Apache Co-Founder Never Considered Commercial Open-Source Company

Brian Behlendorf, who co-founded the Apache Web-server project, says he never considered founding a commercial busines based on the open-source code.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

March 29, 2004

3 Min Read

Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache Web-server project, says he never considered building a commercial company around what has become the single most successful piece of open-source code.

Apache powers 68% of active Web sites, up from 54% two years ago, according to Netcraft, a company that surveys software used on Web sites. Apache has consistently captured market share at the expense of two formidable commercial competitors, Microsoft with its Internet Information Server, and Sun Microsystems with its SunOne Web server.

The Apache Web server sprang out of a group of eight Webmasters communicating with one another about what they wish they had in an HTTP server at a time when the existing offerings fell short. As each Webmaster contributed thinking and code to the project, "there was a lot of belief in the importance of the separation of church and state," Behlendorf says. The resulting Web server was a collective effort, and contributors would have been offended if a few in the group had tried to produce a commercial product out of the open-source code, Behlendorf recalls of the 1995-96 period.

But Behlendorf isn't necessarily opposed to a group of open-source developers forming a commercial company. Within CollabNet, the firm he founded in 1999 to produce collaborative-development software, are four open-source developers whose principal job is to lead development of an open-source project called Subversion, a change-management system that will replace a predecessor open-source change-management system, CVS.

CollabNet's flagship product, SourceCast, needs a more-effective change-management system than CVS, so CollabNet's employment of four developers contributing to Subversion has a streak of self interest. Subversion will be in the next version of SourceCast, Behlendorf says.

"CollabNet started Subversion and I've always felt that the Subversion community needed to be CollabNet-lead, but not CollabNet-dominated," Behlendorf says. The list of active contributors is about four times the size of the CollabNet contributors at any given time, he says.

Behlendorf views successful open-source projects as needing a central coordinator who can work with contributors on a merit basis. Linus Torvalds is such a coordinator for Linux, and Behlendorf says the founders of the company MySQL AB and its MySQL project--Monty Widenius, David Axmark, and Allan Larsson--are regarded in a similar fashion. "They're not seen as overly commercial in their space," he notes.

JBoss Inc. is another example of a company built around the JBoss Java application server, but it split a year ago, with a group of the core developers having personality differences with the founder, Marc Fleury. "You don't always get complete agreement inside a community. Splitting off and forming a new community is a natural and healthy thing," Behlendorf says.

There was concern among users immediately after the change that JBoss would split, with two competing sets of developers producing variations of the same application server. Instead, the departing group approached the Apache Software Foundation with a proposal that they build another Java application server, called Geronimo, and were adopted into the foundation's fold.

Such splits occur periodically in open-source projects that no one is paying attention to, Behlendorf noted. The JBoss split was notable because it occurred as it became clear that JBoss was gaining traction among users in enterprise production environments. The split was viewed as a potential threat to the success of JBoss adoption.

One drawback to forming a commercial company that includes core developers, Behlendorf added, is that the group loses some of the "openness" associated with open-source code. There could be a "lot of private communication within a company, but that makes it more difficult to bring in a new developer if the communication itself isn't open, digital, and posted on a Web site," he said.

One of the few commercial companies to come out of Apache project began when one of the original Apache developers, Randy Terbush, founded Covalent Technologies Inc. in 1999 to put out a commercial version of Apache and supply support. His firm attracted $5 million in venture-capital funding and is still in business, but Terbush no longer serves as chief technology officer or in other listed management posts.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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