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Open Source Software: Who Gives And Who Takes?

Businesses depend on open source software, but they leave the work of writing the code to others.

Chase Phillips used to spend up to 100 hours a week writing code for the Firefox browser. Bruce Momjian, a former teacher, manages the E-mail list for contributors to the PostgreSQL database. Brian McCallister spends evenings and weekends working on projects for the Apache Software Foundation. Swedish engineer Peter Lundblad labors over Subversion, a change management system for distributed development, at night "when the children are sleeping and my wife watches TV."

This spirit of volunteerism is alive and well in the world of open source software. Thousands of people donate their time and expertise to the benefit of all. But not everyone is giving as much as they're getting. Large companies, those with the greatest wherewithal to help, are surprisingly minor players in the roll-up-your-sleeves work of open source development.

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Big companies are "great consumers of open source. They're very good at pushing the limits of what open source code can do," says Carl Drisko, leader of the data center consulting practice at Novell, which distributes SUSE Linux. But when it comes to pounding out code, Drisko says, "they don't have a lot of people contributing back."

That's too bad. Big businesses are among the major beneficiaries of open source, as they increasingly deploy Apache, Eclipse, JBoss, Linux, MySQL, and other open source tools. It stands to reason that corporate America would be doing its share to keep things going. The talented programmers employed by big companies could speed open source projects along and raise their quality.

But contributions from businesses are small, partly because of a cultural divide between the open source crowd and corporate software developers, says Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache Web Server project and CTO at software company CollabNet. In contrast to the bottom line business world, Behlendorf says, open source developers exhibit a "willingness to challenge authority, the passion to work on an interesting problem well past the end of the workday, and the time and space to be able to build the right solution to a problem rather than just the most expedient."

The folks who write open source tend to fall into two camps. Core contributors generate the creative code: new features and additions that amount to major improvements to a piece of software. These big project programmers generally come from small companies, universities, consulting firms, and government agencies.

Others dabble in the small stuff. They spot bugs, suggest fixes and improvements, and test code for a particular computing environment. There are thousands of these tinkerers. More than 10,000 people have made contributions to Linux alone in the past 10 years. It's here that employees of large companies are usually found.

Hobbyist turned professional, Brian McCallister out-codes the big guys.

Hobbyist turned professional, Brian McCallister out-codes the big guys.

Photo by Jeffrey Newbury
Laboring In Anonymity
Most of the major contributions come from people like McCallister, one of the heretofore anonymous souls who writes open source without compensation. He has a demanding day job as a software architect for, a startup trying to make it easier to construct social applications on the Web. On his own time, McCallister contributes to the Apache Jakarta Project and Apache ActiveMQ, a project that's still in incubation.

The work McCallister and others do will determine how open source evolves. More than 100,000 projects are under way on the open source site, ranging from the Stellarium desktop planetarium to the Pentaho business intelligence system.

Corporate programmers are more likely to spot open source problems than fix them. "They're good at telling us where they think we're deficient," Novell's Drisko says. Drisko has worked with two companies that have 5,000 programmers between them, but neither is making contributions to the open source process, he says, mainly because the programmers are cranking out proprietary code for their companies.

That highlights one reason some companies aren't contributing to open source: They want to maintain rights to the software they develop, something they must give up under the General Public License that governs the use and distribution of much open source. Any new twist they might bring to an open source application would become available to competitors. The potential for litigation, such as the SCO Group's ongoing lawsuit involving the origins of Linux, also may have scared away some businesses.

Workload is a factor, too. Managers reason that if their IT staffers have time to contribute to an open source project, they don't have enough "real" work to do.

Still, some big companies do make contributions. Morgan Stanley and Bear Stearns over the last two years have regularly submitted bug fixes and tested code for Apache and the Tomcat servlet engine, says Mark Brewer, CEO of Covalent Technologies, which sells technical support for open source code to banks and financial services firms.

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