Innovating in delivering innovation: Blending open source, SaaS, and Web 2.0

By | May 21, 2007

In the Zimbra blog, we tend to focus on innovation within the Zimbra software, but the Zimbra team is also always striving to improve the process through which our technology is developed and delivered. We have arrived at our current model over three years of noodling and experimentation. Think of it as a best-of-breed blend of proven approaches from open source with innovations in Software as a Service (SaaS), software appliances, and Web 2.0. We summarize some of those key insights below …


(The good news for the Zimbrians is that this model does seem to be working! This morning we announced that we now have over 8 million subscribers to the Zimbra commercial product, and we got there in little over one year. Moreover, there is no contribution to this number from our recently announced partnership with Comcast. Nor does it count our large community of Open Source Edition users.)

SaaS enablement. From the outset, Zimbra envisioned that on-demand deployments would represent a large share of Zimbra’s usage. The majority of the 8m Zimbra seats are provided via SaaS, and we now have individual SaaS partners that have 10,000s of customer domains and 100,000s of users deployed and managed. Essential features for SaaS are scalability and performance, multi-tenancy (securely sharing servers among organizations), delegation of privileges (e.g., endusers can provision new users, but not restart servers), class of service management (aggregating the management of users into groups), and so on. What makes Zimbra a bit different is that we have chosen to leverage partners rather than hosting our own SaaS deployment. We thought we could reach a larger audience as SaaS-enablers than as SaaS-providers because many hosted service providers include messaging and collaboration in their existing solutions, and are seeking Web 2.0 technologies that would empower them to more effectively compete against Microsoft’s own SaaS offerings Office Live & Hosted Exchange.

Open source. The Zimbra team sees open source as a means to (1) ensure long-term investment protection for our endusers and partners; (2) harness the talents of the technical community for enhancing (mashups/Zimlets, language translations, “skins”) and hardening Zimbra; and (3) get to critical mass quickly. On the latter, open source really provides innovative upstart technologies with worldwide reach. Now, just starting our second year of selling subscriptions, Zimbra has paying customers in 45 countries and on 6 continents. Moreover, open source has helped Zimbra to balance demands across business (SMB to enterprise), consumer, education, and government deployments – hopefully allowing Zimbra to continue to follow the very broad success of Apache, Linux, Mozilla, et al.

Here are some other of our guiding principals: We make the free Open Source Edition of Zimbra as easy as possible to use and install, and include a comprehensive suite of migration tools (i.e., we encourage new users to start on whatever edition of Zimbra is right for them, rather than trying to “sell against” our Open Source release). Free of change (for a trial period), we also allow anyone to download, install, migrate users to, receive support for, and even deploy into production our Network (commercial) Edition. This way potential customers know exactly what they are getting before they are ever asked to pay our subscription fees for support and updates – the reverse of the traditional software licensing model. Endusers that elect to start on the Network version can always revert to Open Source at a future date – the key being to let users try the paid service without risk. Many times our small Zimbra sales team will have their first conversion with a potential customer when that customer calls in to order a subscription for a supported Zimbra deployment already in production! This “bottom up” approach wherein Zimbra customers find us stands in contrast to more traditional “top down” software sales: it also means eventual customers are paying primarily for engineering and support, not for sales and marketing overhead.

Web 2.0. The open source development model tends to be highly creative, but can also be a bit noisy as potentially overlapping value-add arrives from many directions. The Zimbra team has pushed the envelop in harnessing Web 2.0 concepts to define more “self-converging” mechanisms for collaborative development: community forums, bug & enhancement tracking, documentation (the Zimbra Wiki), product roadmap & new feature management (with community participation), Zimlet and theme/skin popularity & validation (the Zimbra Gallery), and language localizations.

Software appliance. The innovation of packaging the Zimbra Collaboration Suite as a virtual appliance has already been discussed on the Zimbra blog. While the upside of the appliance model is not yet factored in the Zimbra footprint (our appliance is too new), the Value-Added Reseller (VAR) channel partners have been so enthusiastic that we are confident it warrants inclusion on this short list.

So those are some of the delivery and “business model” innovations that made for a very successful first year of growth in both the open source and commercial sides of Zimbra. For those that only choose to leverage our Open Source distribution, keep in mind that our commercial efforts are funding much of the development that you know and (hopefully) love. As always, we invite your participation in helping us to do better down the road …


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