LJ Archive


Lest We Forget, Why Open Source Wins

Chris DiBona

Issue #119, March 2004

Customer experience shows that open source is the greatest insurance policy an IT department can have.

VA Research was, for a time, the best place I ever worked. Shortly after I started there, then-CEO Larry Augustin made it clear that one of the things he wanted me to do was manage the company's relationship with the Linux community. We started by collecting old machines and handing out accounts to developer groups.

Whether it was the Free Software Foundation, Debian or Stampede, we simply wanted people to know they had a place to go when their bandwidth demands exceeded the limits set by their ISPs. This worked pretty well for a while, until the number of machines on which we were hosting projects started numbering around 40 and the extra load started taking its toll on our system administrators. Around this time, Tony Guntharp, Tim Perdue, Uriah Welcome and others locked themselves in a room with a few pallets of SCSI drives and 68 days later, introduced the world to SourceForge.net.

Tony and his colleagues expected about 1,000 people on the site by the end of the year, but they had over 5,000 by the end of that first month. The growth wasn't showing any sign of slowing down. There was pressure from some of the executives and board members to shut down the site due to cost concerns. Luckily for the site and for the future of VA, those concerns were held back by the work of people like Larry Augustin and Steve Westmoreland. The code of the SourceForge site was developed much like many of the projects on the site under the GPL.

Then, VA got a new CEO and went out of the hardware business. GPL releases of the code stopped dead, and installing SourceForge on-site became the business of the company. Along with this change, the company decided to go proprietary.

The nature of the GPL meant the code base still was out there. After about three months, Tim Perdue, who was part of the original team, went to work and released GForge, a new version for those who were looking to maintain their own or their customers' SourceForge-like sites. At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that the company Tony Guntharp, Steve Westmoreland and I started, Konstrux Technologies, installs and maintains these kinds of sites for our customers. We base this business on GForge; Tim Perdue and others have similar businesses.

SourceForge.net is a fantastic resource and continues to be; OSDN and VA should be remembered and thanked for that. I don't mean to rail against their decision to go proprietary, as I'm sure they felt they had good reasons to do so.

But they were wrong. From a customer and vendor perspective, sticking with a completely open-source solution is wildly advantageous. I do understand the profits to be gained from proprietary software, and I even believe there are places where proprietary software is likely to remain ahead of open-source software. If you measure the success of a code base by features, however, open-source software is the winner. Since forking off from SourceForge, GForge has added full administrative and installation documentation, significant code and UI clean up, XML interfacing and an installer.

But from the customer or vendor perspective, the advantages of open-source software too often are forgotten. Our company had a customer who needed a role-based authentication system added onto GForge. While we were writing a statement of work for a contract to add this piece, a programmer who had implemented a similar system at Mitre submitted a patch to do 90% of what the customer wanted. We were able to meet the needs of a customer without bringing on more employees, spreading ourselves too thin or charging too much. We thus were able to compete against proprietary vendors who were much larger than us.

From a customer perspective, open source is the greatest insurance policy an IT department can have. In the unlikely event Konstrux should go out of business, our customers wouldn't find themselves with a collaborative development site they can't maintain. This is not something that can be said about our competitors. If they go out of business, that code becomes part of the bankruptcy auction and their customers may be left high and dry. Through open source, customers can protect their investments in information technology. This fact is obvious to open-source software veterans, but I think that people need to remember this is one of the freedoms with which we're concerned.

The Free Software Foundation tends to speak in terms of individual liberties, but their ideals extend nicely to business, giving companies the freedom to run their own IT departments and to preserve their business systems without being held hostage by hostile vendors or the courts.

Chris DiBona is a cofounder of Konstrux Technologies and was the co-editor of the Linux Journal 2000 Book of the Year, Open Sources, and an editor for the Web site Slashdot.org. His Web site can be found at dibona.com.

LJ Archive