Who should maintain open source projects?

Two different approaches to managing open source projects are emerging

April 11, 2005—When making procurement decisions, it often all comes down to whom you trust. If you're buying a copier or a forklift, a strong brand name can give you confidence in your purchase. The same is true for big-name commercial software. But when it comes to open source, things aren't that simple.

One argument says that the open source model itself is your best assurance of quality. The combined resources of the open source community can potentially far outweigh those of a single, traditional software vendor.

If you buy into this thinking, then the broader market for open source software becomes either a meritocracy or a popularity contest, depending on your point of view. The projects that attract the most attention gain the largest communities, thereby meriting the greatest chances of long-term success.

At least, that's how Jeremy Boynes sees it. Boynes is CTO of Gluecode, whose product, Gluecode JOE, is an open source platform for enterprise Java application development. Although Gluecode employees have contributed significantly to the project, the company has not chosen to act as sole custodian of its codebase as other companies, such as MySQL and Computer Associates, have done.

Instead, many of the major components of Gluecode JOE—including the Geronimo application server, the Derby database, and the Pluto portal framework—are maintained under the aegis of the Apache Foundation. According to Boynes, that fact means customers can choose Gluecode products with confidence.

"When I worked in IT [for other companies], we used to look a lot at open source," said Boynes, "and the question we would ask was, 'Is this project still going to be around and viable in five years?' "

Boynes says that having an established partner such as the Apache Foundation, with its strong history of community support, means longevity won't be a problem for the Gluecode JOE technologies. By handing off the open source development process to Apache, Gluecode is free to concentrate on its commercial value-add to the underlying stack, including UI polish and a comprehensive enterprise support offering.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this approach. One naysayer is Marc Fleury, founder and CEO of JBoss. His company's open source Java application server commands market share that Gluecode's Geronimo can so far only dream of. Like Gluecode, JBoss also aims to deliver portals and other sophisticated enterprise apps built on an open source foundation. But to Fleury, relying on community-driven development isn't enough.

Fleury explained his operating philosophy to me at March's Novell BrainShare conference in Salt Lake City, a model he calls "professional open source." Under this strategy, JBoss does more than simply repackage and provide support for existing projects. It also explicitly employs the lead developers on its projects as full-time staff, and acts as the final custodian of all contributed code.

"We are a software publisher of free software," Fleury said, adding that companies such as JBoss and MySQL can be seen as second-generation open source vendors. By taking greater ownership of their code, he said, these companies lend more credibility to their products in the eyes of enterprise customers than traditional open source distributions can. He doesn't agree with Boynes that it weakens an open source project when a single company has that much control.

Two companies. Two very similar products. Both open source, but with different methodologies. Which would you go with? Ultimately, I guess it all depends on whom you trust.

Neil McAllister is associate editor at InfoWorld.

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This story, "Who should maintain open source projects?" was originally published by InfoWorld.