Open Enterprise Interview: Javier Soltero

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In the wake of Sun's planned purchase of MySQL, the open source systems management company Hyperic must be high on most people's list of potential acquisitions in the future. Its co-founder and CEO, Javier Soltero, has had a long career in the computing world.

Companies he has worked for include Netscape, where he participated in the development of e-commerce and Internet infrastructure suites, the bookmarking company Backflip, and the support company Covalent, recently bought by SpringSource. He has also been involved in various open source projects such as JBoss and Tomcat.

Like any self-respecting boss of a modern open source company he has his own corporate blog. Here he talks about Hyperic's origins, the importance of its community, and what the future holds for Hyperic in particular, and open source companies in general.

GM: Could you say a little about the origin of the company: when, how and why it was set up?

JS: The technology's first inception was actually at Covalent. All of the founders of Hyperic, myself, Doug MacEachern, Charles Lee, Ryan Morgan and John Sachs, worked there and developed a technology known as Covalent Application Manager, which was meant to improve the manageability of applications built on Apache. After about two years of development and three charter customers, Covalent shifted directions and the technology and efforts of the team were shelved.

We felt we had developed something that we were not only proud of, but that had demand and value in the market - our first three customers proved that. So we purchased the technology for one dollar and assumed liability for the customers. We bootstrapped the company for the next two years, before OEMing the technology to JBoss, and building the momentum, eventually attracting venture funding. Once we secured the first round, we started expanding staff and moved to an open source model - something we had wanted to do from the beginning but lacked the resources to do.

GM: What products do you offer, and what problems do they solve for enterprises?

JS: We provide software that is designed to reduce the workload of web operations teams who support business critical services - usually the company's main web site and technology. Customers like CNET, eHarmony, hi5 Networks, Rx.com, Ask.com have built a service that demands constant improvement and continuous uptime to remain competitive. These are companies that until today have usually built their own monitoring and management solution in order to fit heterogeneous and constantly changing IT environments. But, they are finding that their solutions can fall short.

With Hyperic HQ, we provide auto-discovery of the 65+ technologies that are most likely the components used to create their systems, and an easy to extend framework that allows them to embrace all their technology choices and innovations. Further, we consolidate the tools into one place - so all historical trending, alerting, diagnostics and control can be accomplished directly through our easy to use, and scalable web portal.

GM: What's the advantage of offering open source in this sector?

JS: Our users are busy, jaded, IT professionals. They do not answer the phone. They scoff at advertising. They respond to search and community. They prove things to themselves first. By using open source, they have freely available unlimited access to try out and prove our software solves their problems on their terms. They use it, they see it makes their lives easier - they choose to stay with the open source, or if they are a larger shop - they find the Enterprise version has some additional automation that helps managing at scale. These people then raise their hand and voluntarily engage with our sales organization with a proven appetite for our software.

GM: Are there any interesting geographical differences that you observe in the sales and use of your products around the world?

JS: With open source, we are a global company from day one. In fact, Hyperic's first real customer was in Spain. Second was in the UK. That said, as we scaled the business last year, the bulk of our success was in the Americas. That has a lot to do with where we are based - San Francisco.

About mid-way through last year, we started putting focus on the European community - hiring two community managers over there - one in Germany and one in Spain. We now have 37% of all our community activity driven through Europe. That is almost the size of the Americas (around 45%). We have a tremendous potential to greatly expand in Europe, however it will take the same kind of community presence in order to effectively capitalize. Because of this need for greater presence, we launched our 3.2 product at the recent Open Solutions Linux show in Paris, along with announcing significant gain in European customers. We also visited customers and recruited partners and local staff. Our goal is to set up a permanent presence with sales and support services in Europe this year.

GM: How do you work with the Hyperic community? How important are their contributions, and what are they?

JS: Our community is the centre of the Hyperic universe. Over 65% of our current customers tell us they started in the community. We employ three community managers that maintain community dialogue, award points, organise community events (biweekly webinars, bug hug days, etc), and vet bugs raised by the community into our bug tracking system (something only customers have access to directly update). Keeping our community active demonstrates a useful and vetted software experience to anyone searching. That is the principal way they contribute.

However, many of them write blogs, reviews, jump on other community boards and tout Hyperic's virtues. They also write HOW TOs, and plugins and share them on our community forge site to share with others. They review and comment on documentation, and provide a wealth of data points that feed product innovation and solutions. The community is the incubator for where all good things happen at Hyperic, and we treat it accordingly.

GM: How do you see Hyperic developing as a product range and company in the future?

JS: We will continue to innovate on how to better provide a hands-free systems management experience designed for very complex and changing custom web applications. These guys need really smart software and data centre automation that makes management and firefighting the exception to their jobs. They can not afford to sink energy into the overhead of managing brittle monitoring software. They need to spend those energies on further developing production software and extending their competitive advantage. Our job is to make routine management brain dead simple and to streamline more sophisticated management tasks so they can effectively succeed in providing outstanding availability and performance.

GM: What about systems management: how do you think that will develop? How will a shift towards "cloud computing" affect this sector?

JS: The data centre is becoming commoditised, there is no question. There is still a lot of innovation, but the main components - your app server, web server and database were the first to be commoditised. People haven't had to build those out for years. With virtualisation, your physical server, the hardware itself, became commoditised. With innovations like Vyatta, your network device has become commoditised. Now your data centre is going that way. Hyperic's goal is to make the management of those commoditised pieces an out-of-the-box experience.

We're working with [Amazon's] EC2 and the like now. We expect it will become a pattern. This is pretty exciting, because it relieves the pressure of having to reinvent the wheel for everything and gets really smart developers focused on innovation. Cloud computing is just another step to lower the bar for entry into the web-centric IT market and provide a great new swath of interesting services in a viable fashion.

GM: More generally, what do think will happen to open source companies: will most players be bought up by larger, more established players, as has happened recently with MySQL and Trolltech? Is it possible to survive as an independent open source company?

JS: This is the natural cycle of things. Market expansion and consolidation has been happening for ages. Sure, several will choose an exit that involves matching forces with a larger more established player (open source or otherwise), but innovation is usually bred by the smaller more nimble folks looking to crack a new niche in the market.

Open source is a hotbed of innovation right now, and gets a lot of attention - particularly with the IT crowd who love the acquisition model. No death by PowerPoint, software that works long before I have to pay for it or fight middle management to try. Open source has a lot of folks that are pretty independent - they like the agility of being independent. And the commoditisation and open source itself as a software and a business model has created a low entry point to create a viable business that will survive. I think how these companies play in the expansion and consolidation of markets will be completely up to the appetites of the individuals and how their software and services align with other market players.

GM: Any other points or comments?

JS: Our recent product release, Hyperic HQ 3.2, was all about adding speed and scale to solving these next generation IT challenges. The CNETs and hi5's of the world are quite literally some of the largest websites in the world. They are custom built for their audience. They are constantly moving and constantly growing - flexibility in their infrastructure is paramount. They need to be able to adapt and expand at a moments notice (or pretty close to it), and frequently do. Their homegrown tools run out of runway and become an albatross. The idea of using one of the big frameworks (IBM, CA, HP, BMC) is overwhelming, as it could take six months just to install and constant maintenance to keep going... much like their home-grown tools. Providing a tool that scales at a parallel rate, yet adapts and anticipates the environment for which it is installed is not only a giant feat of engineering, but a giant advance for technology in general powering the advancement of some of our favourite websites and web applications.

Nagios is also a big part of this story. Lots of these shops used Nagios and a string of other open source software components to string together their custom mash of monitoring. This requires constant upkeep and runs into scalability problems, yet it’s been a huge investment. Our new integration allows them to continue running this complicated monitoring system and get instant gratification and extended features of the Hyperic software. For almost all of these home-grown IT shops, it eases the transition and provides instant add-on value to their current investment. Combine this with the ability to do historical trending, charting, diagnostics and control centrally (all things they had to add to Nagios custom), this dramatically improves the value and speeds their time to resolution for any problems by being able to use a single tool that tracks everything for them.

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