eZ Systems, eZ Publish
eZ Systems is turning 10 this year -- a notable achievement in the open source content management world. And with the upcoming eZ Conference and Awards in Paris this June, we figured it was an opportune moment to have a chat with the eZ Systems folks and see just how the commercial open source world works, from their perspective.

After 10 years in the business, eZ Systems’ core product, eZ Publish (news, site) -- a PHP-based open source web content management system -- has undergone some major changes. As one of the early module based systems and a front runner of open source cms, eZ Publish has seen everything from a limited amount of allowed modules to major integration with other eZ Systems products like eZ Find and even the movement towards a SaaS Web CMS model.

We spoke with eZ's Bertrand Maugain about turning 10, what it means to be a commercial open source vendor and how eZ Systems stays at the top of their game at a time when others are struggling to stay upright.

A Chat with Bertrand Maugain

CMSWIRE: Hi Bertrand and congrats on eZ Systems celebrating their 10 year anniversary. For starters, tell us a bit about yourself and your history with the company.

Bertrand Maugain: Sure. I am a Frenchman from Lyon with an engineer background in Telecommunications. I started at eZ in 2004 as a technical consultant quickly moving to a more marketing/commercial oriented position towards the French market.

There, we built a community of partners and developers as a great platform for the eZ Systems office that we opened in Lyon at the end of 2005. Since that time, I have been the Global Partner Manager at eZ aiming at growing our partner channel and at developing our subscription-based business model through that channel.

CW: eZ Systems is a commercial open source web cms provider. Tell us what that means to you.

BM: Being a commercial open source WCM vendor means for us that we can make software and distribute it in a way that we believe is the future for mainstream software, building a very open community, and of course make a living at the same time.

We believe that content management is becoming a commodity that open source makes available to anyone. Unlike most commercial open source vendors putting more functionality in the commercial version of their software, we have only one version for everyone, and our business model is based on added value services only.

As creators of the software, we bring our expertise to both web-centric businesses expecting responsibility, support and maintenance from a vendor and to our partners via training, certification or assistance during implementation projects.

Since 1999, we are strong believers in a true enterprise open source business model. It allows us to build an enterprise level content management system at a lower price than our competitors.

CW: How do you position yourself / how do you see the other commercial open source vendors?

BM: In the last 10 years we have kept the same vision: making software, releasing it open source and involve a community of developers and partners.

It is a hard equilibrium to find between professionally controlling our development and roadmaps in line with our enterprise strategy and involving partners and community members to innovate faster and develop even better software.

We mean, we have the right enterprise open source model and unlike some other open source vendors, we are neither adapting the traditional proprietary model, nor have 2 different versions of our software. We are also not monetizing on an existing community where customers can struggle legally with the lack of clear IP rights.

In other words, we are not just surfing the current wave open source popularity. We were among the initiators in 1999. I believe that it also explains why eZ is a profitable company today with products, services and a business model in place -- while most other commercial open source vendors are driven off venture capital and are not profitable.

CW: Can you introduce and talk a little about the eZ Publish and the eZ Components (news, site) projects?

BM: The eZ Components project was created in early 2006 and it provides the building blocks that are designed to be the new foundation for eZ Publish. It is basically the components that on an API level are generic and not specifically only connected with eZ Publish, but that are useful as general purpose tools.

We release this so that others can build their software products on top of this stack, and there is even a competing CMS vendor (proprietary) being trained and is using eZ Components for his main product.

This project, lead by the core PHP developer Derick Rethans, is an important part of our next generation projects. We are investing and innovating for the future of eZ.

Diagram - eZ Components PHP Library

Diagram: eZ Components Library

CW: Let's talk a little about repositories. Some commercial open source software (OSS) vendors have two repositories -- one for the community, one for the paying customers. How does eZ Systems operate for eZ Publish and eZ Components, and how do patches flow into the respective repositories?

BM: The repositories are exactly the same at the point of release. We do provide a stream of selected updates to the paying eZ Publish Premium customers that get the important patches for the given version. We also treat patches that go into the eZ Publish Premium stream at a higher priority that what goes into the public repository.

Basically the public repository contains all patches that come into eZ Publish; some are important, some are less important. With eZ Publish Premium you get the patches that are important for your installation with focus on security enhancements and critical feature fixes or software enhancements. On eZ Publish Premium patch updates we also do QA of the patches that goes out while with eZ Publish public repository the QA is only done upon release.

Editor's Note:
We dug a little further into this question and eZ Publish source code is stored in a single SVN repository, but eZ Publish Premium customers get patches and fixes first and those code changes are stored in a private branch of the repository. These code changes are merged down to the public "trunk" of the repository on a regular basis and official releases are made from the trunk of the repository. The regularity of these releases varies. Typically it happens several times a year, but more than 12 months passed between eZ Publish 4.0 and
the release of version 4.1. The company asserts that this was an exceptional situation.

CW: Let's talk about the eZ Systems community. Can you share some metrics with us? For example, what % of commits do you have coming from the community (vs. eZ) for eZ Publish and eZ Components?

BM: In short, the community of eZ Publish is made of 31,000 members, 230 partners, 40,000 downloads a month. I would say that our community is known to be professional with a large and dedicated partner network. We are also working actively on the community side with a new community portal for example.

When it comes to development, eZ Publish has traditionally and is still driving most of the commits to eZ Publish from our internal developers. We try to make eZ Publish developers take care of the kernel / core functionality and invite the community to write plug-ins and extensions for eZ Publish. We have external committers in eZ Publish but in terms of percent I would say that 10% are external and 90% are internal for eZ Publish.

CW: What sort of metrics do you track and what sorts of goals does eZ have for their OSS community?

BM: We have many different metrics that we look at every month: the number of downloads both of eZ Publish and eZ Components, the number of community members, of partners, of certified developers, the traffic of our website, the number of contributions, forum posts and more.

This is very important to us to grow this community but also educate it as well as we can.

CW: After 10 years in the commercial OSS game, eZ must have learned some valuable lessons about success with this business model. Can you share some important lessons learned?

BM: As I already mention having a clear vision is key. In more difficult times, sticking to this vision and the company values helped us to progress.

We have also learned that things always take longer than you think, and open source adoption took longer than we would have bet 10 years ago.

Building a profitable open source vendor company takes time and requires a strong focus on value creation: community members are not only code contributors, customers have to get outstanding support services; partners in open source are not resellers as in the proprietary world.

If eZ keeps those values in place and continues to focus on creating value for its innovating ecosystem, it will make the difference in the long run. We are aware that this experience is definitely a competitive advantage.

CW: In terms of business model, over the past 10 years this must have come up for discussion countless times, especially during harder times. How has this evolved? What are you current thoughts?

BM: In 10 years, we have had MANY discussion around our business model. We currently have clear intellectual property rights with copyright on the code. This we believe is is important.

We have the possibility to dual license and we were maybe more proactive in the first years in trying to sell Professional licences or even add-ons that were not free of charge. For example, the first versions of the Online (WYSIWYG) Editor were not free.

In some cases, we also had the same thinking with the Oracle and MS SQL Server database connectors. In the end the lesson we learned is that you must open EVERYTHING up. The amount of value created by leaving the source 100% open and focusing on services far exceeds the value one can achieve via software licenses. This is our firm belief today and the foundation of the company's perspective on commercial open source software.

CW: Earlier you mentioned that open source partners are not like traditional resellers. Can you expand on that a bit?

BM: Definitely. This is really what makes open source different. It puts the freedom and control in the hands of customers and partners, since they do not need our services to use the software. In the open source world, partners are not resellers like in the proprietary world. You have to find the way to work with each company in order to provide the value they are looking for.

In real terms this means you have to have flexibility in your partner/channel program structure and that you have to have personal relationships with the partners and work to understand how they are or could derive value through the relationship. We don't want people to just download the code and disappear. We have to understand how to enable them and how to make both of our efforts profitable. It's a different way of thinking in my opinion.

CW: That's a good point and something we've see often in the Web CMS space. Partner channel programs seem to vary widely and to evolve over time. We're going to wrap the interview up now, are there any closing thoughts?

BM: I do have one more lesson I'd like to share. It's about working with an open source community that is very international. It may seem obvious, but one thing that we've found to be very important to community success is that when the company eZ Systems is hiring, we need to keep in mind our international community. In short, the company should try to be a cultural mirror of the partner and contributor community.