eBay to use Joomla as the 'open source glue'

eBay's massive Joomla social network for employees has broader implications for open source at other enterprises

EBay is well-known as a lover of open source. When I heard it signed the Joomla! Contributor Agreement as part of its plans to build a cutting-edge social network for 16,000 employees, my first thought was "Will eBay be building an open source auction app for Joomla?" Short answer: no. Long answer, the project has even better ramifications for corporate use of open source.

Joomla logo
I talked with the person responsible for the project, Oliver Ratzesberger, senior director of analytics platform at eBay and then chatted with Joomla's Ryan Ozimek. Between them, I saw a trajectory of open source in the enterprise. More on that in a minute.

First, to summarize eBay's plans, the auction company will be using Joomla as an intranet-on-steroids for employees that use the company's data analytics/data warehouse. The Joomla site won't be a front-end to the data warehouse as some news sites have reported. It will be a social network supplement. Employees will use the content management platform to join groups, network, follow analysts, work with ad-hoc communities on one-off projects, create personalized Web pages, ask/answer questions, create group/team Web pages, blogs and forums. Think of it like intranet meets blog meets LinkedIn.

To do so eBay's IT folks will need to build access between Joomla and the data analytics software (reports, dashboards, links, etc.). They will also have to configure user access based on a person's security clearance, says Ratzesberger. They expect to have to do some integration work with their data warehouse to make this happen.

As I mentioned, eBay also signed the Contributor Agreement. This typically means contributing money or/or code. I asked, in jest, if eBay would build a FOSS auction module for Joomla. No one but me laughed.

In truth the reverse will happen. EBay stands as an example of standardizing on open source, while keeping the bread-and-butter code under lock and key. The company will mostly be contributing experience -- offering themselves to the community as a case study on how to marry open source and proprietary software from a single project.

"Joomla is already scaling to some of the world’s largest sites. It is a very strong platform to begin with. We'll be looking at how we can integrate it into LDAP, various security environments, our analytical systems and other systems," Ratzesberger says. "Our learnings will be valuable to the community." Ryan Ozimek agrees that eBay will have a lot to teach the community about enterprise integration.

It isn't clear if they are also contributing money. Ratzesberger wouldn't comment, but my sense was not so much. EBay did pick up the tab for hosting a regional user's group meeting. Paying for a party is a lot like making a donation, I always say. Ratzesberger wasn't sure yet how much code eBay might contribute back to the group, as the project is still in the planning stages.

So let's talk about how this might impact other enterprises. There is, of course, the obvious. It's another feather in the cap of Joomla and open source content management platforms in general. Still, all three top contenders -- Drupal and Wordpress being the other two -- are already proven entities. (Network World and other IDG sites use Drupal, for instance).

What I think this project really does is shows the path of enterprise adoption as it moves from "freeware" to a mission critical.

Phase One: Hesitant courtship. An enterprise doesn't want to use much open source, beyond firing up a few Linux boxes for minor tasks, or downloading a few free net management tools. IT folks worry about the software's security, a lack of someone to turn to for support, a burden of custom coding. Microsoft is doing its best to keep enterprises worrying about these things, too. (Case study example: Wood County using Linux-based Astaro for e-mail archiving)

Phase Two: Why the hell not? A budget gets cut. Or the IT manager notices that some open source apps perform better with less maintenance than the proprietary old stand by. IT grows comfortable that subscription-based support is plentiful, or the community is robust enough to help solve problems. Open source moves to the mainstream for many tasks, maybe the operating system, the database, the CMS, the CRM, the IP PBX, etc. (Case study example: Astro Shapes using Ubuntu Linux/FOSS on the servers, Windows XP on the desktops.)

Phase Three: Symbiotic relationship. The user becomes the contributor and systematically relies on open source for everything that it doesn't consider to be its company's secret-sauce, intellectual property. The user shifts resources from maintaining its own IT island to becoming part of a bigger community, all solving the same basic problems. Love fills the air, and the IT department spontaneously breaks into outbursts of Kumbaya. (Case study example ... eBay and Joomla, more or less, maybe without the singing).

Explains eBay's Ratzesberger, "Enterprises need to learn how to embrace open source. Open source is not about downloading free software and installing it. It is about contributing. It should be used for non-intellectual-property aspects of the company. Seventy percent to 80% of a company runs on standards, on products that are not the core of the business. Companies need to realize, if you can work with an open source community, contribute back, the sum of all moving parts is so much bigger than what you can ever do by yourself," he says. "We don’t want to own custom code."

That's the same reason that Joomla's Ozimek is excited about the eBay project. "Large enterprises still use a lot of propriety services -- they have the mindset that they have to use more proprietary [with their existing proprietary packages] when in reality open source can provide that glue, that integration."

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