IT Life: Building Alfresco Into An Open Source Giant

John Newton, co-founder of one of the largest open source companies in the world, tells TechWeekEurope about his career

Alfresco, the enterprise content management firm based in Maidenhead, is the world’s second most successful open source venture (after Red Hat), and is widely expected to issue an IPO and float on the stock market soon. Its products are used by 2,700 enterprise customers including NHS, BT, Cisco, NASA and Eurostar.

The company was founded in 2005 by John Newton, co-founder of Documentum, and John Powell, former COO of Business Objects. It hasnow sold over $200 million worth of software, and is gearing up towards IPO.

Newton is currently the chairman and CTO of Alfresco. We asked him about his career and the discovery of open source, along with some less serious questions.

“Open source, isn’t that communism?”

How many years have you spent working in IT? What are your areas of expertise?
I graduated from the University of California at Berkley, where three of my professors started Ingres, the database company. I joined them in 1981, as one of the engineers. I spent nearly ten years there, ultimately running the Database Group, and by the time I left, Ingres was number two in the database industry.

Database © Semisatch Shutterstock 2012For a while, I was also running the European technical centre in London, which is where I met my wife, one of the reasons I live in the UK. I went back to the US to found Documentum with a friend in 1990, and we more or less invented enterprise content management. There was no such thing when we started.

After about six years I moved back to Europe, where I was running marketing and professional services for Documentum, in addition to some development work. After five more years and a lot of travelling, I decided to go and look at new things. I became an ‘entrepreneur in residence’ at Benchmark Capital, one of the leading venture capital firms in Silicon Valley.

That’s when I came to the conclusion that the old enterprise model doesn’t really work. What seemed to work was open source. We looked at things like MySQL, Linux and JBoss, and said ‘you know, you can create software with open source which is as good as proprietary’. Plus, I could work from Europe, where my family is. So John Powell, who was the CEO of Business Objects, and me, we created Alfresco.

Most of the code in our products is created by Alfresco, but we do get a lot of independent developer participation, and a lot of innovation comes from the open source community.

What has been the favourite project in your work so far?
It’s probably the mobile app development. I am convinced that iPads and tablets in general are the productivity devices of the future. They will take over the world. To be able to take our features and put them on the iPad means I can do a lot of work-related things without taking my laptop along.

What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
I was probably finishing up with Documentum at that point. We were in a deep recession, and everyone was looking for the ‘next big thing’. It was very tricky. Normally, what you do is you go and figure out what sells. In 2002, nothing was selling.

That’s when I started to get interested in open source. Getting to know MySQL, the LAMP stack, JBoss.

I’m a firm believer in Michael Porter’s cluster theory of economics. How do you break a cluster? You find new approaches, new business models, new clusters to address. And open source seemed like one of those things that could break the Silicon Valley model.

What tech do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
Whatever happens, there will be large elements of open source in it. There’s going to be a major shift in how Cloud is built and deployed. I would expect Amazon to be a major service provider in this environment. I would still expect to see IBM around. The line between the application and the stack is likely to blur, and computing on the device will become more, not less important.

As for hardware, displays will get richer, probably 3D-enabled, gesture recognition will become more sophisticated, and the device will need to process all of that too.

Dream to be the president

Who’s your tech hero?
Tommy FlowersCan I give you two? One is the guy who worked with Alan Turing, by the name of Tommy Flowers. He was my father-in-law’s boss during World War II, and actually created the Colossus, the world’s first electronic digital computer. He lived out his life keeping it a complete secret until two decades ago, and received very little recognition for what he had accomplished.

Everybody knows Turing’s name, and everybody thinks ENIAC was the first computer. The Americans took all the engineers and all the credit. But it was Flowers who really started the digital age.

The other hero is Vannevar Bush, who created the Memex machine – the first conceptualisation of what the World Wide Web would look like. This was right after World War II. He described hyperlinking, having access to all information and knowledge. It was a huge step forward.

Who’s your tech villain?
I think Larry Ellison has done more to destroy competition than Bill Gates. I grew up as part of the database industry. He consolidated it, and essentially killed all innovation in this field. As far as he was concerned, Oracle was the answer to everything. They certainly made the software more reliable, but without Oracle, we could have been further along.

What’s your favourite technology ever made? Which do you use most?
Well, I use Alfresco every day (laughs). But when I’m not using Alfresco, I use my iPad. Steve Jobs hated the idea of a stylus, but I make all my notes on my iPad by hand, and then synchronise them with our software.

What’s the budget outlook for Alfreco? Flat? Growing?
Sometime soon, we might be in a position to file for Initial Public Offering (IPO). We believe cloud is important, and we have taken the hybrid approach, which we think will become the most popular model of computing. We predict there will be quite a bit of growth as a result of creating new solutions – for things like extranets and cross-business workflows – using hybrid computing, and it could be a really big growth area.

Apart from your own, which company do you admire most and why?
apple-newtonYou’ve got to love Apple. You know what I discovered at home the other day? An Apple Newton, in a clear case. It’s very interesting to see what a transition it has been, from this early device to the iPhone 5. I found Steve Jobs’ biography fascinating, he was an absolute jerk, but the company he built is the richest tech company for a reason.

What’s the greatest challenge for an IT department today?
Managing the cost. Shifting around the budget, establishing priorities. Number two is probably complexity, which is growing in a very ironic way. The large vendors are coming in and saying “don’t worry, we can solve your IT complexity problems if you buy everything from IBM, Oracle, HP or whatever”, and in the process they make it even more obscure. Other companies try to put everything into Google services, and create a different set of problems.

One of the antidotes to complexity is Open Standards. Making parts replaceable and interchangeable is the way we move forward. That’s what open source is all about.

To Cloud or not to Cloud?
I’m a believer in the cloud, but I do think there are some technical and legal problems to be solved before people put everything in the cloud. For the next ten years, the way station on that road is the private cloud. I think there are great opportunities in the public cloud as well, but the big money and the enterprise will be in the private cloud.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
When I was about ten, I wanted to be the president of the United States. I gave up on that dream around the age of 25. In terms of personal heroes, I was really influenced by Spock from Star Trek, and Thomas Edison.

How well do you know open source software? Take our quiz!