Open Source

Why more may be the wrong measure of open source contributions

Everyone wants AWS and other big companies to contribute more to open source. But what do we mean by more?

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Image: marekuliasz, Getty Images/iStockphoto

As difficult as it can be to count up open source contributors for a given company, awarding prizes to those who give, it's also not always the best measure of beneficence. As developer Matt Wilson has noted, "Identifying gaps and strategically investing in them is [what] makes contributions significant, not necessarily boosting commit statistics to popular visible projects." In other words, less, but strategic, may be more.

Of course, by that token, more of those smaller, strategic investments is even better.

Put on your big company pants

Given all the hoopla around whether or not AWS contributes open source code commensurate to its benefits, it's not surprising that this discussion about effective open source contributions was sparked by commentary on AWS. Along the way, participants keep up a steady drumbeat of "more."

Asked to define "more," however, and most don't seem to know.

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To those that demand AWS contribute equal to the value it derives from open source projects, Chef co-founder Adam Jacob has offered a counter: "If...AWS [had] to put equal effort in to every piece of OSS software it launches as a service as the companies who are uniquely focused on monetizing it, they wouldn't do it anymore. They would launch competitors." In other words, it's probably easier for AWS to simply build its own products (which the company has done time and time again) rather than embrace open source projects like MongoDB, if the bar is "you must contribute as much code as MongoDB does."

Think that's a good idea? Think again. No one really benefits from AWS effectively "forking" the industry and taking its platform prowess elsewhere. MySQL, for example, is arguably still as popular as it is because AWS makes it so easy to run MySQL at scale. Indeed, said AWS open source chief Adrian Cockcroft, "We...have the incentive to make projects and customers successful in the long term. Contributions from AWS are growing rapidly and we have more money and headcount on the way from multiple teams across AWS."

But...is more, more?

You keep saying that word

Since "Any one company can't contribute equally to all projects," PostgreSQL luminary Josh Berkus declared, "Making contributions to some [highly visible] projects...helps." This is where the conversation got interesting. In response, as quoted above, Wilson resisted, "Identifying gaps and strategically investing in them is [what] makes contributions significant, not necessarily boosting commit statistics to popular visible projects."

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In fact, Wilson goes on, "Haphazard contributions by less experienced developers, lack of attention to follow up on community feedback on patch submissions / pull requests - these things can harm projects and communities." In other words, you think you're getting more, but you're actually getting less. No, this isn't a reason to intentionally keep core teams small (in order to improve security, as has been suggested), but it is a good reason to rethink the idea that AWS (or any company) pays its dues to open source simply by maximizing the number of contributions, rather than investing thoughtfully in making projects better.

Do we need AWS (and every company) to sponsor more open source work? Absolutely. But let's stop demanding more without qualifying what, exactly, we mean by that.

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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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