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Freeside Internet Services: Doing Well With Purely Free Software (Video) 53

Posted by Roblimo
from the making-a-good-living-by-giving-software-away dept.
While attending ITEXPO West in Austin, TX, Slashdot editor Timothy Lord met Ivan Kohler, the "President, Founder and Head Geek" of a company called Freeside Internet Services that is 100% open source (no dual-licensing) and makes its living supporting software Ivan says is used to manage some of the very unsexy backend tasks that ISPs and VoIP providers need to do, like track usage and send bills to customers. Freeside uses the AGPL license, which Ivan calls "a GPL variant for web applications" that, he says, "prevents people from taking our software, modifying it, and selling it in a hosted capacity as proprietary software."

Timothy Lord: ITEXPO billed itself as the World’s Communication Conference. The show floor is IP telephones, VoIP wholesalers and all kind of networking and communications gear. A lot of the phones and PBXes are actually based on the open source and GNU licensed Asterisk. What there isn’t, is much acknowledgment of open source, maybe everyone is afraid of giving away their secret sauce. I met with one conspicuous exception though.

Ivan Kohler is the President, Founder and Head Geek of a company based in Truckee, California called Freeside, which uses free software to manage some of the very unsexy backend tasks that ISPs and VoIP providers need to do, like track usage and send bills to customers.

Ivan talked with me about what open source has meant for him as an entrepreneur and programmer.

Ivan Kohler: My name is Ivan Kohler. I’m with Freeside Internet Services. We do billing for VoIP providers and ISPs and I’m the President, Founder and Head Geek. Unlike a lot of people here who make a lot of use of open source, everything from Linux to Apache to Asterisk, we put our product out there as open source as part of our marketing, so to speak. As tough as that is for a geek to say, we put our product out there as open source. We don’t have a commercial version at all. We have followed the Red Hat model where we sell consulting and support of the pure open source and it’s been great for us as a small company. It really lets us get the word out there and compete which much larger companies.

We use the AGPL license, which is a GPL variant for web applications. It prevents people from taking our software, modifying it, and selling it in a hosted capacity as proprietary software, and almost in all other respects is similar to the GPL. As you asked about, we brought in some other software packages that integrate with ours, RT (Request Tracker) and Torrus for bandwidth monitoring. Both of those packages are available under the GPL, which is AGPL compatible server. We’re able to put those things together and offer them in an integrated package.

What our software does is it provides billing, trouble ticketing, operations, mostly back office type operations for VoIP providers and ISPs. So, we’re rapidly converging to be one and the same, my ISP offers voice, so good two markets to be in.

Obviously, as a fairly small company ourselves, we do sell to a lot of small companies, but we do have a couple of big companies in the roster as well that help fund the development and keeping the software alive and actively develop. So, we do have a range, definitely a long tail of small folks.

We do get some contributions. As the company has grown, we’ve hired some of the core developers. So we get less contributions than we used to. We hired the best guys we could find who are our core developers, but one of our core developers does work for a separate company and gets paid by somebody else to work on our software. So we still are a project and haven’t hired them all yet and we do work with people from the community, contribute small things in patches, as well as our core developers.

I’m located on the West Coast in Lake Tahoe, California. My support director is in Louisiana. Our employees are everywhere from Pennsylvania on the East Coast. Out here in California, we use typical tools that geeks will be familiar with, IRC, email. We also have a phone system that makes it all appear as if we’re in one place, so I can pick up my phone and dial an extension of my guys in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, wherever they might happen to be.

We use stuff that’s very familiar to most people. I don’t use an ID. I use VoIP, Linux, web browser. It’s not a whole lot of esoteric stuff. We recently switched to Git for source tracking after sticking with CVS for long past its shelf life.

Timothy Lord: And is the Testerson family a typical customer?

Ivan Kohler: Definitely, from Test Town, USA. Here’s an example of some test packages we ordered for them, some residential VoIP test packages, phone number. In the VoIP world, a phone number is called a DID, don’t know why. I know what it stands for, but I don’t know why they don’t just call them phone numbers, but all the guys here, they call DIDs. So we got one phone number provision for this customer and then we have a sample invoice that we generated for them, showing the charges for the service, total balance due and so forth.

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Freeside Internet Services: Doing Well With Purely Free Software (Video)

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    I think we all know what the AGPL [gnu.org] is.

    And if you're worried we might not, you could give a link (like I just did, or this [wikipedia.org]), instead of some random person's summary.

  • Freeside Support (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 54mc (897170) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (nevarcmleumas)> on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @01:39PM (#41671269)

    TFS mentions that Freeside makes their money on support. Here's the caveat - you need it.

    I spent a full work week, with the assitance of several high level (in charge of thousands of servers, been doing it for 10+ years) admins and perl programmers (Freeside's native tounge) attempting to install it. To put it shortly, the documentation is terrible. I discovered over seventy undocumented modules, not including those modules required modules, that were required simply to even install the thing. We spoke to one of the developers on the project who basically told us this difficulty was intended and let us know he'd be extremely impressed if we got it installed without his help.

    So yea, it's free... If you don't mind either paying them to install it or spending an inordinate amount of time installing and configuring it.

    • by PRMan (959735)
      Cool, so now you can sell an installer that installs it for people (unmodified, of course)...
    • by bluefoxlucid (723572) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @02:10PM (#41671797) Journal
      This tells me the software is poorly designed and problematic, and is not a good product, and that the company is abusive to its customers and is tithe-extracting. Next product.
    • Re:Freeside Support (Score:5, Informative)

      by Jawnn (445279) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @02:45PM (#41672283)
      Agreed. We had the same experience - discovered that the software and documentation appeared to be deliberately rigged so that it was effectively useless, virtually requiring a payment for someone to show up with the keys and make it work. Were it not for the perfectly valid choice of "Fuck this. I'll use something else", we'd call that extortion. Yes, with enough time and expertise, one could discover where the broken bits are and fix them, but then (with enough time and expertise) one could write something from scratch too.
    • Re:Freeside Support (Score:5, Informative)

      by _ivan (31342) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @03:09PM (#41672601) Homepage

      Hi,

      I am the person interviewed in this video.

      It is a completely and utterly false statement that we attempt to make the software difficult to install on purpose. The documentation is resonably straightforward for any competant sysadmin, and all prerequisites ARE listed. The documentation is in a Wiki if folks from the community would like to help improve it for a more novice-oriented audience.

      We even provide a completely installed and functional VMware appliance with each release, for folks who have difficulty installing from source code but who would still like to evaluate or use the software.

      May I respectfully ask that you consider saving the vitrol for companies that ACTUALLY falsely represent themselves as "open source" while having pro versions, proprietary plugins and other such nonsense? It seems a bit unfair to pick on a small company doing the best we can to employ people full-time writing 100% free software, just because a free installation tutorial wasn't handed to you on a silver platter.

      Thanks.

      • How funny: a free software advocate conflates "free software" and "open source." Usually the "free software" people are hardcore about reminding people of the difference.

    • by jd2112 (1535857)
      That is the problem with the "give it away and charge for support " model. Anything you do to make it easier to use will result in a reduction of business.
  • by banetbi (459822) on Tuesday October 16, 2012 @01:54PM (#41671513)

    I actually had Ivan install Freeside and train the staff when I was still running a dialup ISP. The software is a bear to install, but mainly because it is so massive a piece of software. At the end of the day, Freeside saved us a ton of man hours by automating most of the administrative tasks like account suspension and billing. Since I used it last Freeside has gotten loads of new functionality. It was well worth the initial cost of having Ivan come out and install, transfer our old accounting info, and train the staff.

    No I don't work for Freeside or Slashdot.

  • I use this system at my WISP called BillMax. I didn't pick it, but I put up with it for a while. It uses fairly generic MySQL and Apache, and you get most of the source when you license it. They seem to think the only OS in the world is RHEL, though. Recently though, they've switched to a leased licensing scheme, take a lot of our money, and don't do very much for it. If I'm going to recommend giving someone a heap of dollars for making this work, I'd rather it be a real Open Source project and one tha

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