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Stewarding open source for the future

IBM is the best kept secret in open source. While contributors inside open source communities understand IBM’s role in the movement, until our recent acquisition of Red Hat, not many people outside of those communities would have associated IBM with open source.

But the truth of the matter is that we’ve been driving to an open world with open source from the beginning. Before all the big companies formulated their “open source strategy”, we were busy donating our code, establishing open licensing, pushing for open governance in the communities, and helping to establish open source as technology that was safe (and good!) for the enterprise.

So how did we get where we are? And what do we envision as the future of open source? This article explores those topics and more.

Before open source was cool

IBM was one of the earliest champions of open source, backing influential communities like Linux, Apache, and Eclipse, pushing for open licenses, open governance, and open standards. Our first notable interaction with open source software was when we engaged with Linux (yes, the Linux that Red Hat Enterprise Linux is built on) to establish open licensing for software. In the late 1990s, IBM supported Linux with patent pledges, $1 billion, and technical resources and helped to establish the Linux Foundation in 2000 (source).

In 1999, we helped to create the Apache Foundation, providing thousands of line of code and dedicated resources to support the Apache Web Server projects (source). In 2001, we developed the Eclipse project and then led the creation of the Eclipse Foundation in 2004 to support the creation of new open source projects. We seeded the Eclipse project with a significant code contribution, dedicated developers, and legal help in writing the licenses.

In its infancy, IBM recognized the promise of open source and contributed thousands of lines of code, man hours, and money to ensure that foundations were set up in a way that supported open governance and standards. On a broad scale, IBM’s participation in these and well over a thousand other projects and communities set the tone for open source adoption among enterprises.

Open source everywhere

As the success of the Linux Foundation, Apache Foundation, and Eclipse Foundation grew, IBM ramped up and broadened the scope of our open source involvement.

For the past decade, we’ve focused on developing the latest open source projects and communities and sharing in the work under open governance. While independent projects on GitHub are great, they can sometimes pose a risk if the creator stops maintaining the project. To that end, our goal is to galvanize industry players and individual contributors alike around open source foundations and organizations that support and amplify a project. We seek to set up clearly defined contribution processes and open governance so that more users can contribute in a vibrant community setting.

In the past 5 years, we’ve worked hard on the behalf of all the projects and communities you know: Cloud Foundry, Docker, Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), Hyperledger, Kubernetes, TensorFlow, Node, and hundreds more. In fact, each month, IBMers contribute to about 400 different projects, whether through code contributions, leading workgroups or the foundations themselves, or offering general guidance.

A few of our most recent contributions include:

Within those projects and communities, IBMers strive to build open software that pushes the technology forward for everyone involved. Instead of forking a community’s code and creating our own brand of the software, we simply create great code in the open community and then integrate that open, accessible code into our products. We ensure that any fixes or new feature we add are given back to the community, instead of maintaining our own version. If our products require a change to the underlying open code, we work within the community to create the necessary API or SPI. We also make sure that those extension points are not abused to create a potential for lock-in.

When we engage in a project, we bring a focus on those aspects that matter most to the enterprise: interoperability, portability, security, scalability, and accessibility. We do this by investing in the community and helping to shape programs that can deliver those characteristics that matter to our clients. We value open governance because it ensures the long-term success and viability of those projects that form the foundation of our enterprise offerings and solution.

Envisioning an open future for the enterprise

A trend we’re seeing now is that organizations themselves are becoming open source in the way that they operate as a development organization. As organizations change the way they develop code, infusing open source principles and practices into the development process, the technology that’s created is better, more innovative, and more secure.

Part of this openness is the way that teams across different communities are coming together. For instance, the Node.js and JavaScript communities are joining their foundations so that they can create better, more closely aligned and scalable projects.

We’ll be in the fray, continuing to lead by example in the way we infuse open source into our own products and technology, the open way we lead our teams, and how we interact transparently with our clients.

We are excited to be a part of this renaissance and to continue to push this trend through our leadership and our commitment to open governance and standards.