ObjectWeb embarks on risky transition

Restructuring will see ObjectWeb consortium becoming an independent nonprofit association

The European software consortium ObjectWeb has embarked on a restructuring that will give it more independence but also raises questions about its funding in the future.

The contract currently binding the consortium together expires on Dec. 31 and its member organizations, including founders France Telecom, Bull and the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA), have decided not to renew it.

The group, which developed the Jonas application server and other open-source middleware, will become an independent nonprofit association from Jan. 1. From then on it will rely on its membership fees for all funding and operational needs.

ObjectWeb has around 70 corporate members. To date, only five of them, including the three founders, have committed to joining the new group, said Francois Letellier, the consortium's executive director. "This is really an area of concern and we are definitely inviting current members to become new members as soon as possible," he said.

As part of the reorganization, ObjectWeb will also merge with a Chinese software consortium, Orientware, that was already a partner and has similar open-source goals. The combined entity will rename itself the OW2 Consortium and have headquarters in Brussels.

ObjectWeb was founded in 2002 to develop open-source alternatives to proprietary middleware from IBM, BEA Systems and other vendors. It hosts about 100 projects, including Jonas, the Celtix enterprise service bus and the Enhydra Shark workflow server.

It has depended heavily on the support of its founders -- particularly INRIA, which provided office space, servers, bandwidth and other resources, Letellier said.

The founders are apparently unwilling to sustain their level of support and want to see OW2 survive independently, through more equal contributions from its members.

Being independent brings advantages, Letellier said. OW2 will be able to sign contracts with partners and hire full-time staff, which ObjectWeb could not do under the consortium contract. It will also be less centralized, making it easier to start local chapters, and it will be free to devise a new governance model.

It also wanted more money and a higher level of commitment from its members -- something they will now have to provide if they want the group to survive.

Along with the founders, the other groups that have committed to OW2 are Thales, the French aerospace group and Engineering Ingegneria Informatica, an Italian provider of systems integration, outsourcing and consulting. ObjectWeb expects other existing and new members to join.

Iona Technologies, an ObjectWeb member that contributed the source code for its ESB, also plans to join OW2, said Eric Newcomer, Iona's chief technology officer and an ObjectWeb board member. "The ObjectWeb community has been very supportive and positive," he said.

Still, Iona has also joined the Apache Software Foundation, in part because of its higher profile, Newcomer acknowledged. "Certainly one of the challenges ObjectWeb will be facing next year will be worldwide recognition," he said.

Membership for OW2 costs Euro 30,000 (AUD$50,409) for large organizations or Euro 3,000 for smaller organizations. Individual membership is free.

Analysts and developers have praised the technical quality of ObjectWeb's software, but the group has not earned the recognition enjoyed by open-source providers such as JBoss. One reason is that ObjectWeb's members have tended to promote their own brands and software, Letellier said.

Red Hat Inc., for example, offered Jonas to its customers at one time, but it rebranded it as the Red Hat Application Server. When Red Hat bought JBoss it scaled back support for ObjectWeb, although it said earlier this year it remained committed to the consortium.

ObjectWeb has been exploring ways to increase its profile and attract more enterprise customers. OW2 will continue the plans to issue road maps, appoint project leaders and look for services companies to partner with, Letellier said. It is also launching initiatives to promote technologies such as its ESB, e-government and telco software.

For now, however, it's most important goal is signing up fee-paying members.

"We'll have to prove that it can fly during 2007," Letellier said of OW2. "For this, the most important thing is to have as many members as possible."

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