Open Enterprise Interview: Stefane Fermigier

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One of the great strengths of free software is that it can be started anywhere – as the origins of the Linux kernel in a Helsinki bedroom attest. From a European viewpoint, a heartening development has been a string of open source projects that have started and flourished this side of the Atlantic, some of them – notably JBoss and MySQL – turning into highly successful companies that were sold for significant piles of cash.

That said, France is not a country many would associate with free software startups, but that's changing – not least because the French government is showing itself far more receptive to open source than its UK counterpart. One of the leading companies of this new Nouvelle Vague is Nuxeo, which was set up by Stefane Fermigier, now its CEO.

He was an active open source advocate and evangelist in the 90s before founding Nuxeo in 2000 and switching to an entrepreneur role. A graduate of Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, he holds a PhD in Mathematics from the Paris VII University. Here he talks about the the origins of Nuxeo, its place in the Enterprise Content Management (ECM) sector, and in the broader world of French free software.

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

SF: I founded Nuxeo in 2000. As a personal then professional user of Linux and free/open source software since the early 90s, I had the strong feeling that open source would come to have a tremendous impact on the software industry. This process took a bit longer than I hoped for at the time, but, if we believe some recent Gartner predictions ("80% of commercial apps to use open source by 2012"), this will happen in the next few years and we will be one of the major providers of technology in our sector.

The company's initial focus was on building collaborative web applications, either intranets or collaborative web sites (which weren't called "web 2.0" yet). From the work we did for our early customers, we started to build a framework, called CPS ("Collaborative Portal Server"), and an open source community around it, with a small ecosystem of systems integrators partnering with us on some of the projects.

In 2006, we decided to rewrite our platform using the leading open source Java technologies (from Apache, JBoss, Eclipse and Sun), which had matured to a point where you wouldn't think of writing enterprise applications without them. At the same time, we decided to position Nuxeo as an "open source vendor", which provides technologies and know-how to its partners (systems integrators and ISVs/VARs/OEMs), and sells professional services and support using a subscription model.

The new platform, Nuxeo 5, was released in late 2006, and has received great feedback by the marketplace, both by partners and customers.

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

SF: We're developing a platform, designed to manage all the non-structured information in the enterprise, in other words, to manage documents (including business and transactional documents, images, sound and videos). Our vision is that of an "ERP for your document", i.e. a modular platform that can be tailored and extended to address the specific needs of each of our (or our partners') customers, or of vertical markets. A wide range of applications are developed on top of our platform, including: document management, mail management, knowledge management, news or magazine production, multimedia assets management, etc.

Our software is based on Java standards, with a components and services based architecture, to foster the development of a community and an ecosystem around our technologies.

More specifically, our platform has three variants:

- Nuxeo SP (Service Platform), a "document management kernel" that provides all the common document management functions like: storage, access rights, metadata, search, workflow, etc. and that can be embedded in applications or access as remote services.

- Nuxeo EP (Enterprise Platform), a web-based application for document management, which can be customized and extended, and runs on a Java EE 5 application server.

- Nuxeo RCP (Rich Client Platform), a framework to create rich client (desktop) document management applications using the Eclipse RCP platform by embedding Nuxeo SP.

GM: What's the advantage of offering open source in this sector? How do you differentiate yourself from the other open source ECM companies like Alfresco, say?

The ECM sector is currently dominated by big companies with ageing technologies and a cost structure and delivery model that is increasingly rejected by the marketplace. Like other open source vendors in other sectors, we've set out to leverage the open source development model to its full extent and bring to the market software based on up-to-date technologies, developed in a transparent way and with the contribution of a large community, and to provide our customers with real services in exchange for their money.

Regarding Alfresco, we like to say that we don't see them as competitors, as they seem to focus on the "basic collaboration" side of ECM, and we're providing a full, scalable stack for ECM. In other words, they compete with SharePoint, and we compete with Documentum/OpenText/Filenet.

Our licences are different too: they use the GPL, which prevents linking their software with proprietary extensions, and we use the LGPL, which allows to do so, in line with our vision of an ecosystem of third-party extensions vendors on top of our platform.

Another important difference is that we don't have, as they do, two versions of our product, one open source and unsupported and the other one supported but proprietary.

GM: What's your business model? How do you work with the Nuxeo community? How important are their contributions, and what are they?

SF: As an open source software vendor, we strive to work with partners to bring our technology to our customers. Our revenue breakdown is currently roughly 1/3 subscriptions, 1/3 professional services, and 1/3 custom development, part of which is contributed back to the common open source code base.

Our development model is fully open and transparent. All of our source code is available and we don't have a non open source "enterprise" edition of our software. Only customer-specific configuration or code is stored in a private source repository, or on their own repository if they choose so.

We choose this development model because we don't believe you can build a strong community if you are not fully open. We welcome all contributions from the community: code, of course, but also translations, documentation, and ideas.

Our internal development team is roughly 25 people, and we have also about 20 externally, not counting contributions that are made by people just sending patches to the mailing list or attaching them to our wiki or our issue tracker.

We strongly believe our development and licensing model is the best towards what we are aiming to achieve, which is to create a strong platform, with a rich ecosystem of third-party service or software components providers.

This business model we chose also has a deep impact on our architecture and design choices. Our software is split up in several layers (the content storage server, the service layer, the web layer and the rich client platform) which can be reused independently, all services in the platform, both internal and external, are pluggable. For instance, we're using the Lucene open source indexing engine as our default search engine, but it's possible and easy to substitute other (open source or proprietary) search engines (for instance, semantic search engines which don't have open source alternatives at this point).

GM: What are the particular problems and advantages of being a French open source company? What's the state of open source in France today?

SF: I'd say, in retrospect, that it was a chance for us to start our company in France, a country where there has been a strong push for open source, especially by the Government, since 2000. Actually, our initial market was 90% government work, but since 2005 we have started to work on many big projects for the private sector too, mostly for big companies like press agencies and companies in the energy, utility and defence sectors.

I was talking recently to Mathieu Poujol, who is covering the European open source market for Pierre Audouin Conseil. They found in their latest study that France, Germany and the UK are the three leading open source markets in Europe, and are roughly of the same size. But since overall Germany and the UK have much bigger IT markets, this means that France is leading these other two countries in terms of open source market penetration.

Of course, that still means that the UK and German markets are interesting for us, and we already have customers in these countries too, as well as in other parts of the world.

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

SF: Regarding our technology and products, we have many technical ideas we'd like to implement in 2008, to enhance the attractiveness of our platform both for end-users and for integrators and ISVs: enhanced collaboration (real-time), better integration with office suites (MS-Office and OpenOffice.org), wikis and blogs, video management, semantic mining of the managed content, developers tools (IDE), and operations tools (management console), etc. Our technical roadmap is available here.

Regarding the business side of the company, our focus is on international expansion. A first step was the UK subsidiary we set up last year, which is now on track for generating 25% of our global revenues this year. We now have customers and partners in continental Europe, in the UK and in North America, and we have users which are actively part of our community in South America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. This means we pretty much cover the whole world.

To fuel this expansion, we're looking for new partners, integrators with an expertise in Java EE on the technology side and ECM on the business side, or vertical software vendors looking for a content management "core" to embed in their business applications.

GM: What about ECM: how do you think that market will develop? What will be the place of Microsoft's SharePoint in this?

SF: ECM is a mature market, worth already more that 4$B according to some and still growing, but it is also experiencing tremendous transformations due to both technology advances (e.g. the rise of open architectures, based on components and SOA) and also increased users expectations, fueled by all the "web 2.0" application they are now used to. This means that there are still a lot of innovations that we're going to build into our platform in the following years, and thanks to our open source development model and our agile approach, we're able to develop them at a much faster pace than our bigger competitors.

SharePoint seems to have a certain impact on the marketplace, but fortunately for us we're not competing against them, as they only provide basic collaboration service and not "real" ECM.

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