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Has cash corrupted open source?

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Open ... and Shut There once was a time when open source was all about peace, love, and Linux, a bottom-up community of self-selecting hackers that chummed together for the love of good code.

As soon as Linux hit pay dirt, the nature of the open-source community changed forever. Today it is virtually impossible for a successful open-source project to hit critical mass without being consumed by venture capital dollars.

Is this a good thing?

The thought struck me when reading Brian Proffitt's excellent analysis of how "OpenStack is no Linux". Proffitt's point is that "the destiny of OpenStack has been very heavily involved with commercial interests from the very start" - unlike Linux, which only attracted commercial interest later in its development. The implicit accusation feels a bit Lloyd Bentsen-esque: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

But is it true all the same? Is there a difference between a community-driven versus a corporate-sponsored open-source project?

The answer isn't immediately obvious. After all, even back in the early days of commercial open source, more than 50 per cent of open-source developers were holding down jobs in IT, according to various surveys [PDF, page 3], with another 20 to 30 per cent of participants being students (who would go on to work in IT). In other words, these were largely professional developers scratching professional itches, not purple-mohawked renegades coding against The Man.

Even so, there is a definite difference between a community-managed open-source project and a commercially-run project, primarily in terms of the kinds of contributions encouraged (and accepted). If one company is perceived to shepherd the code base, it becomes very difficult to attract other outside developers. This, in turn, removes one of the primary benefits of open source, and the one that by some surveys appears to be rising in importance: elimination of lock-in.

Whether it's a problem or not, vendor influence on open source is not going away. There's just too much money chasing open-source success these days. There was a brief honeymoon when Google, Facebook and other tech giants were able to release open-source code without commercial involvement, but this didn't last long, with startups setting out to monetise projects such as Hadoop, Cassandra, and Storm.

For myself, I don't think commercial participation or even ownership of an open-source project is necessarily a bad thing. Money complicates open source, but it can also help to fuel its growth. Just look at Acquia, the company set up by Drupal founder Dries Buytaert to offer support and complementary services and technology to the popular open-source content management system. Acquia has managed to continually grow the Drupal community even while minting money, to the point that Inc. Magazine recently named it the fastest-growing software vendor in the United States.

Indeed, Acquia offers a potent lesson for any would-be open-source entrepreneur. The company constantly has to balance between its own commercial interests and those of the wider Drupal community, which likely will never pay it a dime. From conversations I've had with both Buytaert and Acquia chief executive Tom Erickson, it is clear that the company defaults to doing what's right for the good of the community.

This is smart policy, as building a community is ultimately what determines the winner in open source, as Redmonk Stephen O'Grady points out. Community is why I think MongoDB has a solid lead in NoSQL, and it's what I believe will ultimately determine one big winner in Hadoop. It's also why Twitter's Jekyll-and-Hyde approach to developers may ultimately prove its undoing, whatever the near-term financial security it brings.

When looking for a winning open-source project or, really, any technology project, you don't ask the analysts. You look to the community. Vendors will comprise a big chunk of the developer base of any successful open-source project: that's just the nature of modern-day open source. But how those developers impact or control a project differs greatly, and the best projects are those that are able to accept the influence of commercial interests without being overwhelmed by them. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing 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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