False Promises and the Illusion of Freedom: Why OpenSaaS Matters
by Peter Guagenti
You can’t read any technology publications, go to any tech events, or read a business journal these days without hearing a common theme; SaaS and the Cloud are The Future. For those in the know, the idea of having the infinite scalability of cloud resources, of not having to patch or maintain software, and knowing that they can get started more quickly or spin down resources at will is incredibly alluring. The promise is clear: it’s about Freedom.
We get this. Freedom has always been at the heart of Acquia and Drupal. The early days of open source were about the promise of “Free as in Beer”, but it stuck around and dominates the technology landscape because it’s also “Free as in Freedom”. Open source is not just free to download and use, but it’s also free to modify, to extend, and to share. We believe that Open Source, SaaS, and the Cloud are a perfect trinity -- releasing us all from the old slavery of giant license fees, of tremendous investments in data centers and “bare metal”, and the mind-numbing task of maintaining hundreds of applications when your priorities should be elsewhere.
It’s this spirit that drove Acquia to structure the company the way we did and to offer the products we do. We are very much a Cloud company. Rather than fall into the trap of a dual-license open source model, we focused instead on tools that make it easier to develop, deploy, and maintain extraordinary web experiences using Drupal. That means SaaS tools to maintain your site or to add rich features like Search. It means making deploying your site incredibly fast and simple -- using simple, UI-driven systems to deploy your site to a highly tuned and easily scaled hosting environment -- so you can focus instead on crafting those experiences. This also means building something like Drupal Gardens, and doing it in a way that we believe embraces “OpenSaaS”.
OpenSaaS -- It’s a cute play on “open source”, so the marketing guys love it, but there’s a serious commitment behind that. Drupal Gardens is not just a SaaS platform for building amazing experiences like others had done before us. The ability to quickly and easily craft killer web experiences without the need for coding or for server management is not new. Companies wanted a SaaS version of Drupal to complement their cloud and on-premise Drupal sites, but in building a platform like that we know we needed to do it in a way that met the open source spirit of freedom and flexibility:
- We built Drupal Gardens on Drupal 7 as that version was just being developed, and we contributed our work back to the community along the way.
- We chose to give site owners the freedom to build sites for free on the platform without any restrictions whatsoever (our pay tiers come in to cover the real costs of heavy traffic and priority customer support).
- Most importantly, we eliminated any sort of lock-in. If at any point in time you outgrow what we can offer on Drupal Gardens, or if you want to push your SaaS site over to your own hosting environment, or if you just plain decide to no longer do business with Acquia, you can click a button and export your entire site – code, database, and files – and plop it down on any hosting provider (Acquia or otherwise).
The value of staying with us must always exceed the promise of leaving.
It’s with this perspective that we look at some new players entering the SaaS and Cloud web experience management space.
Salesforce was the first to throw their hat into the ring. The company that has always promised “no software” launched their SaaS web site platform to much fanfare. Let’s forget for a moment that they had the audacity to call themselves the first enterprise provider in this category (I guess they didn’t notice the hundreds of thousands of sites running on Drupal Gardens or nearly a dozen other providers). Let’s also set aside that Salesforce’s main claim to fame is integration with their own CRM stack (something you can do in minutes with modules for Drupal, Wordpress, and many others). The real issue here is the handcuffs this platform puts on you. The web experiences you can deliver through site.com are severely limited in features and creative flexibility. More importantly, like everything else from Salesforce, you trade their famous “no software” approach for some serious lock-in.
Let’s say that you start a simple web site on Salesforce’s platform. The siren song of starting fast must be strong for anyone who already uses Salesforce CRM. The challenge comes as your needs change. There is only one truth in technology; everything permanent is temporary and everything temporary is permanent. What do you do once the popularity of your site takes off, and you outgrow the limited features that Salesforce’s site platform allows? The Salesforce platform is a closed, proprietary system. If you ever want to leave, you get to scrap what you built (losing any investment you have made) and start all over again. Salesforce loves to tout their incredibly high “retention rate” for customers. Another San Francisco-based organization, Alcatraz, also had an incredibly high retention rate. Retention doesn’t necessarily mean loyalty.
At least Adobe, who just launched their “cloud version” of CQ, gives you access to your own code. Adobe offers their “SaaS” solution as the full version of CQ that their customers already know. But therein lies the rub; it’s not really SaaS and really doesn’t offer anything more than anyone has already been doing with software since the launch of Amazon Web Services years ago. Want to quickly spin up a web experience on their platform? Sure you can; just negotiate a contract with the software company (I’m sure that will be fast and painless, right?), pay the (incredibly expensive) license fee, go set up an account with AWS, and then you’re ready to get started. Wait, doesn’t that look exactly like the kind of server software install we’ve known for the last 20+ years?
Good on Adobe for making the install and management of their software easy on AWS. I’m sure that saves a lot of headache for site administrators. It’s the same spirit that triggered Acquia to build our Acquia Network for site management and to build Acquia Cloud with 1-click site installs and simple, GUI-based scaling and code workflow. But what Adobe built is still proprietary, still locks you in to a closed platform, and still requires you to pay exorbitant license fees just to get started with a simple web experience.
C’mon, guys, have you all spent so long holding software buyers over a barrel that you are not seeing the writing on the wall? Customers expect the true freedom of SaaS and open platforms, and they’re fed up with being held hostage on your closed platforms.
As someone who has been building web experiences for longer than I care to say, this attitude fundamentally offends me. The explosion of the web has been driven on the freedom of innovation, on open standards, and knowing that control of your code means you can build whatever you can dream. Proprietary software, closed standards, and any individual company’s attempts to lock down the market for their own gain has only ever served to frustrate and stifle creativity. It’s this same spirit of freedom and openness that caused those of us who were born digital to fight so hard for Net Neutrality and against SOPA.
I know I’m not alone in my views here; this is the spirit of the open source community, and is what drove the massive growth of Drupal. Drupal was built not by a handful of “product guys” locked in a room somewhere in Redmond or in Silicon Valley. Drupal was never designed by focus groups or architected around a pricing strategy. Drupal is simply a community of amazing web designers and developers building extraordinary web experiences (for themselves, for their clients, or for their companies), and then sharing what they have built so that their peers can build extraordinary experiences more easily too. This is why so many amazing brands chose Drupal, and why they give back to Drupal so easily.
As a commercial entity who gets to humbly benefit from this amazing community, Acquia firmly embraces our responsibility to respect this openness, freedom, and commitment to give back to our peers and customers.
SaaS and the Cloud are the future of technology. We should all be able to start small, have true elastic growth and scale, and exhibit even more control and flexibility. Building extraordinary experiences should be easy; no need for server configuration, no deploying software, and no need to touch any more code than you want to. We should be able to build whatever we dream, nurture it’s growth, and be able to choose what companies we work with over it’s life.
If you agree, check out what we offer in Drupal Gardens. Spin up a site based on the full power and flexibility of Drupal, tweak the styles and experience with simple GUI tools, and launch it to the world instantly… Then feel free to export that site, modify it at will, host it anywhere you please, and never talk to us again if that’s what you choose. We don’t think you’ll want to, but we respect your right to walk away if you want.
Now that’s freedom.