Unleash your team's potential with Feng Office

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Feng Office's tag line is: Unleash your team's potential. It's an open source collaboration platform for teams and businesses that began as an academic project at UdelaR University. Interested students worked on the initial research and development, and today it remains an open source project.

Conrado Vina and his team considered what making the platform closed would do—to their users and to their vision, based on the belief that such an important component for any organization should be available and open source. They decided on a mixed bag. Offering some solutions on top of their core business, the open source platform, has helped finance further development and service for Feng Office as a whole.

Read on to find out more from Conrado in this interview.

Tell us about the subscription model. What challenges and opportunities does it present?

Great question. At first, when all we were offering was an open source option, many clients with a technical background or in technical positions found it hard to justify an investment in a system that they could download for free, install on their servers without any help or additional software, and manage themselves. We offered our expert support, system maintenance, custom configuration and development, and hosting and backup services. But, that wasn't perceived as a great value to our early adopters, so they found it hard to make a purchase. They felt that those tasks were their job, so we missed a lot of opportunities and were not producing sufficient revenue. Talk about a challenge!

The opportunities the subscription model presents is that it allows small and medium-sized businesses and organizations to access an enterprise-class solution but without a cash-intensive initial investment. Larger corporations and bigger organizations still favor, on average, more traditional licensing and support agreements. We are also providing that option for larger clients, as it is a good model and works for us too.

How do you educate clients on the benefits of open source software?

Most clients do not yet know or fully understand the benefits of open source, or even how it works. Sometimes it feels that clients equate open source to getting everything for free. That is not where the advantages are for a system like Feng Office.

For software that will become the core of your business, you want:

  • a Service Level Agreement with a trusted provider
  • tons of features
  • a process to keep it up to date
  • guarantees

Trust, through transparency and independence, is the biggest advantage of choosing an open source software solution for business operations. Honestly, most clients don't seem to care if it is open source or not. We don't ususally need to explain much or even tout the advantages of open source. To me, it's like buying a luxury car and not understanding all the amazing things that make it luxurious. You just know you prefer that car.

We have a lot of clients who come to us through a reference, from a colleague or friend who is happy with our service, products, and customer support.

Why did you choose the AGPLv3 license?

At the time that we chose the AGPLv3 license, most of the open source software we already used was licensed under GPL, though we weren't experts in all the other possibilities out there. This license allows us to maintain compatibility with the other components we use.

Many businesses are unsure about the security of open source software. What would/do you say to them?

To that I ask another question: "Why do you think that?"

I don't know if there are any independent studies on the average security levels of open source vs closed source, but what is a fact is that popular open source projects receive a lot of eyeball time from security experts and, most frequently, they will report any security concerns immediately.

What's new with Feng Office?

Our latest news is the release of version 2.3.1 this week.

You can read the blog post here. We are conservative in version numbers. We have been making very frequent releases for the past five years and if compared, you will see a great evolution from the 1.X series and even from early 2.X versions. Series 2.X allowed Feng Office to support multi-dimensional management of any type of data. This is like taking the data warehousing and BI dimensions concept that used to be applied to measured data only, but using it for any type of information. This is very cool, powerful, and state of the art technology.

I think we are pioneers in this area. We are also working on a new edition, with more corporate-focused features. This will allow us to provide new offerings that will be more compelling to corporate clients, and will justify greater investments, which in turn will mean more revenue, and more research and development. Our goal is to develop the best collaboration platform!

Jen leads a team of community managers for the Digital Communities team at Red Hat. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and daughters, June and Jewel.


Yay for sane version numbers! I'm not exactly the target audience for Feng Office, but I'll going to give the Community Edition a test drive.

I'm surprised this appeared on opensource.com, since this is much more of an fauxpensource/open core application - a model which has been shown to fail. Basically, "when we were open source we couldn't generate lots of revenue, but we like using the term as a loss leader to get people to buy our proprietary software".

<a href="http://blogs.gartner.com/brian_prentice/2010/03/31/open-core-the-emperors-new-clothes/">Gartner</a> pointed out the problems with this business model years ago. If you use Feng, but want Project Management? Pay, and give up your open source rights. Want to manage clients? Pay, and give up your open source rights.

If Feng has built a business model on paywalling certain features, they have basically told their community "you can never have these as open source".

Don't check out their ghetto, community edition unless you plan to fork it. It only encourages them.

Having tested out Feng Office, I'd have to agree with you. The big list of features not available in the community edition was already a stumbling block, but the vague "You don't have permission to access requested page" message that I got while logged into as a Super Administrator was just silly. Yes, I was trying to access a feature not in the "Community Edition" (Mass Mailings), but, at best, it should have failed in a more understandable manner than "you don't have permission". Overall, I really like Feng Office, the software is really nicely designed, but their paid vs. community distribution method is a huge turn off.

Thank you for the compliments, Joshua.

We agree with you on the message not being good. I have already created a task for the dev team to look into it that issue.

You are welcome to report more details on the bug you found here:

On your concerns about the Professional Edition vs the Community Edition, I am happy to address any issue.

Conrado Vina
Feng Office

Hi Tarus,

I think you are making the comments from a point of view that does not contemplate all of Feng Office history, what we have done, and what we do, which turns out to make your comments unfair.

The Feng Office development team started releasing its software as GPL from the very start (year 2007). When we started we didn't have two Editions. We only had one (actually... not even one... and we used version 0.X for a long time).

After years of supporting the work of the development team through selling support services only, and lots of personal financial and time investments, we found a few things:
1. Many clients required more features than we had developed.
2. It was easier to sell additional features than it was to sell support services.
3. Our initial business model was not going to sustain the level of investment required to build this type of software.

So we decided to develop new features as add ons and sell those. And we invested more time and more money in developing the Professional Edition.

But we never stopped improving the Community Edition (the new name for what used to be simply "Feng Office" and "OpenGoo" before that), we didn't stripe it of any single feature - unless not purposedly :) - and we have millions of users letting us know everyday how happy they are with the Community Edition, and we try our best to give them online documentation so that they can support their installations.

Also, clients purchasing a license for the Professional Edition also get the source code.

So that is why I feel your comment is unfair, and it hurts that - after so many years of personally working and financing a team that develops an Open Source system so broad and feature rich, used by so many - you call us a "ghetto".

We appreciate all types of criticism, and we welcome all types of advice. But we appreciate it more when it is constructive and respectful.

Conrado Vina
Founder and CEO
Feng Office


Feng Office is a commercial software product with a subset of features available under the GPL. It is not open source, and we tend to use the term <a href="http://www.fauxpensource.org">fauxpensource</a> to describe such software.

First off, I run an open source project called OpenNMS. We've been around for over 10 years and we have been profitable every year. We have never had to resort to a commercial software "tiered" model. Now, granted, we don't have the millions of users that you can claim, but we have tens of thousands that seem statisfied with our model.

Second, let me address your points:

"1. Many clients required more features than we had developed."

Why don't you have those clients pay for the development and then release them as part of the open source product? We do.

"2. It was easier to sell additional features than it was to sell support services."

Ah, so it was easier to sell commercial software than open source software? I get that, but you do agree that your main business model is the selling of commercial software licenses, right? Assuming your motiviation is the same as most businesses, i.e. maximizing profit, then you will make decisions to require the most people to buy your software. Thus the "community edition" will always be a second class citizen, hence "ghetto". It exists mainly as a loss leader to get people interested in your commercial software, and is mere shareware instead of truly open source. Your failure was not one in open source but in your ability to run an open source company.

"3. Our initial business model was not going to sustain the level of investment required to build this type of software."

Well, again, you point to a failure in your business model. Perhaps you couldn't build a big enough community to build your product because you keep this wall up between versions. Perhaps there are other reasons why open source failed for you. In any case, when you created a commercial version you stopped being an open source company. OpenNMS is proof that the open source model can work, even if your efforts did not.

You also write:

"Also, clients purchasing a license for the Professional Edition also get the source code."

Have you actually read any of this site? The term "open source" is much more than access to the source code. It requires the ability to freely modify and distribute it. I am assuming that your commercial software license prohibits me from sharing my copy, which is a key part of the open source magic.

One thing that may have contributed to your failure with a true open source model is this attitude that you somehow "gifted" the world with your software and they owed you something for that. It's kind of like when you suggest I need to be more "respectful". I usually find that those who demand respect are the least deserving of it.

For decades I've been dealing with companies like yours trying to co-opt the term "open source" for there own commercial interests. Perhaps it is you that owes us a little more respect.

Hi Tarus,

Do you not understand how offensive it is to make so many -or any- claims based on personal assumptions?

Most of your comments are based on your assumptions. You even say that yourself more than once!

I will just point to one of the first: my motivations.

I have stated this publicly often times, but of course I don't expect you to know this:

My motivation is to help build the best possible Collaboration Platform.

So no, my motivations are not about maximizing profit.

And we have found a way to work on that and - in the process - produce a robust and feature rich system.

It is great that the project you are sponsoring has found clients willing to pay for features and then release all as open source. We took a different approach to financing.

And because a project or a business does not release under the GPL every line of code that they produce it does not make it a failure. We have many happy users thankful of our work. Many paying, and many more not. If only for that we don't feel we failed.

You misunderstood me. I did not say you failed at making software, I said you failed at open source.

In my experience open source is about creating a community; a community that feels that they are invested in the project. This can be users, coders or even companies that pay for features to be written.

The moment you hold back software from that community, to deem that some features are just for the "enterprise", you draw a line in the sand saying "these features are not for you." You take the community out of the equation, becoming the sole arbiter of what goes into the product.

If profit is not a concern, then why do you state time and again that you couldn't make enough money with your open source business model? Profit is my number one concern as a businessman, and we've decided the best way to maximize it is to remain 100% free and open source software.

You have made a different decision, which is okay. You might even be successful at it, but as Brian Prentice at Gartner points out, you now have to be compared against all the other commercial offerings out there. Your users lose the open source value of using it.

I've been having this argument with people like yourself for years now, and I thought it had faded away, but let me stress that just releasing code under an open source license does not make you an open source company. Two of the largest contributors of open source code, Google and Microsoft, would hardly be considered open source.

My complaint is not with you, your product, or your millions of users. My complaint is that you come to this forum and try to convince us that you are open source. When you hobble your community edition so that you can make money on your commercial software, you violate the very essence of why we are here.

I'll let you have the last word, since I'm sure the two people following this thread grew bored a couple of comments ago. I do applaud any effort that results in open source code, so thank you for that. The best software is open source software, so one can only hope your users grow strong enough to fork it into the best possible collaboration platform out there.


I think the key in your difficulty to communicate is in this statement:
"In my experience open source is about..."

It seems you confuse your experience with the truth. We all have different experiences and points of view.

You say: "My complaint is that you come to this forum and try to convince us that you are open source."
I came to this forum because I noticed that Jen published the interview she did to me about Feng Office. And then I saw the comments and I responded.

But I did feel I have to explain that the Feng Office Community Edition has always been and will remain GPL. And I explained to you that the Professional Edition adds a set of features on top which the Corporate IT Customers that Brian Prentice talks to in his article find easier to justify paying for. They find it hard to justify the contract of services that we worked very hard to make unnecessary (support, installation, etc.). They have a hard time justifying donations (and we never felt donations are a good Open Source business model). That is the way in which this market (Collaboration Platforms, Project Management) works.

So, different experiences, different products, and different markets lead to different business models.

I would love to keep on discussing Open Source software and Open Source business. But I'll let you have the last word until you hold on the offensive.

As both a long term advocate of OSS and a small business owner some of the arguments here on both sides strike a chord and even this snippy exchange has value in making me think, so thanks for sharing.

Personally I'd like to think that a services-based revenue model with an open product is the model that will become the norm but not 100% sure this works right now for any software (office app v enterprise monitoring tool as an example)

"If profit is not a concern, then why do you state time and again that you couldn't make enough money with your open source business model?"

I've always been interested in statements that broadly take a swipe at the need for profitability. How does anyone creating an opensource product fund it WITHOUT turning a profit? How are people, services and infrastructure paid for? Profitability and viability are two sides of the same coin, one cannot exist without the other.However, let's not get the "not-for-profit" model confused with "commercialised-for-maximum-profit" model. There should be no shame in commecialising a product for continuity, as long as the product is viable. I agree, however, that once the costs of production have been met, the product itself should come under the GPL. In other words, once it's built and expenses in its construction have been met, if the product came from GPL that's where it should go.

That would also have the benefit of protecting any perceived first mover advantage, especially for business tools. I'd imagine customers would be very interested in a product that potentially became cheaper or more feature rich once the community kicked in.

Great points, Robert.

Indeed, employees working on Open Source products need to get paid.


And depending on the project that can be achieved through a company's profit, or donations.

Some industries/projects can make a profit through the sales of services only. Others require different strategies, as the additional services that can be sold would not make enough profits to keep the team working a growing... And if you are to evolve a system to keep it up to date and competitive against incumbents you do need to grow.

Even if you build a big community of developers you do need full time coordination for their work.

I have not seen a single Open Source project of the dimensions of Feng Office succeed without the financial support of a business model that backs it up. Sometimes it is the same company that provides the profits (Automattic, Feng Office), and sometimes there is a bigger company sponsoring the projects of others (Red Hat, Google).

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