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For Terracotta, a year of open source has been good for business

By Tina Gasperson on January 03, 2008 (9:02:00 PM)

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Terracotta makes a Java clustering solution that it calls "drop-in" technology. Terracotta is unique, says Amit Pandey, chief executive officer, because it makes a way to offload temporary but important information that has traditionally been stored in expensive databases. In an effort to increase interest in the product, about a year ago Terracotta decided to open its source code and start giving the product away. According to Pandey, since Terracotta's entrance into the community, "we've seen only goodness."

Terracotta is licensed under the Terracotta Public License (TPL), a modification of the Mozilla Public License that includes an attribution requirement. The license is not officially sanctioned by the OSI, but Terracotta doesn't restrict access to the code, and allows modifications and redistributions as long as the code continues to be licensed under the TPL.

Pandey doesn't want to call Terracotta a database replacement. "We try not to position ourselves [that way], because it will take us a long time to get to the point of having all the features and functionality of a database. It might be enough, though, to be a way to offload the database." Pandey says the reason he created Terracotta was because he believes traditional databases were developed "for a world when Web apps didn't exist. Databases were great when the access numbers were fairly limited. Fast forward 15 years and suddenly the problem has become very large scale. Peak loads can happen at strange times; databases weren't designed to handle that complexity. What you get is Oracle coming up with solutions like rack clusters, or the customer gets fed up and says, 'I need to write some custom software to do things like caching and offloading the database.'"

Since many businesses cannot afford the costs associated with developing custom software, Pandey says, "they're hostage to licenses. There was an opportunity here for us, where we could come in and provide essentially what people are trying to do with that custom software."

Terracotta was on the market for several months as a proprietary product, with less than stellar sales results. "It's a fairly disruptive technology," Pandey says. "We're out there saying, don't use a database, use us. And that's not the first thing that comes to people's minds. They think, 'let me add more databases.' We'd have to send sales reps knocking down doors to get them to go to trial with Terracotta. We were trying to change a mindset, and we thought hard: what would be a lower-friction way of doing this? What we wanted was more of a pull mode, where people get excited about the product. If you have all these expensive licensing costs up front, people are not going to try new ideas."

When Terracotta decided to start giving away the product and the source code, things started to change. "Before we went to open source, we used to have to engage people," Pandey says. "We don't do that anymore. Open source is a great place for new ideas. If we find a customer that wants to do a proof-of-concept, we point them to all the resources and links. If they need any help there's a forum where we try to maintain excellent service levels. We give them the option of calling and talking to us, but we don't push anything on them and there's no pressure to buy. So people are more willing to experiment."

If Web traffic is an indicator of interest, then Terracotta's audience has exploded. "When we launched, we would get a few hundred visitors a month; now we get 50-60,000," Pandey says. "It's that wonderful word of mouth, and it's a feedback loop. We have people out there doing the marketing for us that we would have had to spend millions on to achieve the same results."

Because Terracotta is still selling a commercially supported identical version of the product, Pandey says his biggest challenge is reining in the salespeople. "We had to address keeping a very clear wall between the sales team and the community side of the business. The temptation is, let's call up all these people on forums and try to sell something to them. But the reason open source works is people have to feel that they do not have to buy anything to make it work. We make sure the developers have access to all the features they need -- no doing any bait and switch. The other thing is we do not let the salespeople approach someone unsolicited. They have to come to us first."

Pandey says sometimes it is frustrating to see larger companies taking advantage of the free version. "You say, wow, they have tons of money. But it's worth the tradeoff. I would not go back to the other model." For one thing, he says, the honest feedback from users is invaluable. "In my experience with proprietary technology, when you do a customer forum and ask for feedback, there's always that elephant in the room. They are thinking, 'how honest can we be, because they're going to try to sell me something.' So you're dancing around. They will say, 'I want this,' but they're not going to reveal the true value they get from that feature. You're always second-guessing that. That kind of thing goes away completely with open source. The customer will tell you exactly what they need and how important it is to them, because they know it's not something they're going to have to pay for. You're getting unadulterated information and you can actually build and design things that people find useful."

Tina Gasperson writes about business and technology from an open source perspective.

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