Open Enterprise Interview: Dirk Morris, Untangle


One of the reasons the open source development methodology is so powerful is because of the modularisation that lies at its heart.

This allows those with a particular expertise to work on the module they are best able to improve, and for all such modules to be slotted together thanks to the clean interfaces between them. And at a higher level, the open source world is made up of many independent projects – unlike the world of Windows, say, where the ecosystem revolves around and is dependent on Microsoft's strategic decisions to a high degree - each able to proceed at a speed and in a direction that suits them best.

This approach does have its downside, though, in terms of coordination. One of the more plausible complaints about open source is that time-consuming to locate and then hard to integrate all these disparate solutions together as tightly as the corresponding Windows apps. But one person's problem is another person's business opportunity.

Noting that there were many fine open source tools in the domain of security – indeed, almost *too* many – the open source company Untangle was set up to simplify the acquisition and integration of open source apps in this area.

Here, Dirk Morris, CTO and co-founder of Untangle, talks about the company's origins, about adding value to the free software it selects for its products, and how it gives back to the open source community it depends upon.

GM: What's your background? When did you first come across open source – and what did you think of it then?

DM: I come out of a computer science background. I originally studied at Carnegie Mellon University, and from there went on to work as an engineer/architect at a few software startups before founding Untangle in 2003.

I originally thought of open source back in 1983 when I was 3 years of age. I made the terrible mistake of communicating my ideas to a bearded man at MIT who later went on to found the Free Software Foundation and take credit for all my ideas. I am still upset about this and we have not spoken since.

Actually, I've used open source as long as I've been involved in software. Open source was a natural option to use and build upon because it was easily available and free but still of high quality.

GM: How did Untangle come about: who set it up, when, and why?

DM: I founded the company with my colleague, John Irwin. We noticed a problem in the small business market - namely that bringing up a cheap and secure network environment was just too hard for small business. Commercial products (mostly proprietary appliances) were too expensive and inflexible. On the other hand, while open source software offered tremendous technical advantages (and the price was right), it was just way too complex for most small businesses. So we created platform that leveraged the best open source network applications but was designed with ease-of-use and features just for small businesses. In short, Untangle is all about removing the points of friction that make it so tough for small businesses acquire, deploy and install. We make it easy…

Easy to acquire – free downloads

Easy to deploy – runs on generic Intel/AMD PCs

Easy to install – pre-configured apps work right away

Easy to manage – Software upgrades and signature updates are automatic and turned on by default

During the early days, Untangle was a tight group of totally unpaid engineers that were agile and working rapidly, usually with a large sense of urgency - always driving to the next milestone because the company depended on it.

After an amazing effort of 2 years, our beta programme and early customers were sufficient to give us a seed round from angel investors, which allowed us to pay ourselves enough to eat and gave us the resources to expand the team.

Initially, we had only offered Untangle as a dedicated appliance - in the early days, this was easiest, as appliances are easy to support and the engineering team could control the entire environment. With the additional resources that funding allowed, we later released a software download that could be installed on any PC to convert it into an "Untangle appliance."

This allowed for significant growth, as Untangle was much easier to try and could be acquired at no cost. This growth allowed us to later secure additional funding which has allowed us to scale and expand the breadth of our product offering, which has catapulted us to the position we are in today.

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