Pure open source development is not the future of martech

“It’s not the ideal model for building marketing applications that are going to run natively in the cloud.” That was Tony Byrne of analyst firm Real Story Group concluding some skeptical remarks he made to us about the utility of open source development strategies in building SaaS solutions for marketers.

Not that he’s a skeptic about open source itself. “I’ve always been a big fan of the open source model. I think it has influenced commercial software development in very good ways,” including not rebuilding things which already exist. “Having said that, the most successful open source projects tend to be developer oriented—developers building tools for other developers.”

A different perspective, as might be expected, can be found at Acquia, which proudly proclaims the core role of open source content management software Drupal in its Digital Experience Platform—and which last year acquired the open source-based marketing automation platform Mautic. One key fact: the developer who launched the Drupal project, Dries Buytaert, went on to found Acquia, and Acquia remains deeply involved in the Drupal community.

The benefits of bringing open source to the martech stack

“One of the things we see as a big opportunity is bringing the benefits of open source to the martech stack,” said Acquia’s SVP or Product Marketing, Kevin Cochrane. “The martech stack is as much core infrastructure as the enterprise IT stack, and it needs to be future-proofed. All these myriad of martech tools you invest in, there’s some small company in San Francisco, with a small team of engineers and a limited roadmap. It’s not clear where they’ll be five or 10 years.”

For Cochrane, open source plays a vital role in software development across the board, and it should have a role in martech software too. “Open source in general solves really critical problems that are best handled in a crowd-sourced manner, problems related to the core infrastructure, and its extension and integration. For enterprises looking to build new platforms, they want to have access to a worldwide community that can crowd-source innovation, and can future-proof their platforms by ensuring that they’re extensible and can integrate with everything in their tech stack.” What’s more, the roadmap is not reliant on the in-house developer team.

Acquia has big ambitions for the open source martech stack. “What we’re looking to do with our marketing cloud is start pioneering innovation with a new generation of open source communities and projects to reinvent the martech stack. This starts with our Mautic community, which is re-envisioning the entire marketing automation space.”

Open source ensures interoperability of data

It extends to data too. “We’re looking to pioneer the development of a worldwide community to help unlock data science and machine learning models that can be broadly shared and leveraged so that every single enterprise doesn’t have to innovate on their own.”

Cochrane speaks knowledgeably about the struggle to achieve standardization in data between vendors and systems. As CMO at SAP CX, he was involved in discussing the Open Data Initiative launched by Adobe, Microsoft and SAP. “Adobe wanted data interoperability standards because they wanted to consume data from Microsoft and SAP, and they wanted all that data in their Experience Cloud to power digital advertising and marketing. That’s great if you want all of your data in the Adobe Experience Cloud, and if you want to custom-build your systems to output data in the form they need to input it.”

That doesn’t solve the real problem facing a marketing operations manager who has six to eight tools they use that are not Adobe, Cochrane explained. “What solves that problem is building an open source community, and a standard by which data can flow between any set of systems, not just into one. You need the community to build all the connectors and adaptors between those tools, so you don’t have to custom build and code everything.”

What’s in it for the developers?

Perhaps it’s a naive question, but we wanted to find out precisely why so many developers are investing time working on software neither they nor their employers own. “There’s this whole concept of ‘makers and takers.’ A taker is someone who simply downloads and leverages open source. These are people that never contribute and give back. A maker is someone that not only downloads, but also actively contributes. Why would you be a maker versus a taker? When you’re a maker, you start building up a worldwide peer group of fellow developers.”

Makers who fix bugs in software get support from the community in prioritizing and fixing bugs which are critical to them. “In an organized community like Drupal,” said Cochrane, “people participate because the benefits are so readily transparent to them.” Participation also contributes to professional growth and development.

The slow uptake of open source by martech

If the benefits of open source are so manifest, why are there still relative few martech vendors who put it at the core of their offering. Cochrane offered a personal viewpoint: “I think the problem is a very simple one. There has been a raft of investment from the venture community in new tools, designed to capture CMO spend. This spun up a lot of companies solving very specific aspects of the CMO’s problems. Each of those companies actually built their stack on open source, but they did so in a closed way, because they were looking to get to market quickly and fix some pain point.” What has not happened, said Cochrane, is the initiative to allow what underlies these point solutions to be collectively used.

“We need to recognize it’s time to bring this community together.”

Open source has a cloud problem

Byrne, on the other hand, says that the real problem of deploying open source across the martech space is that it’s not really a suitable foundation for creating SaaS apps which live in a multi-tenant cloud.

Open source software is typically downloaded by developers, “massaged,” then delivered back to the community. By it’s nature, it’s single tenant, Byrne explained. “If you’re in the cloud, you’re paying Azure or Amazon or somebody. The cloud is designed around a service model not a software licensing model, whereas open source is all about the software licensing and getting access to the single tenant. You don’t typically see open source solutions built cloud natively, from the ground up.” He acknowledged that Mautic might be an exception.

There’s also the obstacle that open source development appeals precisely to developers. Marketers need something else. “When you start getting to packaged technology, where the prime mover is the marketer rather than the developer, there’s really less scope for open source. First of all, you’re not licensing the software, you’re licensing a service; and it’s not like you’re going to play around with this software, you’re just accepting something as a service, and you really don’t care what’s underneath.”

Open source is less germane to solutions like CDPs, email marketing, CRM and others, he explained. “To be sure, there’s might be at least one open source vendor in each of those segments, but it’s typically not more than one.”

I asked for some examples. “There aren’t that many. Jahia [Java digital experience software]. Mautic, but no other marketing automation platforms. There was major commercial open source CRM platform, SugarCRM, but even they have become very commercialized.”

In fact, Byrne doesn’t see Acquia as a pure open source offering. “They’re saying you get all the benefits of this open source community, and you can write your own modules if you’re a developer; but we’re going to restrict what you can run in our environment. Quite properly they’re concerned about security and liability and lots of other things. When you’re using Acquia, you’re using an Acquia distribution of Drupal. The other thing they’ve put around it are some very Acquia-specific modules. At that point, is it still Drupal? I guess it is. Acquia becomes almost like every other vendor, except there is the Drupal developer community—which is nice. It’s a commercialization of open source, which is not a bad thing, but they’re trying to have it both ways.”

To be fair, this is not wholly inconsistent with Cochrane’s position. Acquia would emphasize the role of the Drupal community in providing rapid innovation of the software which is indeed then made available as a core part of Acquia’s bundle of services. There doesn’t seem to be an expectation that Acquia’s customers on the marketing side will necessarily play a role in that community.

Does mixed open source have a future?

If one thinks of pure open source software as something built by a community of developers and freely available for download, then that’s not going anywhere. “From the standpoint of some of the underlying tooling, like open source NoSQL databases, open source API, the tool-kits, you’re always going to see a lot of open source. That’s developers building for other developers and it’s a wonderful model.”

It doesn’t seem to be a model for offering the packaged, subscription software marketers want to grab and use. But it doesn’t mean that a mixed open source model, where the software which ends up at the core of a packaged cloud offering benefits from crowd-sourced development, has no significance for martech.

When we see more vendors like Aquia and Mautic, maybe we can believe in that.

This story first appeared on Search Engine Land.


About The Author

Kim Davis is the Editorial Director of MarTech Today. Born in London, but a New Yorker for over two decades, Kim started covering enterprise software ten years ago. His experience encompasses SaaS for the enterprise, digital- ad data-driven urban planning, and applications of SaaS, digital technology, and data in the marketing space. He first wrote about marketing technology as editor of Haymarket’s The Hub, a dedicated marketing tech website, which subsequently became a channel on the established direct marketing brand DMN. Kim joined DMN proper in 2016, as a senior editor, becoming Executive Editor, then Editor-in-Chief a position he held until January 2020. Prior to working in tech journalism, Kim was Associate Editor at a New York Times hyper-local news site, The Local: East Village, and has previously worked as an editor of an academic publication, and as a music journalist. He has written hundreds of New York restaurant reviews for a personal blog, and has been an occasional guest contributor to Eater.

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