The Fee vs. Free Divide

To some people, the whole open source business model seems premised on a near-ancient riddle: How do you make money if you're giving stuff away for free? In reality, no mysticism is involved.

Free doesn't always mean price-free when it comes to open source. Many open source vendors sell services and support but keep the product free. We look at six open source offerings to see what you typically get for the money.

Ideally, the open source vendor builds an installed user base through free distribution of core products and then sells complementary value-added features and services built on these services. For potential customers, this raises the interesting product acquisition choice of whether to go free or pay a fee for additional features or services.

Without a doubt, free software can be a boon to organizations and individuals. Free software provides access to robust technologies, from Web and application servers to databases, all of which might otherwise be out of reach. Free software encourages the development of in-house knowledge development. And, because most free software is also open source, it is highly flexible and can be modified to meet custom demands.

So why buy the cow when the milk is free?

Notable Open Source Products in Free and Fee Flavors


Because even "free" has a cost — time, efficiency, and productivity all impact the bottom line. Open source vendors know that providing services for a fee to reduce pain points is often a deal worth making for organizations that need fast, well-supported, and professionally sound solutions. Frequently, open source vendors add features to their core technologies, making them more attractive to buyers, as they are then easier to install, configure, and manage. It is usually the case that the same end results can be accomplished with free and fee-based open source software, but implementing them without support and enhanced features can require a significant investment of time and expertise.

Ultimately, the fee vs. free model provides consumers with choice and flexibility.

To help clarify the landscape, this article looks at some popular server products available in both fee-based and cost-free flavors. We will compare the basic free-of-charge form of each with the organization or vendor's value-added services.

Free: http://www.php.net
Fee: http://www.zend.com/

In a few short years, PHP has become the Web's most popular server-side scripting language. Zend Technologies maintains this popular, easy-to-learn language. The vendor also freely distributes its Zend Engine interpreter with PHP versions 4 and 5.

Although PHP is freely available, Zend sells value-added products that boost PHP's usefulness in commercial applications. For example, with free PHP, source code is unencrypted in plain text. An organization selling PHP-based applications commercially would obviously be better served if it keeps its source code closed. For this, Zend sells the Zend Encoder ($960), which compiles PHP code into closed-source binary files suitable for distribution. Clients can execute encoded PHP using the free Zend Optimizer software, which is distributed with encoded applications.

For high-grade enterprise applications, the Zend Platform, at $995 per year for one CPU (with incremental extra costs for additional CPU's), is a suite that brings advanced centralized management, clustering, and caching to PHP deployment.

Free: http://www.sendmail.org
Fee: http://www.sendmail.com

When it comes to fee vs. free software, the venerable Sendmail is one of the model's ancestors. As the very first message transfer agent (MTA) on the network that became the Internet, Sendmail has been delivering e-mail since, well, the beginning. Sendmail remains the most popular mail server in the world and continues to be freely available and open source through the Sendmail Consortium.

Although Sendmail is packaged with most Linux- and Unix-based operating systems, its configuration and management can be very complex. Entire books have been written about configuring Sendmail.

To commercialize Sendmail and offer value-added products that significantly enhance its deployment, Sendmail, Inc. was formed. The leading product, Sendmail Switch, is built on the free Sendmail. It sits on top of the Sendmail core and adds a centralized, graphical management console; ongoing security maintenance; round-the-clock support; content management filters (including anti-spam and anti-virus defenses); support for SSL, SASL, and LDAP directories; and auditing, clustering, and remote management capabilities. All of this is wrapped up with a graphical installer and task-based wizards.

Building such a sophisticated mail server platform around the core, free Sendmail product is doable in combination with other free software. But Sendmail Switch saves organizations significant time and costly expertise by shipping all the pieces already bundled out of the box.

With prices starting at $500 and going up from there, depending on site needs and size, commercial Sendmail provides support and peace of mind for what has become an essential service for many organizations.


Like the other popular open source products we surveyed, MySQL rode the coattails of freedom to its current success. Critics initially decried MySQL as simplistic compared to mature enterprise databases, but it could be argued that its simplicity, combined with its zero price point, fueled its widespread adoption.

With popularity comes leverage. MySQL has matured to version 5 (and added many of the enterprise features it once lacked), and its parent company, Sweden-based MySQL AB, has likewise grown its business model.

Like other open source vendors, MySQL AB sells training courses (from $1,500 to $3,000) and certification, enterprise support, and consulting services, which range from $295 per server per year to more than $5,000. MySQL has also devised a dual-licensing scheme for its database product.

MySQL's free GPL-licensed product is available for any project compatible with the GPL. The GPL license is available for use with a list of exempted open source software not specifically GPL-compatible, including Apache, BSD, Mozilla, PHP, Python, Zope, and LGPL software.

Any other distributed use of MySQL not compatible with the GPL or one of the exempted open source products requires a commercial license. This license is priced from $295 per server per year and includes limited support services through the MySQL Network.

Some contend that MySQL AB's dual-license scheme is confusing. It applies mostly when distributing products that require MySQL. Typically, a commercial license is not required when using MySQL behind a Web server, since no one is distributing the product.

The GPL-licensed and commercially licensed MySQL products are technically identical. Thus, choosing fee or free for MySQL depends chiefly on the intended use of the product, as well as the desire or need for additional support services.

Free: http://www.jabber.org
Fee: http://www.jabber.com

Jabber is an open source technology widely used for instant messaging. A variety of freely available Jabber-based server and client programs can be used to quickly set up Internet or intranet instant messaging systems.

At its core, Jabber is a set of XML protocols for streaming communications. Because the Jabber protocols are standardized and freely available, any developer can build Jabber tools compatible with existing Jabber products.

Jabber's commercial parent, Jabber, Inc., uses the core Jabber technology as the basis for fee-based enterprise instant messaging. Its two products, Jabber XCP and Jabber Now, are designed to deploy IM functionality in an environment with strong authentication, security, archival, and high scalability needs. The Jabber XCP, or Extensible Communications Platform, starts at $25 to $30 per seat and is sold through Jabber VARs. Jabber Now takes Jabber XCP one step further and bundles the whole system into a hardware appliance for quick turnkey IM.

Because Jabber itself is only a set of specifications, a wide variety of other Jabber servers and clients are available from third parties. Some are distributed as free, open-source products; others are commercially licensed. The free Jabber site maintains an index of Jabber servers.

We recommend considering servers from both third parties and Jabber, Inc. when looking for an IM solution.

Free: http://www.jboss.com/products/jbossas
Fee: http://www.jboss.com/services/profsupport

JBoss is a Java-based application server that has come to dominate its market niche through widespread open source and free adoption. Licensed under the Gnu LGPL, or Lesser General Public License, JBoss can be freely embedded in and modified for any applications without any licensing fees being paid. Unlike products licensed under the GPL, which requires all modifications be published, modified JBoss source code need not be published when used internally.

In contrast to Jabber, Inc. and other open source vendors, JBoss, Inc. does not sell a commercial version of its software. Rather, JBoss, Inc. sells a suite of services to support its free products, including the JBoss Application Server and JBoss Portal. A JBoss subscription includes technical support, application development assistance, consulting services, expedited patch cycles, network monitoring software, and indemnification protection. JBoss, Inc. also sells training and certification; prices range from $2,000 to $3,000 per course.

Java application servers are inherently complex, as they intersect with a variety of technologies beyond Java and must integrate with Web servers, such as Apache. Implementing a JBoss solution requires significant expertise, so it makes sense that JBoss, Inc. became a market leader by giving away the software and selling the training and consultation to get enterprises up and running, particularly those that don't already have Java experts in-house.

Free: http://www.zope.org
Fee: http://www.zope.com

Zope is a Python-coded Web application server that bundles together many of the disparate elements that traditional Apache-based application servers require. Zope includes built-in Web, relational database, and object-oriented scripting services. Zope-based sites can be managed entirely through the Web and are easily ported across servers.

Like Sendmail, the core Zope engine can be enhanced with a variety of free, open source add-on modules to build sophisticated CMS capabilities.

Or, you can turn to Zope, Inc. and its Zope Enterprise CMS ($20,000 for the first CPU).

Zope Enterprise CMS is a sophisticated, enterprise-ready, out-of-the-box content management system. It includes visual content creation, drag-and-drop layouts, versioning controls, an integrated search engine, indexing of commercial document formats (such as DOC and PDF), and simple template-based republishing of content across multiple sites.

For the budget-conscious organization looking for a powerful, all-in-one Web server application, the free Zope is highly functional and, with sufficient expertise, infinitely extensible. Like products from other open source vendors, Zope, Inc.'s commercial offering is a well-supported, turnkey alternative to the free version's learning curve.


When and if your organization makes the switch from free to fee, remember that open source vendors are not the only sources of fee-based support and consulting services for their products. Competition exists even in the open source market, and third-party, fee-based support is an option for many open source products.

One popular avenue for commercial support in open source applications are the operating systems' vendors themselves — particularly in Linux- and Unix-based platforms, such as Red Hat and Novell. Existing or available support contracts with operating system vendors may already include popular open source products that typically ship with the operating system.

This article was originally published on Jan 26, 2006
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