Open Source Software: Who Gives And Who Takes?
(Page 2 of 3)
And credit is due to individuals who do their part and who also happen to work for large companies. American Express CTO Phil Steitz is a member of the Apache Software Foundation and a former Apache contributor. James McGovern, The Hartford Financial Services Group's enterprise architect, contributes to Apache ServiceMix as part of his interest in service-oriented architecture. McGovern writes test cases from home after work and says his open source work makes him a better IT staffer. "To interact with people in an open way and experience problems as the code is developed, I can't even quantify how powerful that is," he says.
- Why Rational Development Solutions for Power?
- 2012 IBM Chief Information Security Officer Assessment
But business participation is the exception rather than the rule. The Open Source Development Lab, one of the leading groups behind Linux, has seen its membership triple to 86 organizations over the past two years. All but 8% of those members come from companies that sell technology or from educational institutions. Among the exceptions are Bank of America, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, and Google.
Boise Cascade, a paper and lumber products manufacturer, has no prohibition against staffers working on open source projects, although it can't sanction such work on company time, says Myron Blaine, an IT architect at the company. "If they have the knack to contribute, it makes them a better developer at work," he says. "I would be inclined to encourage it." Boise uses the Apache Web Server, Apache Tomcat, Linux, and the Alfresco content management system.
Big Names, Low Profiles
The long list of companies using open source includes ABN Amro Bank, Continental Airlines, Nielson Media Research, UPS, and Walt Disney. Many get their software and support from commercial open source suppliers such as Novell and Red Hat, which helps explain their low profile as code contributors. For such companies, open source is merely a different spin on a standard business arrangement. Nothing in the contract calls for altruistic givebacks.
Open source purists may be just as happy that corporate developers are occupied with other things. They worry that too much commercial involvement could distort the focus away from quality code and toward business ends.
MasterCard International isn't the kind of place likely to attract a lot of the kind of IT pros who work on open source projects, says Roy Dunbar, president of the company's global technology and operations unit. Its payment processing systems must execute nearly flawlessly, so MasterCard generally doesn't adopt new technologies until they've been well tested. While the company has great technologists, the kind of person attracted to writing first-version code isn't going to be drawn to working there.
Only a fraction of open source software is written by people paid to write it, usually programmers working for companies that have a direct interest in a project. Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems all sponsor such programmers. But they're a tiny minority. Out of 250 contributors to the PostgreSQL open source database, only seven are paid for that work. The Subversion project had about 200 contributors last year, and only 10 were paid to work on the software.
That leaves tens of thousands of volunteers writing code that's going to be torn apart in a public review process by people they've never met. Some are motivated by a passion for writing code or a curiosity for understanding how things work, and others by an idealistic desire to provide an alternative to products sold by multibillion-dollar software vendors. Some seek the camaraderie, the pride of working with others who appreciate the elegance of a well-written line of code. Some see an application that doesn't work as well as it could and can't resist trying to improve it.
For The Love Of The Game
One thing they have in common is enthusiasm. Momjian, 44 and married with four children, has been working on the PostgreSQL database project for 10 years. He has college degrees in history and teaching and taught high school computer science for five years in Philadelphia. One summer, he taught himself the C programming language, then took a job writing custom applications for law firms. He later learned all he could about databases.
That led him to a new job last month as senior database architect at EnterpriseDB, a company that sells a commercial version of PostgreSQL. He's one of the seven paid contributors to PostgreSQL, and he travels to far-off countries like Sri Lanka to speak about the software. He's also manager of the PostgreSQL E-mail list, with 51,000 recipients, and a coordinator of contributors. Momjian says 90% of his 243 annual contributors work for small companies, and they live in Alabama, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas, as well as England, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Only a few work for large companies, where the pressure to "get things done" can leave little time for outside efforts. While similar pressures exist in small and midsize companies, working for a large company means a lot of an employee's focus "is dictated by the organization," Momjian says. "Open source is more free-wheeling."
That explains why some open source contributors come from colleges and universities. Rex Dieter, a contributor to Fedora, a version of Linux distributed by Red Hat, has been computer manager for the mathematics department at the University of Nebraska for 10 years. His paying job is his top priority. "If I have spare brain cycles afterward, more power to me," he says. When he recently became a member of Fedora's board, his boss, the computer labs professor, shook his hand and congratulated him. "But they're not putting up billboards by the side of the highway," he adds.
In fact, open source contributors say their bosses and co-workers frequently don't know about the work they do on these projects or don't put much value on it. Peter Lundblad, a 29-year-old Swede who's married with three children, lives in Vaxjo and works for Sorman Information and Media, a 250-employee defense contractor. Lundblad is a prolific contributor to Subversion, which his company uses. Because of Sorman's defense work, Lundblad isn't allowed to contribute to the open source project from the office, and his superiors don't want him devoting work hours to it anyway. So he works on Subversion several nights a week at home. Says Lundblad, "They're aware that I contribute but probably not the amount of work I'm doing."