Corporate dependence in free and open source projects
The relationship between most open source developers and corporations engaging in open source work is rife with paradoxes. Developers want to be paid for their work, but when a company hires too many developers for a project, others clutch their pearls and grow concerned that the company is “taking over the project.” Large projects have significant expenses, but when companies join foundations established to help secure those funds, they may also be admonished for “not really contributing to the project.” If a company creates and opens up a new technology, users and developers inevitably come to assume that the company should be perpetually responsible for the on-going development, improvement, and maintenance of the project, to do otherwise would be “betraying the open source userbase.”
Sometimes I wonder if “the only way to win, is not to play.”
Corporate involvement in free and open source projects can and should be mutually beneficial.
My previous employer CloudBees
is a good example of the possible symbiotic relationship between corporate
actors and a community. Many people might not know what CloudBees originally
was: it was EngineYard for Java applications. That is to say, it was a
“platform as a service” where you threw your
.jar artifacts over
the wall, and CloudBees would host and operate them. The reason nobody
remembers, is that cloud providers stepped up from the “infrastructure as a
service” domain into “platform” and gobbled all the market up from EngineYard,
Heroku, CloudBees, and a number of other upstarts. If it weren’t for a savvy
business move, recognizing that continuous integration and delivery was a key
differentiator, CloudBees would have died long ago.
The company hired Kohsuke and a lot of people straight out of the Jenkins community, myself included. When I was there, we had a constant push and pull between what should be proprietary (CloudBees Jenkins Enterprise, or whatever it was called that quarter) and what should be upstreamed into Jenkins. CloudBees very successfully sold “enterprise-grade” Jenkins addons, support, and management tooling to companies around the world. Meanwhile in the Jenkins project we frequently discussed, and still do, how much control CloudBees could or should wield over the project.
What many users and other developers often overlooked was the literal millions of dollars that CloudBees invested in paid developer time, events, advocacy, documentation, and marketing. Did CloudBees benefit from this arrangement, absolutely. Did Jenkins also benefit from this arrangement, absolutely.
Recently in the Delta project’s Slack somebody came along, concerned with the level of involvement by contributors other than Databricks in the project. It’s not uncommon to see users come into the project and ask why Delta Lake doesn’t support their preferred compute or query engine, sometimes becoming upset that Delta Lake’s primary supported environment is Apache Spark, which also underpins the entire Databricks platform. Delta Lake was created by Databricks, who have invested tremendous resources in its development and stabilization. It should be no surprise that for most of the developers on Delta Lake, Apache Spark is their primary platform of concern, and everything else is in the “nice to have” bucket.
While I would love to see Databricks upstream more of their own in-house performance improvements and tools around Delta Lake, I must also recognize that Databricks is a business and they’re trying to ride that fine line between making money and not.
The Delta project is however licensed under the Apache Software License 2.0, easy to contribute to, and fairly well documented.
Those upset by “missing features” in Delta Lake seem more like somebody upset they cannot get a free lunch.
I think the Red Hat / CentOS relationship is severely underappreciated. The company is pouring millions of dollars worth of investment into hundreds of free and open source projects every year.
Linux admins across the internet got upset late last year with CentOS’ change in approach. I interpreted this “backlash” as admins angry that they were no longer getting Red Hat Enterprise for free.
For somebody who has never paid Red Hat a dime, to shake their fist over how they operate their business, which still funds significant development of free and open source software, is entitled to say the least.
There is this pattern of “my definition of open source” I see across the industry, typically aired on Hacker News, Reddit, Twitter, and anywhere else people shout and complain. The lamentations that Some Company or Some Individual is not adhering to the “spirit” or “ethos” of how the author defines free and open source software. The never-ending desire to have capitalistic corporations pass some purity test for each and every open source community they interact with, is not only unfair but unrealistic too.
Free and open source software has created enormous societal wealth and enabled entirely new industries since its inception in the 1980’s (roughly). I believe that is in no small part because there are very little strings attached. The terms of the licenses set the ground rules, but beyond that individuals and corporate actors can “vote with their feet.” For example, I will be drawn to projects which enrich my life or help me achieve my goals and ambitions. If I tire of a project, or it’s no longer useful, I leave. The same goes for corporate actors, participating or leaving projects as they deem necessary in order to fulfill their own goals and ambitions.
I don’t begrudge any company which lowers investment, shifts focus, or outright leaves an open source community. No more than I would begrudge an individual for doing the same. You don’t need to be here for the same reasons I am here, so long as we’re able to both work together while we are.
So long as developers have bills to pay, there will always be a need for corporate involvement in free and open source software. I believe the path to success for any project is for developers to have curiosity and empathy towards the motivations of prospective contributors, whether they are corporations or individuals. Opportunities to align businesses and individuals can provide an incredible boost, moving everything forward in the project by leaps and bounds.
Companies are not automatically “the enemy” of free and open source software, with effort they can be engaged in ways that are beneficial to the lives of developers, users, and maintainers. In my experience, it’s usually worth the effort.