Day Two Cloud 095: Free Like a Piano

By Published On: April 29, 2021

There’s lots of types of free. Free like a puppy. Free like a beer. Or more recently I heard, free like a piano. You might not immediately grasp what is meant by each, I know I certainly didn’t. Why don’t we explore them and see how they might apply to open-source software?

Free Beer

Free like a beer simply implies that you don’t have to pay for the thing. There’s no additional onus on the recipient of the free beer. They can choose to drink it, give it to someone else, or pour it out on a houseplant. Free like a beer is something received with no cost of ownership. Some software is free like beer. You get it for free. There is no expectation that you will need to maintain the software. And the marginal cost for getting the software is effectively zero.

Free Puppies

Free like a puppy still has no cost for acquisition. But as any puppy owner knows, there is an ongoing cost associated with caring for, raising, and training a puppy. You are going to have to buy other things for the puppy. And the puppy will not stay a puppy forever. It will turn into a dog, which may cost more in terms of food and vet bills. The marginal cost of acquisition is zero. The total cost of ownership is high.

Free Piano

Free like a piano means that the item itself is free, but acquiring the item may be difficult and costly. For instance, my mother wants to give me the piano from their house. It is free to me, in the sense that I do not have to pay for the piano itself. But I do have to pay for the means to transport the piano to my house. If I am feeling foolish (often true) I could rent a van and attempt to move it myself. If better sense prevails (possible, but unlikely) I can pay a company that specializes in moving pianos to get the job done. Once I have the piano, the cost of ownership is relatively low. The marginal cost of acquisition is high and the TCO is low.

Open Source Software

In episode 95 of Day Two Cloud, Ethan and I talk to Stu Miniman about his new position at Red Hat and a bit about open-source software in general. Stu is the Director of Market Insights at Red Hat, which allows him to draw on his deep experience as an industry analyst to help guide Red Hat in the turbulent IT market. He also developed excellent interviewing chops by hosting theCUBE for many years, and that is essential when talking to customers and trying to pry out what they actually want and need versus what they might initially say.

One of the topics we got into was the idea of open-source software versus free software. Ethan was trying to pick apart what Red Hat is actually selling to make all those billions of dollars IBM found so attractive. Is it services? Is it support? Is it something else? After all, they aren’t selling software per se. All of Red Hat’s software is open-source and freely available. And that is where the analogies come marching in.

Some of Red Hat’s software is free like beer. Ansible is a good example of that. The software is free and does not require any ongoing maintenance. You don’t even have to compile it from source, you can simply grab the latest build and go. That’s not to say there isn’t any work involved in using Ansible and maintaining your playbooks and inventory. But that’s not part of Ansible as software, that’s your personal implementation of Ansible.

Red Hat Linux is free like a puppy. Again, the marginal cost of acquisition is effectively zero. But without a Red Hat support contract, you are the one responsible for getting the latest patches for the operating system. You also have to do the hard work of properly configuring the operating system for your environment. When you get RHEL from Red Hat with support and services, they are doing the work of training and raising your “puppy”.

Red Hat OpenShift is free like a piano/puppy hybrid. The product itself is composed of many other products, including Red Hat Core Linux, Kubernetes, OpenShift Operators, and their container registry. Assembling all the components alone is a challenge. Doing so with proper configuration for each makes this truly a piano mover type of situation. There is a free distribution of OpenShift, so you could deploy that. But there is still the care and maintenance of the solution in the long-term, which is the puppy aspect. Purchasing support and services from Red Hat for OpenShift makes a heckuva lot more sense than trying to do it all yourself.

Another thing we talked about during the episode is getting away from doing undifferentiated heavy lifting and providing more value for your organization. Moving pianos and raising puppies is not a high value activity. That’s the kind of work you farm out to the experts. I’m not going to strain the analogy any further by trying to make a comparison to service dogs or piano concertos. It probably could be done, but I’m not going to force it.

Not Free Software

Open-source software is not free software. There’s a cost. There’s ALWAYS a cost. Maybe it’s the acquisition, maybe it’s the on-going maintenance, or it could even be the opportunity cost. Regardless, making a choice has a cost associated with it. Your goal is to understand that cost and the value derived from the purchase. If the value doesn’t exceed the cost, then don’t do it. And that is why Red Hat makes billions.