Open core / open infrastructure: what's the difference?

A while ago, I pointed out that many discussions of open-source related business models are leaving something out: infrastructure. A lot of people have asked me to explain the difference between "open core" and "open infrastructure"–don't they both mean "open-sourcing the basic stuff"? Well, to some extent they do, but the difference is real, and apparently even more significant than I had thought.

"More significant"? Looks like: Kim Weins at OpenLogic provides some survey results that indicate that customers aren't so happy with the "core vs. complement" choice. And apparently, they're not alone: the much discussed decision by the European Union, to look more closely at the Oracle-Sun merger with an eye to protect the open source MySQL product has been widely decried as a misunderstanding of open source, but may really be just another expression of this same discontent. Matt Aslett of The 451 Group has made a good case that the EU's concern strikes to the heart of the distinction I'm trying to draw. The essential concern is that the open-core approach can mean that the proprietary sponsor of the open-source project can delay, divert, or simply out-pace the community version, making it not really viable. When that happens, you're perilously close to "faux-pen source," something that pretends to be open, but is only viable commercially.

In contrast, the "open infrastructure" model identifies a viable, useful product to be created as an entirely open-source project, and then used to build something fundamentally different. The Apache community has many examples; I think this model may have been an Apache invention. To pick one specific example (and one I can speak most about, as I'm involved), let's talk about Subversion.

Subversion is an open source project. It's a completely open source project: the whole product is available under an open source license. CollabNet (yep, that's us) is, and always has been, the primary sponsor of Subversion, contributing around 25 percent of the labor, over the years, as well as a major portion of the community leadership, and the grunt work of release processes, road maps, and project management. 

I don't think there's any doubt but that there would be no Subversion, and no Subversion community, without CollabNet, because of the way the project began: Brian Behlendorf, founder and then-CTO of CollabNet, hired the team, gave them an office … and then made them work as an open-source project, in the open, instead of an internal development project. Just as clearly, CollabNet did this for business reasons. But the Subversion product, produced by the Subversion community, is in no way "crippleware" merely intended to lure you in to the CollabNet commercial "real" product. Slipping down that slope is the great risk of the "open-core" model, where your profitability depends on a narrow feature advantage over the open source alternative. It's a risk the EU appears to be concerned about. 

CollabNet chose not to follow that path at all: Subversion is Subversion. Any Subversion is all of Subversion. Instead, CollabNet provides another, larger product: CollabNet TeamForge, a product that would be much less valuable without Subversion (which is what justifies our investment), but clearly a different product.

So what's the difference? You still don't see it? OK, maybe it's a matter of degrees. Maybe a metaphor would help. Let's say you want to be a car manufacturer. You can open-source the production of your tires, and build a car that uses those tires. That's "open infrastructure." I don't guess there's a lot of "open source tire manufacturing" going on, but I'm pretty sure that something like 100% of car manufacturers at least "out-source" their tires! It's viable, it works, everybody does it. It's a business model.

But if your automobile business model is to "open core" everything but the paint, if your value-add is only the paint … well, then you're going to see some paint-thin profit margins, too.

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