Interview – Si Chen

Si Chen got involved with open source software when he and his wife left their careers as a portfolio manager and a research analyst and started Gracious Style, an online retailer. After building their first online store with Perl, PHP, and MySQL, and he began to work on a more comprehensive solution, which led him to create the opentaps Open Source ERP + CRM system in 2005. opentaps has been implemented by a large number of organizations worldwide and is also now available in the cloud with the Amazon EC2 platform. Today, he is the project manager and chief architect of opentaps, a committer for the Apache Software Foundation, and works with a number of open source technologies regularly.

What is your preferred Open Source platform and why?

Most of our work is done with the opentaps Open Source ERP + CRM, for which my company Open Source Strategies Inc. is the lead developer. Since this is a Java-based system, we work extensively with the Apache open source projects, including Tomcat and Geronimo, as well as with open source databases such as MySQL and PostgreSQL. Our goal is to use these open source technologies to create business applications that are both low cost and flexible.

What other/upcoming Open Source technologies are you excited about?

We are really excited about the upcoming version 3.0 release of the Apache Geronimo project, which will be give us a Java application server built around the OSGI component framework. This fits very nicely with our own architectural vision for building more modular and more flexible business software.

We are also really excited about the many open source mobile application development frameworks that are starting to emerge. We just implemented a mobile e-commerce site using the JQuery Mobile open source framework and were very pleased with how it allowed us to build a user-friendly mobile site very easily, using just HTML markups.

What Open Source platforms do you see as having the most importance potential in the coming 12-18 months?

Some portions of the open source landscape, such as operating systems, databases, and application servers, are already fairly established, and the dominant projects will remain so. In newer areas such as mobile frameworks, however, we are seeing a lot of exciting innovation and activity. In addition to JQuery Mobile, which we used, there are many other interesting mobile projects such as Sencha and Dojo Mobile, and I think this is where you will see the most important growth potential for open source as well.

How do you think Open Source is affecting SMBs?

The key effect of open source on SMB’s is that it has accelerated the migration of software to the cloud. Long before the term “cloud computing” even existed, hosting providers were offering open source software — the LAMP stack of Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP/Perl — on inexpensive monthly subscriptions “in the cloud.” Today, most of the cloud-based solutions, such as email and collaboration software, are running on some form of open source software. This has had a very quiet and practically invisible effect of offering low-cost and easy-to-use software to SMB’s.

How do you think Open Source is affecting enterprise level companies?

Open source software is affecting enterprises in three ways. First, there are some enterprises that have used open source to reduce the cost of their technology infrastructure. For example, they are using Linux or Apache as inexpensive operating systems or web servers which could be run on commodity hardware. Second, there are some enterprises whose entire business model is built around open source software. Many of these companies only started in the “web era,” and yet have been able to grow to enormous size by building off open source software to create entire new business models quickly and inexpensively. Finally, many of the enterprises which are starting to adopt cloud or SAAS-based solutions are implicitly adopting open source software, as those solutions are often powered by open source.

What do you make of Microsoft’s recent efforts in interoperability and to embrace the Open Source community?

I think it is both a logical and a positive development. In reality, open source developers and Microsoft really need each other. Microsoft remains a dominant player in the desktop and with businesses, neither of which are going away, and Microsoft is making major investments in the cloud as well. Open source developers need to reach all those Microsoft users, or we risk being irrelevant.

But Microsoft also needs open source — allowing open source developers to build on top of Microsoft technologies will create more applications around the Microsoft platforms, which would make them more valuable to users and therefore increase the value of thpse platforms. Open source could also attract more talent to Microsoft technologies. When today’s kids get started programming, they’re probably working with HTML and Javascript instead of .NET, and they’re probably going to look for open source libraries and tools. Microsoft needs to be in the open source space to get their attention and be relevant to them.

How did you first get involved in Open Source development?

Like many open source developers, I got involved because I “needed it myself.” My wife and I started an online retail company, Gracious Style, in 1999. At the time, there weren’t many out of the box e-commerce solutions, so I put together a homemade one using Perl and added to it. This eventually led me to try to create an integrated solution for all aspects of our business, including e-commerce, inventory and warehouse management, purchasing and supply chain management, CRM, and even accounting. The end result was the opentaps Open Source ERP + CRM system, which we created with a number of open source projects.

What makes you passionate about Open Source technology?

The most exciting thing about open source is innovation. New ideas and projects are constantly bubbling up, and with open source you get a chance to work on some of the latest technologies and the people who create them.