Releasing open source tools can help your company stay engaged with a community, but some vendors may fear that in doing so, they could actually cannibalize their own commercial products.
This fear is unwarranted, according to Dreas van Donselaar, CTO of SpamExperts, an anti-spam vendor with offices in Romania and Amsterdam. The company recently released an open-source tool, called OrangeAssassin, which is based on the popular SpamAssassin anti-spam framework.
“What we did here was perhaps a bit scary because we are launching an open source tool in the field of our expertise in the anti-spam industry, but at the same time we’re not afraid of the competition it can create with our product,” van Donselaar says. “We very often have to compete with businesses or organizations that are running the free SpamAssassin open source filtering. We have many arguments why it’s better to use a commercial filter like SpamExperts for the filtering quality however we didn’t see any risk to our business by open sourcing this improved version of SpamAssassin.”
OrangeAssassin was born out of a company hackathon, which van Donselaar says SpamExperts holds regularly to allow its developers to spend time working on any project they want to and doesn’t have to directly relate to the work they do for SpamExperts.
“During this hackathon one of our people decided it would be fun to try and rebuild SpamAssassin. SpamAssassin is a rule-based anti-spam tool that has been used by many people already for many years. It’s written in the Perl language,” he says.
OrangeAssassin is written in Python and uses less system resources than SpamAssassin while maintaining the same filtering quality, van Donselaar says. “It’s a drop-in replacement, meaning that if you are running SpamAssasin today with one single command you can replace it with this OrangeAssassin framework and it does exactly the same filtering.”
“After the hackathon he was internally voted as the winner because the tool he built would actually replace a lot of the functionality that SpamAssassin has built already, however it’s much more resource-efficient,” he says.
Founded in 2012 by van Donselaar and CEO Sam Renkema, SpamExperts is used by ISPs and web hosting providers to filter spam on their mail servers. van Donselaar expects OrangeAssassin to be applicable to a wide range of users.
“SpamAssassin is used in many organizations outside of our regular customer base,” he says. “Pretty much any mail server you install often comes bundled with the free open source SpamAssassin framework because it’s the default. We’re hoping OrangeAssassin will replace that.”
Of course, van Donselaar does not see OrangeAssassin or other open source anti-spam frameworks replacing commercial products like SpamExperts. He says the biggest differentiator is the proprietary filtering technologies.
“Within SpamExperts we own both filtering technologies and data that we use in our commercial products which are not available open source,” he says. The data that it uses to classify messages connects to the traffic it sees from its customers’ worldwide, which is kept private.
“SpamAssassin relies on public information and not many people are able or willing to share their email data with the public,” he says. “They simply cannot achieve the accuracy that we can as a commercial platform where we are able to securely process and learn from the data that we see.”
Generally speaking, companies tend to select a commercial company for the support they provide.
“I think sometimes open source can be better than a commercial solution but it very much depends what you use it for and why you want to use it,” van Donselaar says.
Van Donselaar encourages other companies to hold their own internal hackathons to engage employees, and keep an open mind to open source.
“A lot of commercial companies, including SpamExperts, learn a lot from community software that is available. We all run on the Linux operating system which is open source, and I think that commercial companies shouldn’t be afraid to open source work they are doing as long as it’s not the core of their commercial product,” he says.