Open Enterprise Interview: Bill Karpovich

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Open source's roots lie in the hacker world, where the ability to monitor and manage every aspect of a computer is fundamental. So perhaps it's no surprise that one of the most fruitful areas for open source companies has been systems management – essentially offering the same capabilities at the enterprise level, but without the need for low-level coding.

Moreover, supporting heterogeneous environments is hard for even the biggest company, which only has limited engineering resources to spread around. Open source communities, by contrast, are well placed to deal with even the most obscure system components if it's in their own interests. As a result, it could be argued that open source is not just better for system management, but actually the only way to provide comprehensive and scalable coverage.

One of the leaders in this field is Zenoss, which, like many open source companies, offers both free and commercial licences to its products. Here Bill Karpovich, CEO and co-founder of Zenoss, talks about where the company and its name came from, why IT management is broken, and the role of Zenoss as cloud computing and software as a service become more common in enterprise IT.

GM: What's the background to Zenoss – when and why was it founded?

BK: Zenoss is a commercial open source IT management software company, originally conceived by me and my Zenoss co-founder Erik Dahl in 2002 while we were both working at USinternetworking (USi). USi’s IT management solution at the time, HP OpenView, was so difficult to configure and use we decided to develop our own in-house IT management solution. The project, spearheaded by Erik, not only provided us a deep working knowledge of IT management, but also informed us that USi wasn’t the only company eager for an alternative to solutions offered by the Big 4 vendors (IBM, HP, BMC and CA). Therefore, after delivering and operating USi’s in-house IT management solution for two years, we left USi to start Zenoss.

GM: Where does the name come from?

BK: The name Zenoss is the combination of the words Zen (a school of Buddhism suggesting that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition) and OSS (the abbreviation for Open Source Software). Translation: a harmonious commercial open source alternative to proprietary IT management software.

GM: What business problem was it set up to solve, and how does it do that?

BK: Has a data server at your company ever crashed or an email server ever come to a crawl? Remember what a productivity killer that was? Our software helps companies to avoid those situations by monitoring and managing their servers, networks, applications and end-user desktops, detecting potential problems and helping IT administrators to remediate them before serious issues occur. With Zenoss, companies can auto-detect and catalogue all their servers, network devices, applications, etc.; track changes to their configurations; monitor their availability and performance; be alerted to potential issues and remediate them before major issues occur.

Our software enables this by first sending out standards-based (SNMP) agents that scour a company’s IT infrastructure and automatically detect and catalogue the different IT devices. Once all these devices are catalogued, users can then establish rules (i.e., monitoring frequency, acceptable performance ranges, etc.) that govern how they’ll be monitored and what alerts will be provided when potential issues are encountered. Finally the system helps users determine root causes and resolve issues.

The bottom line is that is enables a small staff of IT personnel to proactively monitor and manage an extensive IT infrastructure from a single, easy to use dashboard.

GM: What products do you have, and under which licences?

BK: We have a community version of the software, called Zenoss Core, that’s available to users for free under the GNU Public Licence.

We also have a commercial certified version, Zenoss Enterprise, with additional features including indemnification, multi-instance dashboards and instrumentation for enterprise software typical of large corporate installations.

GM: Which of these is open source, or uses open source code from other projects? When and why did you decide to offer an open source version? What's the advantage – for users, and for you?

BK: Both versions are open source. The community version just happens to be the free version of our open source software, whereas the enterprise version is the paid version that includes many advantages not found in the community edition.

There are advantages of both editions to our users and to us.

Advantages to users of the community version include price (free is a pretty good deal) and open collaboration/sharing with a huge community whereby users can take advantage of community generated extensions and documentation immediately. Advantages to us from the community version include extensive contributions which we evaluate and include many in our enterprise edition and an opportunity for companies to evaluate software risk-free and eventually become paying customers of the enterprise edition.

Advantages to users of the enterprise edition include a more stable release, deeper functionality, help-desk support and various licensing options such as indemnification, if chosen. Advantages to us from the enterprise edition is a revenue stream that makes it all sustainable (which is also a pretty good deal).