Commercial Gains Mean Growing Pains for Open Source Community

Recent conversations at OSCON, which I’ve attended since 2004, as well as observations through talks with vendors, users and developers in open source all indicate a common theme: With commercial successes for open source software come some community growing pains.

This was also illustrated to some extent by the attendance, content and vibe at this year’s OSCON, a good annual check on where commercial open source software stands in its ongoing maturation, evolution and disruption.

There was a much more business-like, commercial feel to OSCON this year, and I heard more than a few times that the technical content was a bit less technical or substantial. There were generally fewer sandals and more suits, basically, which reflects the continuing business, investment and innovative opportunities that accompany open source software in enterprise IT.

However, there is a sense of bittersweet success for commercial open source when free and open source software communities end up feeling neglected, left behind or otherwise let down by their corporate backers who are more focused on commercial success.

The Community Is Critical

The good news is that OSCON was characterized by what seemed like more startups, spinoffs, new projects, integrations and partnerships than ever before. It was also interesting to see some of the old guard of open source software — now CEOs, executive directors, VPs and CTOs, in many cases — rubbing elbows with much younger sets of up-and-coming developers.

This highlights another common theme in today’s enterprise IT world: Developers are now cutting their teeth at a time when open source is omnipresent in their work, whether paid or leisure, infrastructure or application, mobile software or cloud computing.

So, we are witnessing a new wave of open source use, driven primarily by innovation, rather than cost, flexibility or other advantages we’ve seen associated with open source software in the past.

With this new wave, there is a danger that the ease of commercialization ushered in by wider use, greater credibility and, again, innovation means the all-important community piece — often the free and open source or community version as well — becomes an afterthought.

This is the caution we’ve reiterated on open core, where the market and customers will decide success or failure. While the benefits of community may be less apparent as code, development, applications and services are tied more closely to dollars and revenue, community remains critical to any open source strategy that will be successful and stay successful over time.

When Silence Isn’t Golden

Perhaps nowhere has there been as much focus on this commercal and community balance, which we’ve covered extensively, as on the OpenStack open source cloud computing project backed primarily by Rackspace and NASA.

At one year old, the project has managed to grow its membership, contributions, code and capability, commercial spinoff and users, including both the original target of service providers and a more organic community of OpenStack users in the enterprise.

We also see a mix of both open source and non-open source partcipants in OpenStack’s nearly 100 member companies, which help make up its 250 contributors. With its focus on cloud computing, participation from various vendors and use among both service providers and enterprises, we believe OpenStack reflects how vendors are being driven by customers’ need for interoperability and openness.

Vendors are thus working together with more open source software to provide cloud technology and services. All of this commercial success for OpenStack comes with some community losses; two of the key NASA figures left to launch their own OpenStack-based startups and other community leaders have also moved on.

While some are focused on how this will be competition for OpenStack, either in the market or in the community, it also serves as a sort of open source discipline, just as a fork or leadership struggle can serve to highlight a problem, but also highlight vitality.

What is a far greater sign of demise for an open source project is to hear nothing at all — the silence of a dead community.

Enemies Unite

So, while the concerns about what happens to community with commercial success for open source software projects, communities and vendors are valid, what is most important is what happens in response to community concerns.

In the case of OpenStack, we have seen some learning by Rackspace along the way. Given membership of not just one large hardware or software or services or cloud management or hypervisor player, but participation from multiple vendors in almost every layer of OpenStack, I believe it is an accurate analogy to say the collaboration going on at OpenStack is similar to what we saw with the Linux kernel, where enemies came together to collaborate and actually proved it was possible for all to benefit.

In that sense, I do believe OpenStack is a glimpse into the future of how customers want and will get their cloud computing technology. However, if the OpenStack community and its open source sub-communities do not continue to get support and do innovative work, then OpenStack will be limited largely to the commercial strategies and prospects that existed for its members before they joined the project.

LinuxInsider columnist Jay Lyman is a senior analyst for The 451 Group, covering open source software and focusing primarily on Linux operating systems, application development, systems management and cloud computing. Lyman has been a speaker at numerous industry events, including the Open Source Business Conference, OSCON, Linux Plumber's Conference and Open Source World/Linux World, on topics such as Linux and open source in cloud computing, mobile software, and the impact of economic conditions and customer perspectives on open source. Follow his blog here.

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