OSSG Article


Case study: Building a profitable open source business

This post is part of the OSSG series “the role of open source in the UK”, where we collect and publish statements from companies and individuals in the UK regarding their experience with Open Source Software. We welcome any submission to this series. If you are interested, please send an email to Dr Julian Kunkel.

Embecosm's activity over the years

by Dr Jeremy Bennett, Chief Executive, Embecosm

Open source is central to the work of Embecosm, and over more than a decade we have built up a very successful business. In this post I’ll explain how we did it.

About the company

Embecosm Limited was established in 2008, initially to provide free and open source modelling and debug services to system-on-chip designers.  It very quickly became clear that chip designers wanted more than just debug. The company expanded to cover development of the entire free and open source compiler tool chain. More recently we have broadened our expertise to cover operating system development, bringing up open source operating systems of all sorts.

This is Embecosm’s business today, providing open source software development services in our specialist fields.  Much of our business is in the embedded space and very often pre-silicon, hence our continued expertise in modelling. We use everything from high-level functional models through instruction set simulators, cycle accurate models based on Verilog and VHDL, through to EDA event driven simulation.

With bases in the UK and Germany, Embecosm is now the world’s largest independent general open source compiler tool chain developer. We are not the only player in this area, CodePlay in Edinburgh specialise in OpenCL compilers, while AdaCore in France specialises in open source Ada compilers. Siemens in Germany also has a department offering compiler development services.

The business model

Embecosm follows a purely service business model. Customers pay for our engineering expertise to develop their compilers, models and operating systems.  These are all inherently very difficult areas of software engineering, very much the rocket science end of the discipline.  This is core to our business model―it is invariably more cost effective for customers to use our services than to attempt to recruit and manage an in-house team. 

We are not a body shop. We supply a team to solve the problem, bringing in specialists at different times. Early on we probably want assembler and modeling specialists, later on the compiler team get to work, then we need the documentation and training specialists to complete the project.

The scarcity of the skills we offer is critical to driving our business.  The fact that the software is always freely available is important (see “The risk factor” below), but doesn’t allow the customer to solve the problem on their own.

The risk factor

The value of free and open source software to the customer is in the reduction of risk. It costs as much to use Embecosm to develop/maintain a compiler tool chain as it does to buy in a proprietary tool chain.  However unlike the proprietary tool chain, you are not locked in to one supplier. If you wish you can drop Embecosm and use another tool chain supplier with no problem.

Indeed the ability to walk away from Embecosm at any time, is a key reason that customers stay with us. It is a value of free and open source software that is often overlooked, but in a business context can be the most important.

Building profitability

A service business relies on reputation.  This is the case even more for free and open source software, with its basis in open communities. The first three years of Embecosm were not profitable, and mostly spent writing application notes explaining to people how to do all the things we do and talking about these things at conferences. These application notes on integrating GDB, building fast Verilator models, porting Newlib and so on, remain standards for the industry.

But showing people how to do the work themselves, ended up driving business to us. Reading our application notes allowed managers to see how difficult the problem was and that Embecosm had the skills to solve these problems.  It makes the buying decision to use Embecosm services much easier.

We remain completely open with all we do and contribute widely to free and open source projects. Almost every customer asks us to train up in-house staff, which we are happy to do. It provides us with advocates inside the customer who understand our work, and can act as “translators” to others in the customer, allowing us to provide a better solution.  Their experience invariably leads to growing confidence in Embecosm’s skills and a strong bond between customer and supplier engineering teams, which helps both.

We are also unashamed that our skills are valuable. My staff are highly qualified and highly paid, reflecting the extreme scarcity of the abilities we need.  Our charges to customers reflect the value we deliver.

In once case a customer had a team of 10 generalist engineers in India trying to develop a GCC tool chain for 5 years.  Customers continued to complain about the poor quality of the tool chain and eventually we were called in.  By then standard regression testing was flagging over 130 internal compiler errors.  All were fixed by one Embecosm engineer in one month and we then spent a year training up the team in India with the specialist skills they needed to maintain the tool chain.

So we may look expensive by the hour, but when you consider what we deliver in that hour, we suddenly seem very good value.  This is a general principle of business, whether open source or not.  The higher value the services you can provide, the more profitable you will be.

Conclusions

Free and open source businesses can be very profitable, particularly operating in areas where skills are scarce.  Ongoing engagement with the wider community is essential to building reputation, trust and ultimately more business.

Dr Jeremy Bennett is Chief Executive of Embecosm (www.embecosm.com), specializing in the development of free and open source compiler tool chains, operating systems and processor models.  He is author of the standard textbook “Introduction to Compiling Techniques” (McGraw-Hill 1990, 1995, 2003) and holds a MA and PhD in Computer Science from Cambridge University. Since 2017 he has served as Chair of the BCS Open Source Specialist Group.


Open Source Specialist Group Project contest – the results

Code

The Open Source Specialist Group Project contest received a number?of high quality applications.

We are delighted to share the names winners:

  • Dan Gorringe, for the category Best School Project
  • Chelsea Back, for the category Best Apprenticeship Project
  • Luke Robert, for the category Best First Year?Project

BCS books programme survey

BCS books

The BCS books programme supports IT managers, professionals and users by focusing on the evolving needs of people, process and technology in the workplace, enabling organisations to build IT capability in line with their strategic requirements.

We hope you will help us by taking a few moments to complete this short questionnaire. Your feedback will assist us in reviewing existing and emerging areas in IT and in establishing topics for further research and development.


Call for Open Source Project Contest Applications

Code

The BCS OSSG desires to support and encourage students and apprentices to use and develop open source software and hardware in their project work.

All students and apprenticesare invited to enter one of the project contests sponsored by the BCS Open Source Specialist Group. The project contests are as follows:

  • Best school projectfor students who are still at secondary school or sixth form college
  • Best first year projectfor students who are in their first year of study at a UK Higher Education Institution (HEI).
  • Best second year projectfor students in their second year of study at a UK HEI (also those on an industrial year or 3rd year of a 4 year degree – basically this is for students between their first and final years).
  • Best final year undergraduateprojectfor students in their final year of study for a BA, BSc, BEng, or in the penultimate year of an MEng (this will often be the 3rd year, but may be the fourth or fifth year, if the student has taken a year abroad, year in industry, or is studying for a 4 year Scottish degree).
  • Best apprentice projectcompleted by an apprentice working in a UK company on an approved apprenticeship scheme.

The winner in each category will be awarded a cash prize of 100;application must be submitted by 15thAugust 2016.

More information at http://ossg.bcs.org/student-project-2016.


How to Start your Open Source Business

Tariq Rashid

All (almost all) the talks at the Open for Business conference, that was hosted as part of the Wuthering Bytes festival at the end of September, have been recorded and are now available on line.

This includes recordings of the talks by Tariq RashidRob Blake,  Stuart Mackintosh (second talk), Rob TaylorScott Wilson, Amanda Brock Peter CoatesRobin KennedyCornelia Boldyreff and Adam Jollans.

The entire video set is also available as a playlist, allowing you to relive the day in its entirety.

Publishing the talks on-line provides a permanent repository of information that will serve as an invaluable resource to those running, starting up or considering starting, their own open source business.

All the details in the Embecosm web site.


OSS 2016 Call For Contributions

 

The 12th International Conference on Open Source Systems (http://oss2016.org)

Gothenburg, Sweden, 30 May – 02 June 2016

Scope of OSS 2016

Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) has had a disruptive effect on the software industry and the ways that organizations and individuals create, distribute, acquire and use software and software-based services. The FLOSS movement has created new kinds of opportunities such as the emergence of new business models, knowledge exchange mechanisms, and collective development approaches. On the other hand, the movement has introduced new kinds of challenges, especially as different problem domains embrace openness as a pervasive problem solving strategy. FLOSS can be complex yet widespread and often cross-cultural. Consequently, they require an interdisciplinary understanding of their technical, economic, legal and socio-cultural dynamics.

Many organizations that have been known for developing proprietary software are now actively involved with FLOSS. FLOSS adoption continues to grow among businesses, governments, and other organizations. FLOSS remains important for educators and researchers, as well as an important aspect of e-government and information society initiatives, providing access to high-quality software and the code used to create it.

The goal of 12th International Conference on Open Source Systems, OSS 2016 is to provide an international forum where a diverse community of professionals from academia, industry and public sector, and diverse FLOSS initiatives can come together to share research findings and practical experiences. The conference is also a forum to provide information and education to practitioners, identify directions for further research, and to be an ongoing platform for technology transfer, no matter which form of FLOSS is being pursued.

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Making your program faster and greener

Jeremy Bennett, Embecosm

Abstract

Compilers take computer programs and translate them to the binary machine code processors actually run. Two of the most widely used compilers are completely free and open source: GCC and LLVM. In this article we look at two recent industrial research projects supported by Innovate UK, the government’s innovation agency, which advance the state of the art with these compilers.

The MAGEEC project, a joint project between Embecosm and Bristol University, is an open source machine learning framework for any compiler, which allows the compiler to be trained to generate more energy efficient code. A side-benefit is that energy efficient code turns out to be much faster code.

Superoptimization as a technique to achieve the ultimate in compiled performance has been around in academic circles for nearly 30 years.

During the summer of 2014, Innovate UK funded a feasibility study to see whether any of these techniques were commercially viable. The good news is that some techniques could now, or with a modest amount of further industrial R&D, offer exceptional benefit for real-world software. And once again the software is open source.

MAchine Guided Energy Efficient Compilation (MAGEEC)

A study carried out by James Pallister at Bristol University and funded by the UK compiler development company Embecosm in summer 2012 found that choice of compiler optimization  flags had a major effect on the energy consumed by the compiled program. The bad news was that the options to be used varied from architecture to architecture and program to program [1].

The MAGEEC project was funded by the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK) under its Energy Efficient Computing initiative, to develop a machine learning based compiler infrastructure capable of optimizing for energy. Running from June 2013 to November 2014, it was a joint feasibility study between Embecosm and Bristol University, to develop a machine learning compiler infrastructure that could optimize for energy. Key criteria were that the infrastructure should be generic, it should optimize for energy, that it should be based on real energy measurements, not models and that it should create a fully working system. The entire project was free and open source. (more…)


OWASP Winter Code Sprint

Winter Code SprintThe second round of the OWASP Winter Code Sprint is now open to mid October and is looking for students to work on current open source security projects

The OWASP Winter Code Sprint (OWCS) is a program to involve students with Security projects. By participating in OWCS a student can get real life experience while contributing to an open source project and getting university credits.

(more…)