Open Source Platform Benefits From Closed Source Features

When I first started working for Puppet Labs, one of the main reasons was that I would get to contribute to open source software as a full time job. However, for much of the summer and fall I was leading a team to create a closed source feature built on top of the open source projects in the Puppet ecosystem, and it turned out pretty well if I do say myself – Live Management. It’s a web app addon to Puppet Dashboard that exposes the command line interface of the cool server orchestration framework MCollective. MCollective lets you execute commands on large numbers of systems in parallel, including doing things like triggering Puppet runs, starting and stopping services, or gathering lots of realtime information about your infrastructure from Facter. It’s like the big red button for your entire infrastructure: so easy to use even your manager can now blow up your infrastructure with a few clicks.

Besides building on the open source Puppet projects of Puppet, MCollective, Puppet Dashboard and Facter, we also used a ton of other open source software directly: Rails, Sinatra, BatmanJS, JQuery and many more indirectly. One of our team members pvande was able to contribute a lot of code and help back to the BatmanJS project – we had to since it’s alpha software and we were using it in a commercial application.

As I worked on the project, I sometimes felt sad that it wasn’t being open sourced. I knew the rationalization that at some point the company has to make a product that people will pay us money for, but that wasn’t the rationalization that helped me accept it most at the end. What helped was knowing that by building on top of other open source projects, we ended up contributing a lot back to them. Puppet got bug fixes and small new features to help us manage resources, MCollective got plugin improvements and feedback on how it can better support web app use cases and scale testing, Puppet Dashboard got some CSS cleanup and UI improvements, and BatmanJS got lots of real world use, feedback and code.

Besides, it’s free to try out for fewer than 10 nodes, and since it’s written in interpreted languages, people can view the source code if they really want to. There’s nothing stopping someone from writing a similar thing open sourced, and now we’ve done some of the hard work of improving the platform they would also build on. This does mean that we’ll have to continue to innovate and improve on our closed source features that sell product, but also on our open source platform that enables anyone to build their own features make their life managing systems easier.