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 December 29th, 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.

November 30th, 2009




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