Apache: Old, out of touch, but worth it...
Open ... and Shut The Apache Software Foundation has come under withering attacks lately, with accusations of its politics and bureaucracy getting in the way of its ability to foster open-source software.
The common rallying cry of the Apache attackers is GitHub, a source-control system that has almost blossomed overnight into the industry's top open-source code repository. But while GitHub clearly does offer a superior code-hosting alternative to Apache and other foundations in many respects, it is deficient in one of the most important ways: branding.
Mikeal Rogers started the anti-Apache brouhaha with a thoughtful, if sometimes snide, post that takes Apache to task for its stodgy insistence on Subversion for code-hosting, as well as its bureaucracy. He writes: "The problem here is less about git and more about the chasm between Apache and the new culture of open source." But it's Rogers' insistence on culture that points out how out of touch he, not Apache, may be with the current state of open source.
Yes, it is madness for Apache to insist upon imposing its hosting infrastructure onto member projects, whether they want to or not. As Subversion's co-founder, Ben Collins-Sussman, posits: "What’s happening here is that the ASF elders have tragically confused 'be part of our community' with 'you must use our infrastructure'. There is no reason for these things to be entangled."
He's right, of course. Because Apache means much more than Subversion.
In fact, it means the opposite. Within the enterprise, "Apache" is tantamount to saying "safety". Whereas the Free Software Foundation instilled fear into CIOs everywhere with its possibly IP-infecting GPL, Apache was the safe licence and safe foundation. While not all of its projects are any good, enough are that the Apache brand is a stamp of approval for every enterprise with which I've come in contact.
As but one example, when I worked at Alfresco we started talking with a large networking equipment company. In conversations with that company's technical representatives, they acknowledged that Alfresco's content repository was significantly better than Apache's Jackrabbit project, and that Jackrabbit couldn't scale to fit its needs and its performance was poor.
But this company elected to use Jackrabbit, anyway. Why? Because Jackrabbit had the Apache licence (Alfresco used the GPL), and "no one ever gets fired for using Apache," as Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady opined. Apache was the safe choice.
Because that safety – granted by the Apache brand – is worth so much to enterprise buyers, it should also have great worth to enterprise developers. Yes, working within Apache involves some tradeoffs, though perhaps Ceki Gulcu takes it too far by declaring: "The principal cost of developing software at Apache is loss of autonomy and freedom." The Apache brand is bigger than its failings.
For a certain class of developer, a class to which Rogers and Gulcu likely belong, the benefits Apache confers are irrelevant. And that's fine. But even though the younger generation of developers may frown upon the "stodgy" rules of yesterday's foundations, those foundations are still very relevant to the enterprise, a market still worth over $245bn in annual revenue.
It may not be what the cool GitHub crowd is doing, but it's paying the bills for many developers.
And it's not as if GitHub is perfect. Zac Bowling does a good job of revealing some of its major flaws, among them the fact that it celebrates the forking of code but does a poor job of distinguishing between the quality of proliferating forks. As he says: "Why you forked and what you are doing with that fork is not visible to anyone else though. You could be making magic or just experimenting."
Which may be fine in the freewheeling culture of Rogers, but might be too big of a risk for JP Morgan Chase, Dreamworks, or another large enterprise.
Undoubtedly Apache and other prominent foundations (such as Eclipse and Linux Foundation) can improve, and should improve how they facilitate communities and manage code hosting. GitHub could very well be part of these different foundations, because their primary value is no longer code hosting, if it ever was. No, really what these foundations do is brand projects so that they can be more easily adopted within more conservative organisations. It's a useful function, and one that we would be foolish to discard too casually. ®
Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analyzing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.
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