How SparkFun Built Their Open Hardware Business

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Exactly a week ago, SparkFun Director of IT Chris Clark penned an article for titled "How SparkFun Built Their Open Hardware Business." While the recent open source discussion here on SparkFun has focused primarily on hardware (and why not, with the OHW Summit this week?), Chris's article is primarily about the software side of things - specifically Sparkle, the behind-the-scenes system for all things SparkFun.

We're not just about open hardware.

I won't post the whole article, but here is an excerpt:

At SparkFun Electronics we do not sell software, yet we have a robust software development team. These developers spend some of their time on, an eCommerce platform with extra content and integrated community elements. The vast majority of their time, however, is spent on Sparkle.

One might call Sparkle a web-based ERP system. It's the other view atop the same databases underlying but with sprawling internal subsystems that do everything including basic customer service, running the shipping warehouse, and running the manufacturing floor.

Sparkle, and the systems running it, take great advantage of free open source software. PHP is the core language. Nginx is the core webserver with Varnish for caching. Everything runs on Debian Linux and the data lives in MariaDB (MySQL's more open cousin) and MongoDB for the non-relational stuff. And caching happens with Memcached and Redis. On the client side, libraries like jQuery, D3, and Bootstrap are ubiquitous. Internally, systems side tools like Munin, Nagios, Samba, Puppet, and Capistrano (to name just a few) keep the lights on.

You can check out the rest of the article over at Give it a read and let us know what you think in the comments section below.

Comments 17 comments

  • RichardK_Solar / about 11 years ago / 2

    I forsee that in a couple of years, Sparkle will be renamed as "Jarvis" .

  • Quick question - why do you use Varnish in front of Nginx. I thought Nginx can do the whole caching itself and Varnish is more needed for Apache. Am I missing something?

  • Ace! / about 11 years ago * / 1


  • doddy / about 11 years ago / 1

    sparkfun rocks... and is in Colorado which makes sparkfun even more rocky (bad pun..)

  • antbe / about 11 years ago * / 1

    Looking at the article... why is it that so many people who spend their free time with open-source hardware and for that sake open-source software, use Apple Macbooks? Apple is probably the most anti open-source company of all. And yes, it side tracks the topic, but I could not resist.

  • Member #74791 / about 11 years ago / 1

    From a security perspective, don't you think you are revealing a bit too much about sparkle and it's internal anatomy.

    Granted maybe SF is a small fish in a big pond, but having the target reveal even a high level overview of internal systems seems like a lot of unnecessary information leakage and a goldmine if an attacker wanted to pwn SF.

    Even knowing it is called sparkle now opens vectors for social engineering attacks.

    I know all about non-reliance on security by obscurity, but why make things easier for an adversary?

    • As long as they follow good procedure, who cares if it's easier - it already takes just the "blink of an eye" -

  • Member #113324 / about 11 years ago / 1

    This article wouldn't be any sort of response to Makerbot's Replicator 2 announcement of being closed source now, would it? :P

    • Applekid / about 11 years ago / 2

      Bre is such a creep. When he claims he needs to go closed and people point at the success of Sparkfun, he counters by pointing out "He draws lines and doesn’t share his backend system, his material sources, his detailed finances (although he does share some of them!), or customer data."

      Well, shoot, Sparkfun doesn't sell backend systems! Material sources? When you have the data sheets that SF provides you don't need to know who they bought it from and what kind of deal they got. Detailed finances? Only if they were publicly traded. Customer data? What are you saying, Bre, that Makerbot has been giving out private customer data to anyone who asks?

    • Purely a coincidence, I assure you. I began writing the article several weeks before that news hit.

    • well... I'd certainly buy a SparkFun branded OSHW printer ;)

  • J.R. / about 11 years ago / 1

    SparkFun, you didn't build that. ;)

  • Have any ideas on a Linux OS? That would be awesome!

    • bman49er / about 11 years ago / 2

      If you mean a Sparkfun distro, that would be pretty cool. Sparkfun OS! There are several engineering related applications in the debian repository. On the latest version of Ubuntu you can find Arduino and Fritzing in the software center app. You could make a stream-lined Linux distro making it easier for people setting up their own robotics network.

      • sgrace / about 11 years ago / 1

        I do not agree with SFE even trying to build its own distro. There are too many things to consider, and it'll ultimately become extremely bloated with software no one will use (like Ubuntu). Plus, you'd have to hire a handful of Linux Devs to maintain the branch, which is not an easy task. Not to mention where this would generate money. This is why that companies that provide a Linux distro usually have you pay them for support.

        In all reality, it would be actually WISER for SFE to encourage/contribute to a community driven Linux distro that is tailored to the community. Besides, what would the OS offer than no other Linux distro can offer?

        • Yeah, we're really not planning on it.

          One of these years I'd like to put some effort into maintaining a Debian package or two...

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