Contributing to open source software is beneficial to a business, its developers, and the open source software (OSS) packages they rely on. By giving back, a company can be confident the foundational technologies for their business are secure and reduce the tech debt by relying on publicly-maintained versions.
Contributions also build a relationship with the communities that your business depends on and reduces the likelihood of disgruntled maintainers. Developers contributing to these open source packages gain a deeper understanding of the thinking and technology underpinning their applications.
Soon after I joined the team, I heard about something that Pat Gelsinger had said when closing VMworld 2019, “I want VMware to be among the very best in Open Source by 2021.”Being a complete rookie in open source, Pat’s goal for VMware open source leadership further heightened my confusion. Not only does VMware have its Open Source Program Office and engineers actively contributing to open source projects, but the CEO openly stated ambitions to hold leading positions in open source…Why would VMware want that? Why would companies, in general, invest in open source?
Open source software exists today as the dominant force within the technology industry. Every company in the world relies on open source software. Nearly 100% of VMware products touch open source in some way – as components, as core functions or features, as part of the build or the software development process. It doesn’t seem possible to build software today without open source. I get that.
“I want VMware to be among the very best in Open Source by 2021.”
Pat Gelsinger, CEO of VMware
But what attracts companies to actively participate and sponsor OSS development requiring financial support and dedicated resources for open source projects? How do you fall in love with something that you once branded cancer? Back in 2001, the former CEO of Microsoft Steve Balmer said, “Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.” A few years later, he started loving it. And the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith, admitted that he personally (and Microsoft) made a mistake, “Microsoft was on the wrong side of history when open source exploded at the beginning of the century, and I can say that about me personally…” The software giant is now the single largest contributor to open source projects in the world, beating Facebook, Docker, Google, Apache and many others. There must be pretty good reasons for big companies to have many hundreds of employees contributing to open source projects and open sourcing code themselves. Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems reasoned, “…no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else…If you rely solely on your own employees, you’ll never solve all your customer’s needs.”
That is the essence of open source — to reach beyond company boundaries to innovate and discover faster — to deliver better outcomes for everyone. By participating in the development of open source software, companies are in fact acknowledging that not all smart people are working for the same company and that one does not have to originate all research to be able to benefit from it. By tapping into the innovative capability of the open source community, companies contributing to the development of OSS are speeding up the innovation process beyond what they would be capable of doing by themselves.
As the co-founder of Heptio and the engineer who filed the very first commit to Kubernetes, Joe Beda, Principal Engineer at VMware said, “Open source participation is a win-win for the company and the community… This isn’t about philanthropy, it’s about the opportunity for all and innovation at speed.” Innovation is a key motivator for companies. The community is expected to help develop and identify additional features for the open source project. With more diverse participation, more use cases come to light; more possible solutions brought to bear, more ideas vetted. And the best solution comes to light that much sooner.
The companies are not expecting these contributions to surface by magic. They are actively involved in stimulating the community – something which makes it more likely that major contributions will emerge from the community. Companies are arranging events where the communities are invited to share knowledge. They are paying their employees to contribute to open source, seen as a vital activity to stimulate community innovation as well. A vibrant community is a requirement for cumulative innovation. Employees are actively monitoring different channels to interact with the community, helping out beginners and discussing major design changes.
Not only does contributing to a vibrant open source community fuel innovation, but it also enables companies to focus on their unique innovations and application of technology. Oftentimes, open source projects weren’t built with scale, security, data privacy or resiliency in mind. And very little is done with respect to integration with existing systems. Software vendors step into this gap and provide support, integration, testing and scale, thus building commercial products and tools while still supporting open source.
“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”
Maya Angelou, an American Poet, Memoirist,
and a Civil Rights Activist
Though social factors might seem a motivation for individuals rather than commercial companies, the latter group shows a sense of moral obligation to give back to the community. Companies who use open source within their technology stack should contribute resources back to the open source community upon which they rely. What’s more, it’s in their best interest to help maintain the software underpinning their own.
Engaging in the open source software communities of the projects they use allows them to improve the health and viability of the projects on which they depend and better architect the code to work with upstream projects, minimizing the technical debt. Companies have the opportunity to influence the direction of the project by contributing use cases, leading to more robust and generally useful projects.
“It takes many good deeds to build a reputation
and only one bad one to ruin it.”
Ben Franklin, an American Polymath and
one of the Founding Fathers of the US
Today, reputation matters. And as for the rating – the stars are kind of important. Earning presence and influence in open source communities starts with the work companies do in and with other collaborators and contributors. Companies that strive to establish themselves as good open source citizens, contributing to the good of the projects and the industry, know that their actions do not go unnoticed. They are interested in the impact of directed efforts to guide open source software use and the perception of companies participating in the open source community.
For one reason or another, the usage of open source software in both IT infrastructure and software development is a necessity in creating market-valued products today. At VMware, we believe in innovation through collaboration. We invest in and contribute to the Open Source community. This translates into more innovative, interoperable, scalable and secure solutions FOR EVERYONE.