Friday, July 11, 2014

eXo Social Platform: An interview with Benjamin Mestrallet

Does your team struggle with using many different collaboration tools or social platforms? eXo Platform may be the solution! eXo Platform is open source social collaboration software designed for enterprises. eXo is the only solution we know of that provides "one stop shopping" for an enterprise portal, document and content management, calendaring, wikis and other functions, complete with fully-integrated social features to make it easier for employees to collaborate and share content.

eXo Platform is used by large organizations around the world, including Orange, Allianz, the US Department of Defense, and HSBC, among many others. Download eXo or deploy it to the cloud with the free Bitnami installers, virtual machines and cloud images and see why these companies chose it for their intranets. Get started in the cloud for free with a $200 credit from Windows Azure.

We sat down with Benjamin Mestrallet to learn more about eXo Platform , such as:

How did eXo Platform get started?
What are the benefits of integration?
Why is eXo Platform open source, and how do they manage the community?
What is the coolest extension that the eXo Platform community has developed?
Who are the typical eXo Platform users?

Full transcript

Erica:                          Hi, this is Erica Brescia.  I’m one of the founders of BitNami and I’m here with Benjamin Mestrallet, the CEO of eXoPlatforms. Benjamin, thank you so much for joining me today.

Benjamin:                    Thank you, Erica, for the opportunity to be there with you.

Erica:                          Great. To kick things off, you have on your website, “eXo is the enterprise social platform.”  Can you tell us a little bit more about what eXo is?

Benjamin:                    Yeah, actually, it’s the open source enterprise social platform.  This is the consolidation of two markets – the enterprise social market that has been there for a couple of years and the entrepreneur social network application markets, which is really new and that has Jive software, for example as a leader.  We do think that the two markets are consolidating and that corporations need what we call an enterprise social platform, which should be the entry point for the users and the employees inside the company to have access to aggregated content, documents, but also informations and discussions, and what we provide is out-of-the-box solution that people can use like that, as it, or they can, over time, customize and integrate with the IT system of the company.

Erica:                          That makes sense.  So when people come to you – because I’m not aware of any other solutions that combine both the portal and the social aspects – are people usually looking for one or the other and then they realize that they can get everything in one place with eXo?

Benjamin:                    Yes.  That’s usually the lead gen or the finale.  People, they either have identified the need of an entrepreneur social network application – and there are a couple out there.  Yammer is the one on the Cloud and Jive is the one on-premise, but then they’re starting to use it and they realize it is yet a new silo in the enterprise where the discussions and the content is stored in a new place and it does not well integrate with the existing apps they already have in the system.  And then they think, “How could I integrate all those together?”  That’s where the platform play enters.  And there is also the people that come from the enterprise portal world for doing the more usual corporate portals, which are usually top-down approaches, and at some point, they want to give more power to the users, spaces where they can collaborate, create new ideas, and then the social aspects are added to platform.  So we’re seeing a real consolidation of those markets, and that’s really interesting because, as you said, we are probably the only one, at least in the Java world, to be positioned like that.  If you look at the market, you will find few applications like Jive, Tibber, and others, or pure portal applications like Liferay or WebSphere Portal, but a solution that brings both and package that together, there’s no other solution like the one we offer.

Erica:                          Can you give some examples of the benefits of these integration?  What are the social features that would be involved in something like that?

Benjamin:                    Yeah, for sure, so if you look about the usual discussions inside the company, you – this is what you usually find on consumer networks, you know, like Facebook or Twitter and so on.  What we bring is not only the ability to let people collaborate and make connections inside the company or with a group of people, what we call a space, but we also enable people to get information from other streams in the enterprise.  So we aggregate streams.  So for example, if you think about developers, they usually use tools like Jira or Confluence, and if you think about salespeople, they use tool like Salesforce, and you have the Chatter feed.  What we do is bring all those different feeds from different apps, and we can aggregate them inside our own system, and tie that with the other application we do have internally, like, as you said, calendar, forum, wikis. 

So we provide a single entry point for all the divisions inside your company to aggregate all the information.  It’s not only about social streams.  It’s also about content.  So we do have integrations, for example, with user’s enterprise document management systems, such as or Google Drive, we can aggregate and have a single view of all those content and documents within eXo.  So that enables to have one place, and we can aggregate all the view and the information you get into your enterprise.

Erica:                          eXo’s been around for at least several years now.  What was your original vision when starting the project?  Did you already see the social and portal conversion, or did you have something else in mind originally?

Benjamin:                    No.  Originally, it was like – [laughs] if I tell the story, we did not really want to create a company originally.  It was a research project in 2004, and we published the source code of the project, and some articles – at the time, you probably remember, on the, and we got our first customers out of that.  It was the U.S. Department of Defense who came to us and told us, “We would like to use your project,” and that was for the Iraqi War at the time, in 2005. 

So we basically started the company because we had customer leads based on our research projects, and what we were doing at the time was the first implementation of the portlet container
which is the portlet API, and we started the company like that.  Then we added a set of features based on customer requirements from portlet container to portal to enterprise-funded management, document management, web content management, and later on, collaboration. 

And in 2010, when we moved to the U.S., I was still in France at the time.  Then we realized that if we wanted to go to the next level in terms of scalability, we would need to build an application or product that could be used out of the box.  We looked at the market, and that’s when we realized that the social network were small apps that would needed to become platforms, and there were no open source alternative to the commercial vendors, proprietary vendors, and that’s when we decided to put the emphasis on our message on enterprise social platform.  That’s the – well, in ten minutes, you know, short explanation of the history of eXo.

Erica:                          That’s such a great story, I mean, getting the U.S. Department of Defense as one of your first customers is pretty cool, particularly given that this – you were at a French university at the time, right?  So –– for them to go to French students or Master’s students and want to use your project is pretty cool.  It’s a pretty cool way to start a company.

Benjamin:                    Yeah, it’s a pretty cool way to start a company, and also, at the time, they were like disagreements between France and the U.S. about the Iraqi War, so it was kind of funny. 

                                    That’s good, and now I moved in the Valley four years ago, and we’re growing the company now.  We have 125 employees in 5 countries, so that’s really interesting.  And the positioning we’ve found with the open source enterprise social background, and we often say also the open source alternative to Jive, is really, really a good one.  So we drive a lot of interest out of that.

Erica:                          So you’ve mentioned open source here several times, and I know in research projects at universities, there is often a requirement that the software is open source, and it almost always makes sense to do so, but it sounds like it kind of chose the business model for you, or at least the licensing model.  I guess you could have always taken it proprietary later.  What made you decide to continue along the open source path, and what are the challenges and the benefits associated with that?

Benjamin:                    Yeah, so it’s not only from our vision.  It’s not only of principles, but we – in scheme, open source is really important, but also open standards, as we talked about, like portlets and content, CMIS, Java  repository.  So we usually have a lot of open standards along with the fact that we distribute the product as an open source software.  The main reason is that we are selling a vision which is a platform, and it’s not a map, it’s supposed to be targeting to quite large companies that will standardize a lot of projects on top of our platform, and whenever you want to be used, really, at a large scale inside of large corporations, the fact that you’re not vendor looking. The fact that you give them a choice to have a look at the code, the fact that they can extend and customize that is really, really important for them.  That enables the wide distribution within a company.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t – it would usually remain at the size of a business unit or a small team and it makes it more difficult to get distribution inside of a company for multiple projects and multiple teams.  So that’s mainly the reason why we sticked to the open source model for licensing.

Erica:                          You also have a fairly huge community.  I’d love it if you’d share a little bit about your user community, and also talk about how they’ve influenced the development of eXo over time.

Benjamin:                    Yes, for sure.  So what we have as an advantage, and that’s kind of a huge advantage, is that our product is used to manage the community.  If you look at our websites, the, or the community wants, what we do is we make it as easy as possible and as quick as possible for people to register.  So within one click, either your Facebook log-in or Google+ or LinkedIn, you go to the product, and the product, it is the community.  By that fact, very simply, people start to interact together and test the product in a seamless reaction, so it’s really frictionless.  That has an evolved creation of a large community of people, developers, asking questions and answering questions in our forums which are also based on the product itself, and that onboarding process has really enabled the creation of a large community.  It’s about 20,000 inside the community, and then they’ve also started to speak about us and discuss about us even outside of the community, so on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on Twitter and so on, and that has really made the community grow. 

We really do think that it’s essential to our product, because the way we manage the community and the issues we do have when they try and they complain enables us to add new features and improve the product also at the same time.

Erica:                          Sometimes what the community wants and what makes sense for the company are not exactly the same thing.  How do you balance community contributions and requests and developments with your own internal roadmap?

Benjamin:                    That’s really a good question, and we struggled for some time in the previous years, but we came up with a contribution model that enables the contributions on, first, mainly, add-ons and languages.  So let’s say 80 percent – I would say that 80 percent or even a bit more of our contributions are – can be seen as extensions or add-ons to the core code base, right?  We have a marketplace on the community at add-ons, and you can see add-ons that have been added by other peoples, and we’ve also, like on the translation modern languages from 450 translators worldwide, so we’ve made that easy for people to contribute in those aspects.  What changed compared to the past is that we’ve made it possible to add extensions, add-ons, in a way that they can override the code base but without modifying it and touching the core applications. 

So it’s an extremely extensible platform and you don’t have to override what we’ve done, and in a way, let’s say fork it, you don’t have to do that.  You just have to extend it.  It goes over to the fact that you can extend CSS, JavaScript, or even Java files and templates.  And you package that in your own JARs or WARS, and then you can deploy that on top of a whole platform.  That’s extremely convenient in term of packaging, which makes the lifecycle of the application and the lifecycle of the deployments much more easy, and which is also great, not only for the community, but also for all our partners, system integrators, developers that want to leverage the platform.

Erica:                          Yeah, that’s such a smart way to do things, and I think it’s a place where a lot of projects had missteps in the past around the solution’s architected so that it can be easily extended without changing the core of the code, which as you said, can cause forks and other problems, and just make building a community around it a lot more challenging.

Benjamin:                    Yeah, because afterwards, what happens is people complains and say that the product does not deliver, and it’s always the issue from the product, you know?  [Laughs]  So we worked a lot on that, but really, it was – let’s say it was four years ago?  It was long because of that, but we found a good architecture with the eXoPlatform.

Erica:                          So you mentioned that you have this marketplace and so many cool community extensions there.  What are some of your favorite extensions that people have developed?

Benjamin:                    I like the one which is the chat and video extensions.  So it’s an extension that integrates – so we have a chat which integrate with MongoDB, and the video is a service from Weemo; it’s a company that does video but with APIs, right, a bit like Google Hangout as we do right now, but at the same time, you can program it to do it. Twilio, for example, it is Twilio for video.  So we’ve integrated – well, all that has been integrated in an add-on, so it’s a bit like Skype, but within the browser, and it’s integrated with the users, the groups, the spaces, and that’s really cool because – it’s also, by the way, packaged in the community website, so when you log in there, then you can call your friends and chat with the friends, and this is the one that I do share because it’s extremely visual, and people really do like it.

Erica:                          Oh, very cool.  What a cool tool to offer to your community, too, to get people talking and collaborating more.  That’s fantastic.

Benjamin:                    Yeah, and again, this is the main idea for the last three years has been, “Let’s quickly show to people what they could do if they were using the tool for their groups or company, and they should do that in a way that’s very simple for them to understand the value without having to read the manual or download anything.”

Erica:                          Yeah, the product really sells itself in that case.

Benjamin:                    Yeah, and it’s a bit the same spirit you do that at BitNami, you know, within one click, people can test the product, and I think the onboarding experience, either if it’s a cloud service online or them, you know, they can test by themselves the product, I think it’s extremely important.  People don’t really want to download it out of a complex installation anymore.

Erica:                          I totally – I mean, in my admittedly biased view, I completely agree. We’ve been packaging software for years now, and we’ve noticed that every additional step, every additional question that you ask users, every choice that you ask them to make, any manual intervention required just lowers the number of people that are going to be successful with the eval or the install.  So it’s so important to bring that as close to one click as you possibly can, which is certainly what we strive for with everything that we do at BitNami.

Benjamin:                    Yeah.  Same spirit, yeah.

Erica:                          Exactly.  So you also have, in addition to the open source community version, a commercial version.  Can you explain the difference and where you draw the line between the two?

Benjamin:                    Yeah, so the main difference is clearly around the service we bring around that.  So it’s really the maintenance and the patch we can provide to people with insurance in the form of an SLA.  We also do provide the support, support channel, enterprise support channel, so there’s the community forums, which is – are well-used and you get answers quickly, but with the enterprise edition, you get SLA.  So we have people employed just to make sure that you get your answer as quick as possible, and if you have a Severity 1 issue, which is a blocker – it’s unusual, but it happens, we make sure that you get an answer quickly and this is not a problem for you.  You don’t have to wait for the community answer.  We are responsible for that.

Erica:                          Sure.  Well, you’ve made a commitment in that case, right, to get back to people within a certain period of time, and there’s certainly value in that if you have a large enterprise deployment.

Benjamin:                    Yes, and the bug fixes, if there are really any I level then we dispatch a quick patch to those customers, Severity 1, and if not, we make sure that the bug fixes appear in the next version of the maintenance release.  So for example, let’s say we are 4.0.5, we make sure that it will be in one of the incoming versions that customers get their bugs fixes included in the next maintenance release, which is not a warranty if you go with the community versions and so on.  We do also have a set of additional features, which is mainly OEM of external technologies that we resell, not open source.  For example, we do have an integration with Codenvy, which is an online ID. I’m biased a little bit because it’s Codenvy spinoff.


                                    We made a contract between the two companies, and so it’s an online cloud IDE that enables to create applications for eXo and to deploy them – enable without using a desktop IDE like Eclipse or something.  As I was mentioning before, we were talking about Weemo, which is the video, and the add-on video is packaged and supported and sold on premise for the companies that need that stuff.  And those are add-ons that are only available on the enterprise edition as well.

Erica:                          Okay, and I know we want to talk about eXo, but you did mention Codenvy, so just one quick question there.  So you said it was a spin-off.  How did that kind of come about?  Did you build it as a development tool for eXo and realize that it had so many other applications so you spun it off?

Benjamin:                    That’s exactly it. So in 2009, we decided to start a cloud ID tooling as a fixture for the platform.  So you know when you have a platform, you need to have features of three types of categories of users – the end users, the developers, and the platform administrators.  And for the developers, we didn’t want to add Eclipse plug-ins and so on because we thought it was heavy and not pretty usable and so on, so we wanted to bring something new to innovate there.  That’s when we started to think, “We should build an ID customized for eXo and eXo apps,” – which are like portlets or open social gadgets – enable them to create those online and deploy them within a click, either on their on-prem solution but also on the cloud offering.  And it happened that we also put it as a standard service, free online cloud service.  I think it was in 2011, and within 18 months, we got more than 30,000 enterprise units. 

For us, it was mainly a test to see how onboarding experience would work on the public cloud service, and it become quite popular very quickly, and the cloud IDs were a big trend.  They’re still a big trend.  We decided to – we thought, “Should we stop the project?” because it started to use a lot of resources internally, or, “Should we find a new home – a new brand?”  And we went up with the second solution.  So we brought a management team in place and we spin off it and we raised some capital for it – we raised $9 million in February 2013, so a bit more than a year now, and of course, we use it, but what is great is that this platform can be used to be applications now for Google or Amazon or different platforms, not only eXo.

Erica:                          What a fantastic story.  You know, it’s not often that one company can spin out two successful products with a team that size.  Usually they have a hard enough time getting one product right, let alone two totally separate products, so that’s fantastic.

Benjamin:                    Now that we look back, it’s great, and we’re very, very happy with the choices we’ve done.  But at the same time, when we made these choices, it was not that simple, and people were thinking, “Is it good to split the company?  Couldn’t it be like two products within a single company?”  You know, all those questions, and we ended up thinking that nowadays, you’re better off having only one message, one focus, one company, and that’s why we decided to split.  You’ll see in September very, very big news from Codenvy, so –

Erica:                          Oh, great.

Benjamin:                    Yeah, I could tell you in private, but –


                                    But –

Erica:                          I’m gonna hold you to that.  That’s fantastic.  I remember being at the Red Hat conference.  It must’ve been probably around 2011, when you were just kind of getting the Codenvy platform out there.  It wasn’t called Codenvy yet, I don’t think.

Benjamin:                    No, it was eXo Cloud ID.  No, that’s really interesting, yeah.  But yeah, in September, there’ll be big news on it.

Erica:                          Fantastic.  Well, I’m so happy for you.  What an awesome success story.  That’s really cool and –

Benjamin:                    Yeah, and anyway, we should also make a Codenvy installer because we have a Codenvy SDK, which enables people to basically bring Eclipse plug-ins to the cloud with that, and I think we should, at some point, make a Bitnami installer for that.

Erica:                          Oh, very cool.  Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. We do have a number of SDK packages for AWS and for Google, so that’s certainly something that would fit in with that category of tools that we’ve been packaging, so that makes a lot of sense.  So just getting back to eXo for a minute, so one thing that we haven’t really talked about is who uses eXo.  I mean, obviously open source project, Department of Defense has used it, but who – what’s a typical eXoPlatform user, and also, what are some of your favorite user stories that you can share?

Benjamin:                    Oh, sure.  So we do have big distributions.  One are the ISVs and the other ones are the end users.  So let’s start with the end users, and then I’ll come back to the ISVs, which is a little bit more complex, but it’s quite interesting. 

So the end users are typically large corporations, and they are either private corporations or governments, federals. We started with a lot of federals, telcos, and banking, mainly because they were the early adapters in open source Java, but over time, we expanded that to healthcare – so when you think about large corporations, it could be any big corporations or mid-size corporation that could use eXo.  It happens that we have a lot of success in insurances like generally, Alliance, and others, or in federals, we have four finance ministry of – like globally, using eXo worldwide, so this kind of insurance, and also military people.  So the French military.  NATO is using it.

Erica:                          Oh, that’s cool.

Benjamin:                    Yeah, yeah, NATO is great because it’s a couple of armies, military together, so we tend to expand that little by little.  So those are large corporations that want Java, they want open source, and they have really a strategy of standardize on top of a single platform, and that’s where we are strong. We’re not just a map.  We are something that you can customize, extend, and build upon.  That makes the difference.

                                    Now, when you go back – oh, for example, the last one, I would say, is finance, banking.  One of our biggest customer is Caixa de Brasil, and I’m talking about them because they have a huge number of projects on top of the cloud, and they are the main sponsor for the World Cup. Now, all the websites and customer-facing project they’ve done with eXo, they’re all have soccer players all over the place and stuff like that, so it’s kind of a good reference we have.

Erica:                          Yeah, that’s fantastic, and you just reminded me, I’m making you miss the game, aren’t I?

Benjamin:                    Yes.

Erica:                          I’m so sorry.  [Laughs]

Benjamin:                    Well, it’s – yeah, it’s more on your side.  It’s Spain, and BitNami has some Spain roots, as far as I recall.

Erica:                          Yeah.  Well, we’re streaming the game to the office, and there is pizza and beer to be had by all, so Bitnami productivity may take a tiny bit of a hit this afternoon for just a little bit.

Benjamin:                    But you know, in Brazil, for the entire month – and we know; we have those customers – they have like shut down the government offices.

Erica:                          Oh my gosh.


                                    Wow, that’s a little extreme!

Benjamin:                    Yeah, and so the other channel we have is the ISVs and OEM.  So what do we see is that there’s a lot of pressure from companies like, but others like Workday and so on to bring social to business applications, right?  And you have a lot of mid-market players or companies that have legacy product or – and that they want to bring new innovations to those products, and social is really something that they wanna bring, and that’s what we offer them.  So they have to think and take the decision, “Should we add that by ourselves or should we use a contract and we end that?”  And that’s something that we really, really see these days.  A lot of companies come to us and say, “I want to add social collaborations to my product.  Can I do it as a white label?”  And they always come to us because it’s extensible, it’s open source and open standards, so their go-to market is simple and it’s quite fast for them to integrate into this.

Erica:                          Oh, very cool.  I hadn’t thought of that, but that certainly makes a lot of sense, and everybody needs to add that to their social aspects of their platforms in a hurry now, right, so.

Benjamin:                    More and more.  Yeah, more and more, and see verticals in the places from police, military, healthcare, and even like our conflict management vendors that want to add those social things on top of them, then they go and they ask us to do it for them.

Erica:                          And it’s so great and refreshing to me to hear that all these governmental organizations are adopting this technology, ‘cause it just means that everybody’s going to become, over time, so much more communicative and collaborative and efficient, so it’s good to hear that those types of apps are being actually deployed by military and government organizations.  That’s fantastic.

Benjamin:                    Yeah.  We’re happy with it too.


Erica:                          So yeah.  So I’ve kept you for quite a bit of time now.  Just wrapping up, what can BitNami and other eXo users look forward to in the coming months from eXo?

Benjamin:                    So the big focus for us right now is really to grow the community a little bit more and push people to communicate even more about us and about all the user cases that we’ve told today, that we want them to get out so people can learn more about what we are doing and the fact that this type of social platform makes sense, and it’s not because there are also issues on Jive, Stock Market and so on, that social business and that social platforms have no room in this enterprise; that’s not true.  This is really the trend – consolidation of the enterprise social market and the social network market, and people really have to go and try and see that that’s really something that is needed for corporations.  So we’ll add more and more features, but not like features that really matters for usability, user experience, that’s really our focus over time.  Maybe we’ll add more and more apps in the future, but for now, it’s really the focus on the whole platform.

Erica:                          Well, it’s a pretty complete platform, right?  So if you keep adding too many different kind of – I think of them as modules even if that’s not what they really are, you know, different areas of expertise, it’s kind of – it can get dilutive.

Benjamin:                    Yeah, if you think in term of innovation, from a feature standpoint, we first innovate within the community, which is the add-ons, either from the community or from us or mixed, and when we have identified a good modules that a lot of customers want and which is abstract enough to be reusable by different people, different corporation, different governments, then we think about first supporting it as part of the enterprise version, make it extremely popular, then we bring it inside the product. But that’s more this approach which is clearly what RedHat has done with Fedora and RHEL, right?  So this is what we also do.

Erica:                          Yeah, well, it lets you figure out where the demand is and which features are most important, right?  So that makes sense.

Benjamin:                    We’re in that stage of maturity right now.

Erica:                          Great.  Well, Benjamin, thank you so much for your time.  eXo, even though it’s only been available for a few weeks now, and BitNami is already very popular with our users, so I’m sure they’ll all appreciate your taking the time, as I do, to talk with us and tell us a little bit more about the eXo story and about Codenvy. Thanks again, and best of luck with the coming year, and we all can’t wait to hear about your news in September.