java.net Success Story: Open For Business
How would you describe a business-oriented software framework that offers inventory and asset management, accounting, order management and fulfillment, and even content management ... competes with established and expensive CRM products ... and is entirely open source?
You might say it's Open For Business.
The Open For Business project, commonly abbreviated "OFBiz" (pronounced "O. F. Biz," at least by its founders), has enjoyed great success since migrating to java.net in August 2003. Version 3.0 was released in March, and project founders David E. Jones and Andy Zeneski talked with java.net about the project in April.
OFBiz has its genesis in not one, but two open source business automation efforts with similar goals. David explains, "the problems we wanted to solve were similar ... we both saw that existing solutions were not sufficient." This led him to start developing OFBiz in May of 2001. About the same time, Andy began work on another business automation framework, called Jagwire. He noted that many of his consulting customers wanted to upgrade their proprietary software systems and couldn't afford to do so. From his experiences in consulting and working in small start-ups, he saw a solution that an open source system could solve.
Both projects were guided by their authors' experience in enterprise consulting, combining ideas from existing commercial software with the new ideas emerging from the Java Enterprise world. "None of the existing ERP packages could really leverage those ideas," David says, "they could only build a middle tier around them."
The two projects found one another quickly and merged under the OFBiz banner in July 2001. After that, development continued as the founders' finances and professional work allowed. At one point, both worked for a company keen on promoting OFBiz, but David notes that this eventually revealed "the inherent contradiction between running an open source project and having a company that wanted to be the pre-eminent supplier of the project." Eventually, both founders jumped ship to independent consulting, delivering solutions based on OFBiz.
OFBiz is not just a collection of tools that only works in the lab. OFBiz's "What People Are Saying About OFBiz" page links to customer sites running multimillion-dollar e-commerce applications on the OFBiz platform.
David and Andy say that while OFBiz is meant to be general enough to be broadly applicable, they dealt with scoping problems early on by focusing on e-commerce solutions, which emerged as the primary strength of the early OFBiz. This allowed them to use OFBiz for customized e-commerce solutions that compete with pricier options. Starting from that initial focus on "selling stuff over the Internet," they developed systems for basics like order management and credit-card processing.
Since then, as OFBiz's utility to other fields has been revealed, more systems have been built out, now offering invoicing, receivables, inventory management, and stockroom management. Future releases will offer tools for marketing and sales, along with accounting tools. One client even wants to combine OFBiz's content management and e-commerce pieces. As David notes, "a lot of pieces, as they come on, are tied to e-commerce, but then they branch off in their own directions."
One example of this is OFBiz's manufacturing application. The founders say it has been developed "almost 100 percent" by contributors other than themselves. David says, "hopefully in the next year, it'll be applicable to any number of industries, where right now it's really best for the retail industry, because that's part of the initial feature set we chose."
The manufacturing piece also exemplifies OFBiz's success developing a community. The founders say, "it took a while before people really started contributing." But after the project moved to java.net last fall, "we really started to get contributions on the business application level." The manufacturing side, in particular, "has huge discussions that we can barely keep up with," but that "there are still a bunch of screens I haven't even seen." They say "the community really has, especially in certain areas, taken on a life of its own."
A core group of "seven or eight" developers has commit access, with another dozen making fairly frequent contributions. Much of the community contribution beyond that comes in the form of testing and proof-of-concept work, "showing that a certain business process can work with certain changes to the codebase."
Most of the community members are described as "people or are familiar with business and an expert at technology, or vice versa, but pretty much everyone has both, or is in a business with both." They also count a number of CTOs among the project membership.
Much of the OFBiz community is international, with many contributors located in Europe, India, and China. David notes, "That's a really good thing, because much of the e-commerce site was never internationalized, and the community contributed much of the grunt work of internationalizing OFBiz." They expect the entire project to be I18Ned by the end of the year.
The internationalization effort also displays what the founders see as the inherent advantages of open source, particularly in terms of development time and features. Andy says, "Open source software can evolve much more rapidly than closed source commercial software. I say the reason for this is due to the number of people who get involved. Hence, the community involvement. The greater adoption, the more community involvement, the more the software evolves." Their open source philosophy is spelled out further on their web site.
OFBiz and java.net
The founders say they were motivated to move the project to java.net because of stability and reliability problems at SourceForge, but have enjoyed unanticipated advantages at their new address. "I think we've had more lift, more exposure for the project," says David. As java.net gained traction after its mid-2003 launch, membership rose nearly 50 percent from December 2003 to April 2004.
So what do they want the rest of java.net to know about OFBiz? They say that they want to express that OFBiz is a "very distributed community working on very commercial projects." David continues, "There is incredible economic potential to using the software and getting involved in the community. For those looking at these kinds of needs and want to control the appearance of the output, this is an incredible opportunity."
The founders are focusing their consulting work on getting people up and running with OFBiz, with a set of training videos being produced to help users adopt an OFBiz strategy. "Our focus," they say, "is not just growing the project but growing the community."
Speaking of community, the Open For Business Users Conference was held in Minneapolis on May 27 and 28 (see the ofbiz.org page for more information). This raises an interesting question: why is the conference in Minneapolis, when Andy's in New York and David's in Salt Lake City? The founders reply, "We don't host it, the users do!" Andy adds, "I like that; it's a really good way to do it. We usually do a little bit of training, but there are often other people who get involved, so people have a chance to introduce themselves and what they're doing."
"Though it would be nice if we didn't have to pay our own way," they add.