Has open source outgrown the Apache Way?

One developer explores how Apache must evolve

Organizations like the Apache Software Foundation, the Linux Foundation, and the Free Software Foundation have long been a part of the open source and free software ecosystem. But some in the FLOSS community are beginning to wonder if these venerable organizations need to change in order to keep up with the changing demands of FLOSS.

Yesterday, I read what could be the most articulate presentation of this line of reasoning from Yammer Developer Advocate Mikeal Rogers. Rogers also happened to be Employee Number One at CouchOne from 2010-2011--a tenure that certainly pertinent to his arguments.

Rogers wrote directly about the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) in a blog entry posted Nov. 22. In that entry, Rogers detailed how, in his opinion, the world of open source had grown beyond the need for an organization like the ASF and as a result, the ASF's current practices have potentially led Apache to "become a net negative for [its] projects."

The core of the problem, according to Rogers, is that the ASF has become an organization very much interested in maintaining itself rather than furthering the current evolution of open source software development.

To bolster his statements, Rogers highlights the current success of the GitHub hosting service, which relies on the git version control system to function--itself a distributed, decentralized tool:

"GitHub is truly a system of anarchism, in the most classic sense of the term. It is a system of communication and contribution that is without a central organization or institution of governance. Sure, it is hosted, developed, and maintained by someone but the do not enforce any set of governance or process over the users of the system."

It's the very nature of GitHub that Rogers believes sets the ASF as an anachronism.

"It is my belief that we are, right now, in the middle of a very large evolution in the ecology of open source. The language of contribution has infected a new generation of open source contributors. Much of the potential first imagined by open source pioneers is being realized by high school kids on a daily basis who contribute effectively with less effort than has ever been required."

This is a very powerful statement, and one that I believe deserves careful consideration. The ASF and similar organizations are typically governed by their own policies and procedures, which in the past have served them and their communities in good stead. Apache even makes a point to tout "the Apache Way" as a specific project management environment.

But, Rogers argues, GitHub and its currency of contribution makes the need for strict governance unnecessary. Rogers then questions if this is why the ASF seems to have an organizational prejudice against using git over the Subversion control system.

"While Apache's aversion to git has been known for some time among insiders it has only recently boiled to the surface and became somewhat common public knowledge when the CouchDB project initiated a migration to git from subversion. A lot of the discussion happened on closed email lists of which I personally had limited access but I do know that the move was met with fierce opposition from much of the ASF leadership (many of whom are subversion committers)."

(CouchDB's initial commercial vendor was CouchOne, which explains Roger's connection to the non-relational document-oriented CouchDB database.)

Rogers also highlights the move of PhoneGap to the Apache project, and cites hostility on the part of the ASF when the PhoneGap project requested git instead of Subversion as its version control system. PhoneGap, as part of the Apache Way, was already put into incubator status upon its move into Apache, and now seemed to have to endure further ignominy by justifying its decision to use git.

"This is the situation: git must prove itself to Apache. This is akin to Linux being asked to prove itself to Microsoft, an analogy old enough that ASF leadership is sure to understand it."

Regardless of Rogers' positioning of git vs. Subversion, his point about incubator status is interesting. Why does a previously successful project like PhoneGap have to suddenly become a newbie within the ASF?

Here's where I might disagree with Rogers, and my reasons lie with another big-name project new to Apache: OpenOffice.org. Initially, it seemed weird that OpenOffice.org would have to be treated like the new kid on the block, until you realized that (a) every project coming into Apache has to do this and (b) OpenOffice.org may be big, may be well-known, but clearly there were problems with it, since an entire community decided to fork away and make LibreOffice a year ago.

Still, are the rules that Apache requires of all its projects helping or hurting? Rogers argues the latter in his blog, and he makes some solid points. But he does not want Apache to end, though--he wants it to evolve to meet the needs of a new kind of open source community.

In this new community, contributions are what drives success and growth, not strict adherence to rules.

Definitely something to ponder.

For those of you who celebrate, have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving. For those of you who don't, you can still take this message from a great philosopher of our age to heart: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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