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The Need for Sustainable Open Source Projects

Russ White

As a long-standing contributor to open standards, and someone trying to become more involved in the open source world (I really need to find an extra ten hours a day!), I am always thinking about these ecosystems, and how they relate to the network engineering world. This article on RedisDB, and in particular this quote, caught my attention —

"There's a longstanding myth in the open-source world that projects are driven by a community of contributors, but in reality, paid developers contribute the bulk of the code in most modern open-source projects, as Puppet founder Luke Kanies explained in our story earlier this year. That money has to come from somewhere."

The point of the article is a lot of companies that support open source projects, like RedisDB, are moving to more closed source solutions to survive. The cloud providers are called out as a source of a lot of problems in this article, as they consume a lot of open source software, but do not really spend a lot of time or effort in supporting it. Open source, in this situation, becomes a sort of tragedy of the commons, where everyone thinks someone else is going to do the hard work of making a piece of software viable, so no-one does any of the work. Things are made worse because the open source version of the software is often "good enough" to solve 80% of the problems users need solved, so there is little incentive to purchase anything from the companies that do the bulk of the work in the community.

In some ways, this problem relates directly to the concept of disaggregated networking. Of course, as I have said many times before, disaggregation is not directly tied to open source, nor even open standards. Disaggregation is simply seeing the hardware and software as two different things. Open source, in the disaggregated world, provides a set of tools the operator can use as a base for customization in those areas where customization makes sense. Hence open source and commercial solutions complement one another, rather than one replacing the other.

All that said, how can the open source community continue to thrive if some parts of the market take without giving back? Simply put, it cannot. There are ways, however, of organizing open source projects which encourage participation in the community, even among corporate interests. FR Routing is an example of a project I think is well organized to encourage community participation.

There are two key points to the way FR Routing is organized that I think is helpful in controlling the tragedy of the commons. First, there is not just one company in the world commercializing FR Routing. Rather, there are many different companies using FR Routing, either by shipping it in a commercial product or by using it internally to build a network (and the network is then sold as a service to the customers of the company). Not every user of FR Routing is using only this one routing stack in their products or networks, either. This first point means there is a lot of participation from different companies that have an interest in seeing the project succeed.

Second, the way FR Routing is structured, no single company can gain control of the entire community. This allows healthy debate on features, code structure, and other issues within the community. There are people involved who supply routing expertise, others who supply deployment expertise, and a large group of coders, as well.

One thing I think the open source world does too often is to tie a single project to a single company, and that company's support. Linux thrives because there are many different commercial and non-commercial organizations supporting the kernel and different packages that ride on top of the kernel. FR Routing is thriving for the same reason.

Yes, companies need to do better at supporting open source in their realm, not only for their own good but for the good of the community. Yes, open source plays a vital role in the networking community. I would even argue closed source companies need to learn to work better with open source options in their area of expertise to provide their customers with a wider range of options. This will ultimately only accrue to the good of the companies that take this challenge on, and figure out how to make it work.

On the other side of things, open source is probably not going to solve all the problems in the networking, or any other, industry in the future. And the open source community needs to learn how to build structures around these projects that are both more independent, and more sustainable, over the long run.

By Russ White, Network Architect at LinkedIn
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