Open Source Foundations in a Post-GitHub World

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Solar Eclipse 2009 (NASA, Hinode, 7/22/09)

Two years ago Mikeal Rogers wrote a controversial piece called “Apache considered harmful” that touched a nerve for advocates of open source software foundations. Specifically, the piece argued that the ASF had outlived its usefulness, but in reality the post-GitHub nature of the criticism applied to a wide range of open source foundations.

For many years, open source foundations such as Apache counted project hosting as one of their core reasons for being. But in the majority of cases, the infrastrcture supporting this functionality was antiquated, as few of the foundations had embraced modern Distributed Version Control Systems such as Git. The Eclipse Foundation, for example, had a number of projects controlled by CVS, an application whose first release was in 1990. The ASF, meanwhile, was fully committed to its own Subversion project, a centralized VCS that was over a decade old at the time of Rogers’ post.

Outside the foundations, meanwhile, the traction of GitHub’s implementation of Git had exploded. It had become, almost overnight, the default for new project hosting. And because GitHub was in the business of hosting a version control system, and paid for it, it was no surprise that the quality of their hosting implementation was substantially better than what open source foundations like Apache or Eclipse could offer.

This preference for GitHub’s implementation led some developers, like Rogers, to question the need for foundations like Apache or Eclipse. In a world where GitHub was where the code lived and the largest population of developers was present, of what use were foundations?

One answer, in my view, was brand. Others included IP management, project governance, legal counsel, event planning, predictable release schedules and so on. But even assuming those services represent genuine value to developers, it would be difficult to adequately offset GitHub’s substantial advantages in interface and critical mass. GitHub makes a developer’s life easier now; intellectual property policies might or might not make their life easier at some point in the future.

As of this morning, however, developers at one foundation no longer need to choose. As the Eclipse Foundation’s FAQ covers, the Eclipse Foundation will now permit projects – just new ones, for the time being – to host their primary repository external to the foundations servers at GitHub.

The move is not without precedent; the OuterCurve (neé CodePlex) Foundation has permitted external hosting for several years. But the announcement by Eclipse is one of the first large mature foundations to explicitly fold external properties such as GitHub into its workflow.

This change should benefit everyone involved. Properties like GitHub gain code and developers, foundations can focus on areas they’re likely to add more value than project hosting, and developers get the benefits of a software foundation without having to sacrifice the tooling and community they prefer. For this reason, it seems probable that over time this will become standard practice, particularly as foundations look to stem criticism that they’re part of the problem rather than part of the solution. In the short term, however, there are likely to be some bumps in the road as new school populations within the foundations push their old school counterparts for change. Eclipse will in that respect be an interesting case study to watch.

Either way, while Eclipse may be the first large foundation to adapt itself to the post-GitHub environment, but it’s unlikely to be the last.

Disclosure: The Eclipse and OuterCurve Foundations are RedMonk clients.


  1. Most foundations don’t actually host code. Eclipse and Apache are actually exceptional/unusual in that way. Mikeal made the mistake of addressing them as if they were typical of most OSS foundations, and you are doing the same.

    So, first, most foundations only sponsor one project, so they use whatever that project uses for development/infrastructure. Most fiscal sponsors (SPI, SFLC, PSF, etc.) do not host code or bugtrackers, telling their supported projects to use Github/Bitbucket/Launchpad/whatever. And even some of the single-project foundations are not responsible for project infrastructure.

    Your argument, and Mikeal’s argument, is like saying “Taquerias are restaurants, taquerias serve burritos, burritos are passe’, therefore we don’t need restaurants anymore.”

    1. I agree; I was also surprised to see project hosting infrastructure even tied to the foundation model… does Mozilla do its own hosting?

      1. @michaelkdolan:disqus: doesn’t the LF host its own via the kernel.org 501 subsidiary?

        1. Yes, but the LF also hosts a number of other projects, many of which are hosted at various places… the kernel has special requirements. Honestly, it wasn’t until I saw this blog post that I really started to even think about it – I never considered them tightly linked but maybe they have been.

    2. Two points to make.

      First, it’s certainly true that for many foundations hosting is a separate, divorced activity and that should have been made clear. So, my fault for underplaying it. Given that hosting was and is a major point of contention of those anti-foundation types – and has been a significant function of communities like Apache, Eclipse or Kernel.org – it’s worth examining in detail.

      That said, my belief is not now and has never been that the only or even primary value add of foundations is hosting. As mentioned above, IP management, project governance, legal counsel, event planning, predictable release schedules and so on are all areas in which foundations can add value. And being exposed every day to parties which care deeply about provenance, intellectual property and so on makes me very aware of this importance.

      I do, however, question the priority that developers place on these foundational benefits. Certainly Rogers and others in that vein don’t see the point of foundations, and the fact that a very substantial volume of code on GitHub carries no license whatsoever indicates to me that developers in general may not assign the same value to the other foundation services that I might.

      1. Well, given that the median OSS project (although code with no license is, I’ll point out, not actually OSS) has a single developer and less than 200 users, the majority of projects out there don’t need what foundations provide. While there are exceptions, the time to start thinking about foundation support is when your project starts to grow, with multiple contributors, many users, and some corporate supporters. That’s when you need a foundation or fiscal sponsor to help prevent your project going off the rails, and not before. Heck, I have a bunch of public repos of my own on Github, which are under no governance whatsoever.

        Simply put: a one-developer project doesn’t normally need a foundation.

        Hosting a VCS was never a significant value provided by foundations; Sourceforge has been around since what, 1997? The only cases where you need a foundation for a VCS is when your development gets so large (e.g. kernel.org) that a 3rd-party shared VCS won’t cut it anymore. For that matter, Apache’s “satisfied customers” mainly cite Apache’s guidance on how to run the project, *not* any web, VCS, or bug-tracker services they provided.

        Related to this, there will be a Foundations Tutorial and of course the Community Leadership Summit at OSCON this year … where we’ll be discussing this exact kind of stuff.

        1. It sounds like, then, that we at least agree on the average developer’s level of interest in non-hosting services foundations offer.

          1. Right, but that’s not news. It hasn’t really changed since Sourceforge became a full-featured platform for project hosting, 14 years ago.

          2. I guess I inferred incorrectly from this (https://twitter.com/fuzzychef/status/347825638146715648) that you believed otherwise.

          3. I was saying there “developers who value foundations value them for their other services, not for code hosting”. And barring some evidence, I believe that’s been true for a decade, or more.

  2. Another data point is the OpenStack Foundation. While originally Launchpad-centric, Nova and others are now on Github. I don’t think the governance addresses code hosting or tooling.

  3. It is 2 years since GitHub surpassed Sourceforge and Google Code in Popularity http://readwrite.com/2011/06/02/github-has-passed-sourceforge and GitHub with 3,5 mln users http://thenextweb.com/insider/2013/04/11/code-sharing-site-github-turns-five-and-hits-3-5-million-users-6-million-repositories/ became dominant and in some sense guiding development trends (just because there is only one popularity list on GitHub). There were some data for Code Forges but comparing with Apache or Eclipse, that would be interesting.

    Being collaborating on GitHub for a while I got a feeling of GitHub as being organization & community for developers. We use the same features (like GitHub pages), follow updates from GitHub, can reference issues in other project on GitHub and follow them. Not to mention social network like features (following a person, activity stream.).

  4. […] Stephen O’ Grady from Redmonk wrote a great post addressing the role of foundations in the post Github world. He was trying to address the potential […]

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