Inside Alfresco's open source faction: the Order of the Bee

Image: iStock/Darwinism, Natural Selection of Living Organisms, lithograph, published in 1897
Image: iStock/Darwinism, Natural Selection of Living Organisms, lithograph, published in 1897

Alfresco's Ole Hejlskov and Francesco Corti talk Computerworld UK through the creation of The Order of the Bee open source group

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When Thomas H Lee Partners moved to acquire information management business Alfresco, many of its open source contributors inside and outside the company were concerned the new leadership might not appreciate the open DNA of the firm. Enter the Order of the Bee.

While those fears ultimately were not realised - to the relief of Alfresco employees and the wider open source ecosystem that contributes - the faction of open source advocates with their DIY philosophy is an independent symbol of the company's open source core.

The Order of the Bee is a group separate to Alfresco that is concerned chiefly about the open source Community Edition and advocacy of this in the open source and wider technical community.

It flowered from a 2013 keynote delivered by Jeff Potts, founder of Metaversant who was at that time Alfresco's chief community officer. He referred to James Dixon's 'bee keeper model for open source' which in essence argues that the relationship between company and community should be symbiotic like bee keeper and bee.

The Order of the Bee explains: "In this analogy, Alfresco Software is like a commercial apiary where bee keepers work together with the bees to produce honey and take that product to market. The bee keeper needs to invest in the happiness of the bees or they will leave, so both the bee keeper and the bees benefit from their collaboration."

Its structure is democratic, with an elected board whose job it is to arrange events, plus promoting bi-weekly 'office hour' calls that bring in internal Alfresco staff, partners and the community, and to otherwise advocate for the open source Alfresco community.

Alfresco offers proprietary software and services in business process management, and enterprise content management - such as compiling documents within an enterprise, organising them and making them easily available for humans or machines. But well-supported Community Edition products are also available in both business process and content management, although they come with some constraints compared to the enterprise products.

Ole Hejlskov is a product manager for the developer platform at Alfresco and a cofounder of the Order of the Bee. He spoke to Computerworld UK by phone, along with product evangelist Francesco Corti, about the creation of this hymenoptera-themed faction of militant open source advocates.

"Essentially we wanted more collaboration between Alfresco and the ecosystem, so we rallied on it and tried to do more around addons, and see how we could make that closer a bit more," Hejlskov says, remembering the early days of the order. "But one of the areas that really needed attention was events. Alfresco for whatever reasons back then - I wasn't with the company - stopped doing Alfresco Devcon."

Alfresco Devcon was a developer conference that started an event for enthusiasts on the technical side, but then it started pulling in partners and eventually sales too.

"Then, of course, we stopped doing them. So the Order wanted to see that happen again. We arranged our own conference, Beecon, we did one in Brussels and it was quite successful with a couple hundred people turning up."

Several Beecons later and the events started picking up again, and eventually Devcon was back on the table.

"Recently it's been a bit quiet from the Order of the Bee but they did have an election, there's a new board, and they're working hard to define what the order means and what direction to go from there," Hejlskov says.

Francesco Corti adds that the Order was busying itself organising the best technical events that it could imagine, and arranged well-attended hackathons in addition to the conferences. He explains that the 'office hour' open chat initiative brings together people from within Alfresco and the active community members from the Order, as well as external stakeholders like partners or customers, to discuss technical issues, raise questions, register complaints, or otherwise plot out the evolution of the platform.

In terms of external engagement there's a community portal at community.alfresco.com to collate all community activities. On the community platforms, over 70,000 people are active and more than 3,000 are active on a daily basis, in terms of reading the questions and answers, attending webinars, and going to events. Attendees for the various community events draw in participants from "all over the world", including people from Malaysia, Japan, China, the USA and Europe.

"The feedback we receive from the ground," Corti adds, "is we have one of the most friendly and exciting ecosystems of external developers."

So when the acquisition happened earlier this year, Hejlskov says that he was "a bit nervous with what's going to happen" - but luckily the new board buys in to, and has repeatedly stated the value of, open source.

"It gets restated over and over every time we have our all-hands meetings and town hall meetings from the leadership board, that open source is absolutely a key factor in our business model and that's not going to change," Hejlskov explains.

Both Corti and Hejlskov put forward a difference between being 'open' and 'open source'. Hejlskov explains: "I'd like to think we are both: we have the office hours, we have also some people from the community enterprise partners, customers and people internally at Alfresco to join these kind of calls... to have the open collaboration and conversation about how things are going, things like public roadmaps, public issue trackers and all of that really helps people get the value."

Hejlskov adds that the open source model has clear benefits for customers, citing one Canadian company that required some custom functions but was able to look at the code and contribute a few lines itself, resulting in functionality in weeks rather than the months it could take to put a request in through a typical proprietary company. The CIO was particularly impressed.

Of course, the value of open source is increasingly being acknowledged even from companies or groups that were the most ardent sceptics - Microsoft's about-face (and eventual buying of Github) being just one example, that open source is now discussed regularly by business leaders at Davos another.

"I like to quote what [CTO] John Newton said - that open source is in our DNA," says Corti. "I'm proud to say that even for people like Microsoft to be jumping into the open source world quite recently is absolutely amazing. [But] Alfresco joined the open source world since the very beginning, and now Alfresco is thinking: what is the next step of being open source?"

This gives the community and the coal-face of the company confidence that open source is not going anywhere soon, being so central to the business.

But however unlikely, what if there was a change of tack from corporate?

Would the Order of the Bees take up arms as the open source vanguard against the rising proprietary tide - and tell it to buzz off?

"I don't think it's going to come to that," says Hejlskov. "But... if they start going down that path I believe we have a lot of employees internally who would rally around it, and say: guys, this is in our DNA, this is not who we are as a company. And having some strong profiles like [CTO] John Newton? I don't see that ever happening to our company."

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