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Unstoppable JBoss 'mafia' has big biz tech in its crosshairs

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Open ... and Shut PayPal was the first Silicon Valley titan to get its own self-styled "mafia": a cadre of successful executives who left to create a range of great businesses like LinkedIn, Tesla and YouTube.

Google now has its own "mafia", albeit one stronger in management expertise than product prowess, and no doubt Facebook, Twitter, Square, and others will churn out their own mafias. They have yet to dress up as gangsters for Fortune, however.

But why haven't we seen the same phenomenon in the enterprise world?

To an extent we have. After all, Oracle produced (Marc Benioff), Siebel Systems (Tom Siebel) and NetSuite (Evan Goldberg). And VMware has its own crop of startups, albeit less well-known than Oracle's offspring. But the speed at which PayPal and these other consumer technology companies succeeded and then created successful companies really has no parallel in the enterprise world.

At least, not outside of JBoss.

Peer into the crystal ball of enterprise technology's future and mobile, Big Data, NoSQL and cloud all loom large. Former JBoss executives are involved in significant startups in each area, generally applying the lessons learned from open source. Some of these startups, like SpringSource, where Rob Bearden was chief operating officer, have already had successful exits after attracting significant developer populations. Some, like Nucona (mobile application management), were likely much smaller in terms of valuation before being acquired, but still play a significant role in advancing enterprise technology.

But it's the companies that are still growing that will do most to cement the reputations of the JBoss big cheeses.

One of the most interesting companies in the mobile industry is Appcelerator, a mobile platform company that enables enterprises to build mobile applications with JavaScript rather than having to learn Objective-C or other mobile programming languages. NBC Universal, eBay, and a range of other enterprises have used Appcelerator to build more than 40,000 applications. Jeff Haynie, Appcelerator's co-founder and chief executive, wasn't on JBoss' executive team, but he was an early core contributor to JBoss Remoting, among other things.

On the Platform-as-a-Service/cloud side, CloudBees<, founded by former JBoss general manager of Europe Sacha Labourey and joined by advisor Bob Bickel, who used to run strategy for JBoss, has an interesting play for turning Java into a service. The company is still quite early but has picked up a lot of press attention, as well as customer traction.

In the world of Big Data, one of the biggest names is Hortonworks, which spun out of Yahoo! to help popularize and commercialize Hadoop. Cloudera has the early lead with Hadoop, but Hortonworks has pulled together several key JBoss executives, including Rob Bearden (vice president of sales and marketing at JBoss and CEO of Hortonworks), Shaun Connolly (vice president of product management at JBoss and head of corporate strategy at Hortonworks), and Dan Bradford (held senior finance roles at JBoss and is vice president of finance at Hortonworks). Bearden has pushed the company to invest heavily in making Hadoop easier for enterprises to adopt, while hewing closely to a traditional open-source model devoid of proprietary bits.

The JBoss team is also helping to lead the NoSQL pack, with Ben Sabrin (former vice president of Americas at JBoss) heading North American sales at 10gen, the company behind MongoDB. Of the various NoSQL projects, MongoDB has developed the biggest developer ecosystem, and is increasingly positioned as a third database standard in the enterprise, alongside Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server.

The rest of the early JBoss executive team is spread throughout the industry. Tom Cooper, who ran Channels for JBoss, spent years as general manager and SVP for SAP America, and now runs worldwide field operations for Proofpoint. Brad Murdoch, JBoss vice president of services, sold his company, Nukona, to Symantec and still runs marketing there. Bill Burke, who was Chief Architect at JBoss, continues to work at Red Hat, which acquired JBoss for $350 million in 2006.

And what about the two founders of JBoss, Marc Fleury (CEO) and Scott Stark (chief technology officer)? Neither has gone on to start another company. Both spend a fair amount of time investing cash and time in other start ups, as well as open-source projects like OpenRemote, but I've seen both on the ski slopes more than at technology conferences.

Talking with Fleury today, he offered no apologies for keeping a low profile:

Repeat entrepreneurs are often motivated by different factors - they want more money, they miss the recognition of "being somebody" in the industry, they need to prove their success was more than a one-time fluke, a real above-and-beyond vision and outlier personality (à la Elon Musk), or they simply get restless at home and want to get out of the house.

Since I left Red Hat, my focus has been my family, music and scientific research. I feel very comfortable there and wish time would slow down... While I did enjoy my tenure at JBoss, thanks to it, I have the luxury of doing things I enjoy and not caring about other people's recognition at all. I can indulge in studying what would be considered professional suicide by most academics (e.g., Einstein's discredited unified field theories).

Ever the contrarian, Fleury is more concerned with being with his family than establishing a "mafia". Still, given how much JBoss helped to shape not only enterprise technology, but also the nature of open source as a business strategy, I can't help but selfishly feel it's unfortunate that he and Stark aren't actively starting companies.

But they clearly recruited a group of like-minded individuals willing to take risks in the mold of the PayPal gang. No, the JBoss veterans' track records don't yet match those of PayPal, but it's interesting to see that among all the companies that could claim the role of being a "mafia" for enterprise technology, including much bigger companies like Red Hat, it's JBoss that is involved in several of the industry's most compelling startups.

Fleury, for one, isn't surprised:

We were very early in the business of open source, so the people that came to work at JBoss were the kind that are highly self motivated and attracted by open source. If you wanted to make a career out of open source back in those days, outside of Red Hat, which was already public, there were few options: MySQL and JBoss were two of the more visible.

JBoss, the "bad boys of open source." JBoss, the company happy to rip down the established hierarchy in Java application servers. JBoss, the company that wasn't afraid to take on the media, or anyone else.

Perhaps it makes sense, after all, that JBoss, more than any other, including MySQL, is set to define the next generation of enterprise technology. From NoSQL to mobile, JBoss executives are pulling down sacred cows and reshaping the enterprise. They can't help it. It's in their DNA. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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