‘At-A-Boy, Bob… Autodesk’s First Year in Open Source Community

By Kevin Flanders

Most readers who are familiar with Autodesk's first year as a member of the open source community would agree that this new relationship has been a successful one. There were those in the beginning who said it would not work due to conflicts of interest. And there were those who wondered what devious scheme Autodesk was plotting. It seemed that Autodesk was being watched. The company was on probation in the eyes of many who had spent major portions of their careers in open source. That seems like a strange thing to say about a Fortune 1000 company, well-known to everyone in the spatial sciences both academically and commercially. And yet, there it was.

There are some obvious marketing related facts about the first year of Autodesk's relationship with open source that make good print, some of which are noteworthy here: there were nearly 30,000 downloads of MapGuide Open Source in its first year of availability, and more than 4,000 downloads of the Feature Data Object (FDO) connectors to Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server. Autodesk's entry into the open source community brought about the formation of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo) which provided a home for a Board of Directors, various committees and local chapters. The local chapters are particularly interesting, with groups in China, India, Japan and Canada ... and new chapters now forming in Brazil, France, Italy, Australia and New Mexico. The OSGeo website is already available in nine languages. It appears that the OSGeo folks have been very busy...

Autodesk Platform Software Development Manager and Architect Bob Bray's comments during a phone conversation we had really peaked my interest. Bray expressed a great deal of surprise at the quality and number of open source developers. According to Bray, the open source development community has become a true development partner for Autodesk, generating tremendous enhancements and upgrades to the code base in significantly less time than it would have taken Autodesk to do it alone. It could be said that the open source community is "light on its feet" (who said Frank Warmerdam, OSGeo President, couldn't dance?).

Autodesk views the open source community as fast, efficient and focused. The company has seen dozens of improvements to its AJAX Viewer, FDO and other code components. The result is that much of its development for Internet mapping tools is being conducted in the open source environment and then transferred to the company's commercial software for sale to the industry.

While this may sound strange, take a good look at what Autodesk has accomplished here. Autodesk is partnering with hundreds of developers to build its future code base for Internet mapping. They are able to tackle issues faster and at less cost. Autodesk is still able to grow its commercial software for those clients who need a large company behind the scenes, while at the same time continuing to support the open source code set. Lisa Campbell, vice president of GeoSpatial Solutions at Autodesk, claims that, indeed, this was one of the initial goals... to advance the software products faster than the company could by itself.

But this is old news. The new news is far more interesting: on the surface it appears that Autodesk is enjoying its new relationship with the open source community. Look closer and you can see the business benefits of more rapid software development.

Look closer still and you will see that Bray and his colleagues at Autodesk have figured out the greatest strength of the open source community: the continuous release mentality. With MapGuide Open, Autodesk is no longer working with a typical long-term software release cycle, where ideas are brought to the table, developed, frozen, refined, tested, refined again and finally released to the end users (who, in turn, finally provide some real feedback to support final refinements). This is the time-tested, laboriously proven methodology of most private software companies - with a huge lag between the beginning of a cycle and the release of the new software to the end user.

But with open source software, especially open source software with an organized user community, there is little or no time lag. The developers and end users are directly connected to one another by the Internet. Ideas or functionality requests are acted upon immediately, with end user involvement, immediate feedback, constant refinements and continuous progress. The point is not that open source developers are better, or even that they develop at a faster pace, but rather that they are part of a process with very few gaps. No one is waiting. There are no reasons to wait.

The net result is comments from people like Bray, who believes that Autodesk is developing MapGuide at a faster pace working with the open source community than it could by itself.

If we cross over to the other side of the street, we can knock on Daniel Morrisette's door and see how he feels about the participation of Autodesk in the open source community. Morrisette (once the DM in DM Solutions, now at
www.mapgears.com) has more than an appropriate perspective on the topic. After all, he is the Mother of MapServer, the open source Internet mapping software used by thousands around the world. Having partnered with Steve Lime several years ago to initiate what then became the largest organized open source community in the spatial sciences, Morrisette brings a great deal of experience to this discussion. In a recent phone conversation, I found Morrisette to be very impressed with Autodesk. He feels that Bray and his colleagues have converted their minds to working "open" instead of their old way. While he believes that most of the MapGuide Open Source development is still happening within Autodesk, he feels it is happening the way the open source community does it. To Morrisette, Autodesk is not just "acting the part," it really believes in this new process. Morrisette credits the individuals at Autodesk (Bray, by name) for buying into the process and feels that this high level of commitment is the single biggest reason for the success of this new marriage. 'At-a-boy, Bob...

I talked to Warmerdam, creator of several software tools that integrate with open source and commercial software), and he agrees that the success of Autodesk in the open source community is largely attributable to the Autodesk people involved (Bray was again mentioned by name - again, 'at-a-boy, Bob!).

Does this open source continual release mentality differentiate Autodesk from all other leading spatial software companies? I have found no other major commercial spatial software companies that are releasing source code for open development. So in this regard, Autodesk appears to be alone.

But, I did find Safe Software, home of the famed FME software products. Back in 1995, Safe Software began allowing its users to download the latest software builds every two weeks. This progressed to daily software builds in 2000, and now the company releases up to three software builds per day! While Safe Software is not releasing source code, the company is, in fact, engaging in a continual release model, which represents something of a hybrid situation when compared to typical commercial software companies and the open source community. Dale Lutz, president of Safe Software, commented that the feedback loop afforded by the continual release model is his company's primary mechanism for all refinements. It is interesting to note that Autodesk licenses Safe Software's products - so it certainly had the opportunity to view the impact of continual releases before entering the open source community.

In summary, Autodesk is indeed finding success in its new relationship with the open source community, and its initial goal for faster code development is being been realized. This is either due to the impact of rapid feedback provided by the continual release mentality of open source ... or because of a guy named Bob who was bold enough to be open to open source. You pick.

Published Friday, July 20th, 2007

Written by Kevin Flanders

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