Open Source

The one way you can make your company run more like Facebook

Your company may not have the scale that Facebook does, but you can embrace and use open source technologies in a similar way.

Image: iStockphoto/Ivanko_Brnjakovic

Facebook is an anomaly. The social networking company serves 1.65 billion users, requiring gargantuan data center scale. Your company doesn't do that, and it doesn't need that.

But, there are other aspects of how Facebook runs that you definitely need to copy. In particular, your company needs to embrace open source the way Facebook has.

Open source 'philanthropy,' Zuckerberg-style

Even if you believe there may be good reasons for software vendors to keep a tight grip on their code, 99% of the world's enterprises don't fit this description. The vast majority of the world's software is written for use, not for sale, and remains locked behind the four walls of private data centers, or is hosted on public clouds for private use.

It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn't be this way.

SEE The world's largest open-source company doesn't sell software

I recently noted the billions of dollars that Red Hat makes by selling certified distributions of open source software, but Red Hat pales in comparison to a far larger "open source company"—Facebook. Yes, Facebook is arguably the world's largest open source company, and no other company can match the pace at which Facebook gives its critical code away.

According to Facebook's Christine Abernathy, Facebook is deeply committed to open source, often building software with the intention to open source it:

Many of [Facebook's] tools are built with the intention to open source them. We know from experience that collaborating with the open source community surfaces new ideas and solutions to the challenges that we face. To this end, we are continuing to build communities around the projects we open source to ensure that they continue to grow and thrive.

As such, the company has released 54 new open source projects in 2016 alone. By comparison, the company released 90 projects in 2013, 107 in 2014, and 125 in 2015, bringing the total to 330 at the end of 2015.

Importantly, these projects aren't simply released and forgotten. Facebook invests significant resources to ensure its open source projects flourish, with followers up 35% in 2016 and code forks (a measure of interest in code repositories) up 50%. In all, the company's projects attracted more than 2,500 external developers in 2015.

Be like Facebook

This is a lot of code to give away, but the benefits are tangible. Not only does Facebook encourage a vibrant development community around its code, but the company also is better able to attract and retain developers who increasingly want to collaborate on code.

SEE Your enterprise needs more developers... a lot more

Given that every business is increasingly a software business, attracting top engineers is not a nice-to-have. It's mission-critical. Your developers are no different from Facebook's: They want to work on interesting code, and they want to share it widely. They also want to "borrow" the best code available, which means they're going to want to not only release their own code as open source, but they're going to want to bring others' code into your enterprise to save time and improve productivity.

All of which may cause you heartburn. After all, you have lawyers that will wring their hands about this. Guess what? Facebook also employs lawyers, many of whom maybe even went to law school with yours. That's ok. Your company's future is at stake, and it depends on open source, just as Facebook's does. You, and they, can figure it out.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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