Project Avalanche

Corporate IT Executives Band Together to Evolve Shared IP

April 15, 2004

The Avalanche Corporate Technology Cooperative, also known as "Project: Avalanche" is a brand new corporate customer-led initiative to enable corporate IT executives to extract more value out of their IT investments. Avalanche Cooperative members can now donate quality software to a shared library and let other members re-use and evolve that software. Every company writes lots of software in order to run its business. Much of that software is more utilitarian than strategic in nature. And much of it is repetitive. Why not use the Open Source model of collaborative development and shared source code to gain access to the useful adapters, utilities, and software services that other IT shops have written? And, while we're at it, why don't we vet commercial quality open source software to insure that it is in fact "open" and safe to use without being sued? Those are two of the charters of the newly formed, and member-owned Avalanche Cooperative.


There are good ideas and there are great ideas. Project Avalanche is a great idea! And it’s one with enough thoughtful preparation and execution behind it to really snowball. You may have noticed Lee Gomes’ column in the Wall Street Journal on Monday April 12, “Avalanche Project is Clearing the Path for Tech Cooperation.” Gomes’ column describes the project correctly as “a legally constituted intellectual property [IP] cooperative. Companies pay $30,000 a year to become members. They can then donate any in-house software they choose to the Avalanche library,” and grant Avalanche the ability to share the code with other members. “Project members get to use, free of charge, any of the other programs in the library.”

The individuals and companies behind this project are an impressive set of business and IT visionaries with strong track records. They include:

* Andrew Black, chairman of the board. Andrew is the current CIO of Jostens. (Jostens offers yearbooks and class rings among other products.) Black formerly was a technology architect at Target.

* Scott Lien, vice chair. Scott was VP of customer-facing systems at Best Buy when he became involved with Avalanche. He is now CTO of ePredix, a provider of human capital assessment services.

* Jay Hansen, CEO. Jay was formerly the general manager of Retek’s Asia Pacific region.

* Elmer Baldwin, founder and board member. We met Elmer when he was a top executive at Egghead, where he implemented a visionary Lotus Notes-based infrastructure. Then we followed him as he led the vision and execution of the first large-scale commercial EJB implementation of an airline reservations system--the viaWorld Network project at Accenture in the late ’90s. Elmer later joined the consultancy Manchester through its acquisition of his own consulting firm, Nuvolution. Elmer is now CEO of Born, an IT business and technology consulting firm. For the past two years, Elmer has been the midwife of PROJECT: avalanche. Elmer is a true visionary/pragmatist with a deep understanding of how to transform industries. We’re delighted that he’s now taken on the task of improving the corporate software industry!

The other founding members include an impressive roster of folks who have rolled up their sleeves and brought the Avalanche cooperative to fruition. They include representatives from Cargill, Best Buy, Medtronic, Imation, and Thomson.

The Business Model

The Avalanche Corporate Technology Cooperative was incorporated as a cooperative in Minnesota. Its legal status as a cooperative is important. The by-laws permit all of the members to share equally in the revenues and IP. Companies of any size can become members for an annual fee of $30,000. They may contribute software to the cooperative, they may use and evolve any software that belongs to the cooperative, and they may submit new versions back to the cooperative. The shared software development process will follow the open source model, with the cooperative providing the product management function of quality control and architectural review before a new software build is accepted for distribution to the members. System integrators and consulting firms are also eligible to join, but they are expected to contribute “in kind” services as well as to pay a membership fee and contribute software. They may not resell software that belongs to the cooperative. The same is true for commercial software companies. They may join for an as-yet-to-be-determined membership fee. They may contribute software to the cooperative. They may reuse and evolve cooperative software, but they may not resell it.

The Legal Framework

The founding members have given a lot of thought and hard work to dealing with the issues of IP. With the able assistance of the law firm, Dorsey and Whitney LLP, Avalanche has crafted a framework for the sharing of IP that looks as if it will satisfy both commercial software companies and corporate lawyers. Any software that is contributed to the cooperative will first go through a clear title process to insure that the contributing entity has a clear title to all of the code in question and that the software does not infringe any patents. Once clear title has been issued by the cooperative, all members will be indemnified against any subsequent litigation.

What problem(s) does this cooperative address?

HOW TO EVOLVE AND MAINTAIN HOME-GROWN SOFTWARE APPLICATIONS AND UTILITIES. Lots of corporate IT shops build (or design and have built) their own software utilities, applications, and Web services. Companies build them because they can’t find exactly what they need and/or because software suppliers charge more than they’re worth. But then they run into the problem of maintaining and evolving that custom-developed code. It’s costly. It’s one-off. Yet the software is still in use and useful. Sometimes these applications are home grown. More recently, these applications are being developed by pulling together pieces of open source software and combining and extending them to meet a specific set of requirements. What if you could hand this code over to a group of kindred souls who would help you maintain, extend, and improve your software over time? That’s what the Avalanche Corporate Technology Cooperative does.

HOW TO ENSURE THAT YOU HAVE CLEAR TITLE TO “OPEN SOURCE” APPLICATIONS. SCO’s lawsuits against IBM and others charged with infringing SCO’s intellectual property for Linux have spooked corporate IT executives. Despite the fact that software and solutions suppliers like HP are willing to indemnify corporate customers against any lawsuits, corporate IT executives would prefer to sidestep these IP battles entirely. They want to know that any Linux, open source applications, or other code their developers use is in fact legal for them to use. What if you could reuse software that was guaranteed to be free of patent infringements, and you were indemnified from any claims of IP violations?

HOW TO GAIN ACCESS TO THE BEST PRACTICES VERSIONS OF NEEDED SOFTWARE SERVICES. As companies all over the world move toward service-oriented architectures, IT architects and managers are looking for the best of breed technology services to handle functions that are common to many organizations. One retail CIO asked us recently, “Who has the best payment services?” That CIO wanted fraud detection, credit card authorization, gift certificate redemption, and so forth. These aren’t differentiators; they’re services that all retailers need. You can spend a fair amount of time researching these kinds of questions and evaluating alternatives. But what if there were a trusted source of such off-the-shelf payment services, and what if services from that source were being continuously evolved by subject matter experts in your industry? What if you could go to one source--one that is trusted by your peers--and get help and even find the best current services to download and use?

HOW TO DEVELOP AND EVOLVE A CUTTING-EDGE SET OF NEEDED APPLICATIONS. There are many areas of application functionality--from cross-channel CRM to real-time ERP, to multitiered distribution, to supply chain and logistics management--in which the current set of software providers offer solutions that are too monolithic, too expensive, and, often, not advanced enough. A good example of this is the need for cross-channel CRM functionality. Today, you can go with a single supplier and get some of what you need, or you can do a lot of application integration, or you can build your own more modern IT architecture and infrastructure, leveraging open source components and services. We predict that Avalanche will become the breeding ground for collaborative development of shared application services--services that corporate architects need to evolve their own application architectures to provide advanced functionality in areas in which the current software suppliers aren’t moving fast enough or flexibly enough.

Why Are We Intrigued by Project Avalanche?

We predict that this corporate software cooperative will quickly gain momentum. The price is right. Any IT shop can afford to spend $30,000 and to contribute some home-grown software. We believe that this may be the right group of folks coming together at the right time. A good deal of thought has gone into both the business and the legal models.

Many corporate developers are spending valuable time contributing to open source software development. Isn’t it time for those corporations to get more back? By sharing, evolving, and managing the quality control of each other’s software--software that is destined for deployment in large enterprise applications--and sharing best practices and other IP, corporate developers will be able to move much faster at lower cost. PROJECT: avalanche is also a needed whack in the side of the head for today’s commercial software companies--it will give them lots of opportunities both to be more competitive and more cooperative. That’s a good thing.

Contact Info:
Avalanche Corporate Technology Cooperative
Phone: 952.258.7710

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