Rich: SourceForge is proud to announce that the July 2012 Project Of The Month is Liferay Portal. I spoke with Brian Chan, who started the project about ten years ago. Here’s our conversation.
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Rich: Congratulations on being Project of the Month.
Brian: Thank you. I’ve wanted Liferay to be on there for years. I’m very happy about it.
Rich: Tell me something about the project. How long has it been going, and what problem space is it trying to solve?
Brian: The project started in 2000, and the problem we’re trying to solve is that we want people to be able to build websites using the Java platform, quickly. That’s the problem it’s trying to solve. And specifically, we’re a portal. And if you look at traditional portals, from the last ten years, they’ve usually been very heavy-weight, sort of like your EJB app server. And so we look at ourselves in the Java space, we feel like we’re the Tomcat of the web platform. And we compete directly with Drupal, DotNetNuke – while Drupal’s for PHP, DotNetNuke is for dot.NET – And we’re a lightweight version of, say, WebSphere Portal, Oracle WebCenter, and so forth. And Microsoft Sharepoint. So that’s the problem space we’re in.
We want to help people build web sites. And not just websites in general, but social networks, and content management websites, very quickly.
Rich: Tell me some of your success stories. Who’s using your project successfully on, say, big websites?
Brian: Something that just launched recently, as far as a “cool factor”, is Marines.com.
It shows the content management aspect of Liferay. The site doesn’t look like a traditional portal, but it’s very pretty. Another one that’s in that vein would be Sesame Street. We all grew up with Big Bird, and it was one of the top websites last year.
So you can see how Liferay’s very flexible in that respect. Some other really cool examples would be developer.cisco.com. This is Cisco – they needed a collaboration website, and they built it on top of Liferay. Another one that’s sort of in that vein that’s more on the social network side would be teambeachbody.com. What they did was that they wanted to create a social network that wasn’t built around the friends you have, but the people that you coach into becoming better exercise people. You can go to that website and that’s all built on top of Liferay. So that’s just a small set of many many case studies that we have.
Rich: Do you have any sites that have surprised you? Sites that are doing something that … something unexpected with your product that maybe you hadn’t thought of when you designed it?
Brian: Not really because, well, people are doing a lot of things I didn’t expect, but none of them surprise us because Liferay itself was built to be flexible. So when we see them doing this we go, oh, yeah, that’s exactly what it was … it’s something it was built for. So not really – nothing that really surprises us.
Rich: On the community side, how do people get involved with your project? What sort of things might somebody get plugged into?
Brian: Usually, people download our product and then they’ll participate in our forums. I think we have 700,000 [Editor: Brian later corrected this to 500,000] posts this year. It’s getting close … I think we’ll reach 1,000,000 this year. There’s lots of people participating in the Liferay message boards. Another way is that they’ll find bugs, or they’ll contribute patches. And they can do that on our website, as well. Your traditional Open Source way, through forums, through our online collaboration stuff, and through our issue tracker. And, of course, our Symposiums and events where people come and have hackathons and we just code all day, and so forth.
Rich: Tell us about upcoming events.
Brian: I’m actually not sure if this has been announced yet, but I think some time in February or March we’re going to be opening up to the community where people actually come to our offices in LA, and we’re going to have a huge two-day hackathon. That’s mainly geared towards the community, and geek hackers. Towards developers and the general community, our ‘Java One’ or our ‘OSCon’ would be our Symposiums. And we’re having one in San Francisco this year, at the end of October, and we’re going to have one in Germany as well, so that people who can’t fly from Europe can attend both of the events. And those are the events where we showcase our case studies. We’ll have our clients, our community members, our partners and so forth, come and showcase their Liferay efforts.
Rich: Liferay.com is a commercial venture that’s based around the project – is that right?
Brian: Correct. Most people separate their ventures, where they’ll have a .org and a .com website. We didn’t see a reason to do that so we merged it. So .com is our community website, and when you log in, it gives you additional … for our customers, it gives you additional access. But both of them are hosted off of Liferay.com. We don’t separate the community’s effort from our commercial effort.
Rich: What sort of additional services do your paying customers have access to?
Brian: One of the things is that they get long-term support on the version that they’re using. A lot of the banks and large organizations that use us, they need the version of Liferay that they’re building on top of to be supported five years from now. That’s not something they can get from the community edition without themselves investing a ton of work. Another one is … we’re the experts in our own product. We have a lot of engineers working here, and we know our stuff. So they’ll pay for support for it, so that when they use the product and they run into an issue, instead of them spending ten hours on the issue, they can just call us and we’ll spend two hours, because we’ll diagnose it, and they’ll save a ton of time. Another one is, if they want to customize the product, we’ll do some professional services, we’ll help them implement it, or we’ll connect them with a partner that’s closer to them, or has expertise in their specific vertical. And we’ll partner with them in that sense. Those are the ways in which we make money. And Liferay’s actually grown the last couple of years. What’s unique about us as a company, and as a community, is that we’re the only Open Source company that I know of, of our size, that has no venture capital. We have about 300 employees – maybe more than that now, I don’t keep active count – across 7-10 countries. I don’t even know how many offices we have. So we’ve been able to bootstrap ourselves, make money, and provide a very good quality service to our customers.
Rich: Is the developer community around Liferay primarily your paid employees, or is there representation from outside of your company as well?
Brian: That’s a very interesting question, because we develop a lot of stuff in-house, with the collaboration of the community, but we do the majority of the push. But it’s hard to quantify, because even if we do the majority of the push, the community helps out so much in testing different environments, testing out different possible paths. If you think about how somebody can click through something, there’s practically an infinite way in which somebody could do something in some environment. So the community helps out a lot in patches, and a lot of time in features as well. But a lot of times what ends up happening is, the people contribute. They love working on Liferay, and we need to hire engineers. So even though they were a community member, they end up joining us, so that screws up the metrics. A lot of the people who are currently employed by Liferay were once community members. But they are no longer, because they’re not employed by us. So they can do what they were doing for fun, full time.
Rich: I see on your website that you’re currently hiring, so I guess that is still in action.
Brian: Yeah. It’s very much in action. I’d say that almost half of the people that we’ve hired came from the community. And that’s why we have to have so many different offices. Because they’re a developer in some country, and we say, you’re so good, we want you to work with us full time. Do the stuff you’re doing that’s awesome, but do it full time.
Rich: What’s in the future for the Liferay product?
Brian: We really see the portal as the web platform for delivering applications. We’ve seen how the different commercial offerings are morphing into that. I’ll give you an example. You look at SalesForce. They’re primarily a CRM app. But they’ve really morphed into a portal by providing a way for people to develop applications quickly. Or you look at Facebook. They’re primarily a social network, but the apps add so much value into it. Our sweet spot is, we are an app platform. We want to be the de facto standard for it, and I think we quickly are, if we are not already, in the Java space. We want to grow that. And from there we want to pivot by providing specific vertical apps that add value. So a quick example is, how did Microsoft do it? They started with Windows. From there they pivoted to Office, Internet Explorer, SQL Server, BizTalk, and SharePoint, and they’ve added all this value. You look at Oracle, they start off as a database, and now they’ve built all these apps for enterprise, and they do so much more than just databases. In the same way, we see our core bread and butter being the portal – being the web platform. We see ourselves pivoting and adding on additional apps that tie into the portal that would add a lot of value. And all that stuff would be Open Source, with a commercial offering as well for certain large enterprises. And one example of that would be our new product Liferay Sync. Liferay portal itself has always had a content management system and a document management system built in. We really beefed it up this past year, but what we realized is, as you know, a lot of people use local, operating system, desktop based programs that allow you to sync files. So what if I don’t want that stuff hosted by a third party, but I want to host it on Amazon, but I want to own the data. I want to be the one to manage the servers not some third party. They can do that now. So they don’t have to worry about 10G, or 20G, or 100G, they can just get a TB, and pay a much smaller fee. So those are some of the ways in which we’re extending beyond the portal.
Rich: Tell me about the beginning of this project. Why’d you get started in the first place?
Brian: What happened was, it was around 2000, during the peak of the dot.com boom, and my pastor asked me to build a website for his church. I was also working for a consulting company at the time that was heavily emphasizing social networks. Back in 2000, they just gave it a different name, which was ‘e-business communities.’ They really stressed social networks, and they really stressed collaboration online. So I thought, wouldn’t it be great if my church could leverage the software that we were using at work, and the company at the time had about 200 people. My church size is about 150-200 people. If we could all collaborate online, that would be great. So I went to the software vendor, and they said to me, sure – it’ll cost you $100,000 for the license, and every user per year year is going to be $200. There’s no way my church can afford that. So, I looked at what the product did, and I looked at Open Source alternatives, and I didn’t like any of them. So I started writing it. Our church was the first implementation of that, and then I started to tinker with it. But I wanted it to be more than just for churches, because I wanted it to benefit a lot of non-profits, a lot of different organizations. And so I tried to make it generic. And over time as it became more and more generic, lots of institutions started using it – education sector, government sector, banks, financial sector. All these different organizations. And that’s what’s led to what we have today. And it’s been twelve years since we first played around with it.
And I have to thank SourceForge, because if it was not for Sourceforge, there’s no way we could have distributed our app – our program – back then. And if you look at our downloads, you guys have given us tons of bandwidth over the years. So I’m very very appreciative of what SourceForge has done for us.
Rich: Thank you very much for speaking with me. And, again, congratulations.
Brian: Yeah. Thank you for even letting us participate in SourceForge. Thank you for all the stuff you guys have done for us. I really appreciate what you guys do and very thankful for the award.