existing market, because they are competition coming from an unexpected direction.

In low-end disruption, the disruptor is focused initially on serving the least profitable customer, who is happy with a good enough product. This type of customer is not willing to pay premium for enhancements in product functionality. Once the disruptor has gained foot hold in this customer segment, it seeks to improve its profit margin. To get higher profit margins, the disruptor needs to enter the segment where the customer is willing to pay a little more for higher quality. To ensure this quality in its product, the disruptor needs to innovate. The incumbent will not do much to retain its share in a not so profitable segment, and will move up-market and focus on its more attractive customers. After a number of such encounters, the incumbent is squeezed into smaller markets than it was previously serving. And then finally the disruptive technology meets the demands of the most profitable segment and drives the established company out of the market. An example of low-end disruption is the way digital photography has largely replaced film photography.</ borrowed from Wikipedia>

No market is shielded against disruptive technologies, and the market of SMB servers is no exception. In fact, it shows all the conditions for such a disruption to happen, as it is a market in which:

  • There is a clear leader (Microsoft)
  • With a mature product (Windows Small Business Server)
  • Over-provisioned product, providing more functionality than needed and overwhelming end users by the plethora of features
  • Established on a continuous, evolutionary innovation cycle
  • With little or no commercial interest in the lower segments of the market (WsSBS has no product or pricing segmentation for customers under 75 employees)
  • With a strong motivation in abandoning the less profitable customers and focus in the more profitable ones (rising the license price by 80% is forcing customers in the low-end to look for alternatives)

Moreover, Linux and the open source tools for network management (Samba, Postfix, Squid, Snort, eGroupware, Spamassasin, ClamAV, etc) have a huge disruptive potential in the SMB server market, as they bring a great advantage in pricing (in fact, they are free). Besides, similarly to other disruptive technologies, they started offering a lower level of functionality than their closed source alternatives, but they have evolved and caught up or even surpassed them in many markets (close to 90% of the supercomputers in the world are based on Linux, which is a good indicator of the quality level this technology has reached).

However, in spite of these conditions, open source solutions have a very low presence in the market of SMB servers. The reason is simple: for a server solution to enter the SMBs, it needs all its components to be tightly integrated and be easy to administrate. SMBs do not have resources nor time to deploy complex high-performance solutions, so highly integrated products such as WsSBS cover pretty well SMBs’ technological needs.

This is where solutions such as eBox Platform, developed after the integration of standard open source components, have the required disruptive potential to change the market balance. On the other hand, as the software integrating these components is also open source, there are additional advantages, both in development costs (users community greatly helps reducing the effort needed for design, development and testing) and in sales and promotion costs (due to the word-of-mouth effect generated by the community and the option to try the product without previously paying for it). Thanks to this, it is possible to compete with the market leader with a lower cost structure, turning thus the market of lower-end customers profitable.

Finally, as it is not possible to use a traditional license-based business model, there is need to be innovative in the value proposition and bring it closer to customer’s needs. For us the solution came in the form of SaaS model (access to the eBox Control Center, offered mainly for VARs and MSPs) and subscription services (disaster recovery, cheap VoIP calls, security audits, reports and alerts, etc), which are not offered by the market leader.

In summary, the key points to disrupt the market of SMB servers are:

  • Focus the product initially in the lower-end of the market, to later improve in functionality and start growing in the market stack
  • Center the innovation effort in improving system integration and task automation, as well as usability and easiness of administration
  • Use open source methodologies for development, distribution and commercialization of the product, generating a user community around the project
  • Develop the value proposition in technologies and services that allow for a better convenience of use, such as SaaS or subscription to remote services
  • 3 comments  Tagged:  , , , , , , , , 29 December, 2009

Four years of freedom

BreakingChainsOn a day like this four years ago eBox Platform was first published as open source. Anniversaries such as this one are good chances to stop for a moment and look back to how everything started.

Before open-sourcing eBox code we had been working in it for some 20 months already, since before summer 2004. Originally the whole idea of eBox came up as a joint-project between DBS (now defunct) and Warp in order to develop an open source server to offer small and medium businesses all the functionality needed to run their computer networks and network infrastructure. The stress was put in simplicity and usability, as most small businesses do not have an IT expert nor the time to set complex systems up.

After some work we quickly realized that a Webmin approach of developing just a web interface on top of a Linux system could work fine for a single network service but it lacked the service integration required for an easy-to-use, all-in-one solution. That’s where we started developing eBox as an integration framework, an abstraction layer that could turn a bunch of independent network components into a single entity. A kind of “glue” for network services in a Linux server. It was a beautiful idea, though challenging and complex, and no one before had proposed it.

The initial business model that was conceived for eBox was to bundle it in a specific hardware (a box) and sell it like hot cakes. Hence its name “eBox”. Clever, eh? 😉 Well, the amount of work needed to develop it turned out to be much greater than expected and we did not have enough resources to fund such an adventure and its market introduction, so we turned to search for public funding.

Our initial idea had always been to make eBox open source so we organized an event at the Chamber of Commerce of Zaragoza to give solemnity to the moment (in those times open source was in fashion among the public sector, but cases of businesses open sourcing their products were really scarce). We got over a hundred attendants, including some of the most important local politicians and IT entrepreneurs, and initial interest on eBox was pretty high, at least in the local context. However, this interest faded away during the following months and it was not until October 2006, almost a year after its publication, that eBox downloads started to take off, climbing to 2,000 from a meager 500 the month before.

It is really gratifying to see how long we have gone since the kick-off of the project and since we started with the development of the community. Now, with more than 2,000 members in our community and 150 new members every month we are becoming a well-established solution in the open source market and we can soon fulfill our goal of becoming the Linux Small Business Server.

 Tagged:  , , , , , , 30 November, 2009

eBox community, according to Pareto and Anderson

A few weeks ago I was playing with statistical data from eBox forum, trying to find some behavior pattern and to understand a bit better its dynamics. I tried in particular a couple of well-know principles applied to businesses:

  • The Pareto principle, stating that 20% of your customers are behind 80% of your revenues
  • The Long Tail distribution, described by Chris Anderson, stating that in an Internet-based business, sales tend toward a long tail graph

Well, as I wanted to see how well these two principles were applied to our community, I just had to change customers with forum members and sales with posts in the forum. The results were really surprising. I was expecting some correlation with the previous principles, but I found out that the behavior was exactly as predicted by the business principles. Here you can see the graph of our long-tailed community (data are freely available at our forum statistics).

So far, it was qualitatively well understood that in every open source community there is a core of very active members and a bulk of sporadic contributors. However, these results can give some quantitative and visual insights on this behavior. I believe they can be applied to other communities and I would love to hear of other examples where these principles work.

4 October, 2009

Sales process benefiting from open source model

SalesmanWhen I explain the benefits that a business can get from open sourcing a product, the contributions from the community in the technical aspect are well understood and accepted. But when I get to the point of sales leads and opportunities, the reactions are often skeptical. So far I could only come up with examples of other products and companies with just vague descriptions of the benefits in their sales process. Even when I tried to find more convincing figures I just could gather some more vague data.

Well, I finally have some real figures from our own product and company which I think are self-explanatory and I would like to share them as a snapshot of our current situation. My goal is that they could serve as a graphical example of how using an open source approach can help a start up increasing its sales and commercial opportunities. But first I need to explain a little background …

Our main market focus is through partners and resellers who can deliver eBox certified services locally, so for us a commercial opportunity is a system integrator or a managed service provider who contacts us interested in a partnership agreement.

It’s been less than three months since we launched our partnership program and the results so far are the following:

  • We have received 50+ partner requests from 30 countries in every continent in the world, except Antarctica
  • We have already signed up with close to 10 of them
  • More importantly, over 80% of our partner requests have tested and deployed eBox in production environments, half of them at their customers’ premises, before contacting us, showing the value of allowing free download of your own product
  • Surprisingly, one in every six is a member of our community, which shows that open source communities are not just “non-paying users”

Having this data would have been very useful for me some 5-6 years ago, when I had to do a lot of open source evangelizing. I hope they can be useful for someone else now.

28 September, 2009

A fresh start

Fresh startSo, this is it, I am starting again a new blog. The fifth blog if I remember correctly. It is refreshing to start again from scratch, with new ideas, new challenges, new working mates, new context.

My previous professional blog, Embracing Open Sources, was written during my work as a CEO at Warp Networks, a Spanish open source system integrator, as a place to analyze the open source movement from a general point of view. Now that I got to become the CEO of eBox Technologies, the approach I want to follow with this new blog is completely different. My challenge has shifted from a project-based company mainly focused in a local-national market and where every partner is a worker, to an open-source product-based startup, going global from the beginning and with a non-negligible complexity in handling the relation with the different stakeholders. I think the challenges we are facing and the experience we will gain in doing so might be intrinsically interesting and that’s what this blog will be about: sharing the lessons we gain in learning to fly, in trying to make eBox one of the top solutions for the IT management for SMBs around the world. If you liked this introduction stay tuned for new posts!

2 comments  Tagged:  21 April, 2009

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