TL;DR: The days of using open software passively from vendors are past, users need to have a voice and opinion about project governance.  This post is a joint effort with Rob Hirschfeld, RackN, and Chris Ferris, IBM, based on their IBM Interconnect 2017 “Open Cloud Architecture: Think You Can Out-Innovate the Best of the Rest?” presentation.

It’s a common misconception that open source collaboration means saying YES to all ideas; however, the reality of successful projects is the opposite.

Permissive open source licenses drive a delicate balance for projects. On one hand, projects that adopt permissive licenses should be accepting of contributions to build community and user base. On the other, maintainers need to adopt a narrow focus to ensure project utility and simplicity. If the project’s maintainers are too permissive, the project bloats and wanders without a clear purpose. If they are too restrictive then the project fails to build community.

It is human nature to say yes to all collaborators, but that can frustrate core developers and users.

For that reason, stronger open source projects have a clear, focused, shared vision.  Historically, that vision was enforced by a benevolent dictator for life (BDFL); however, recent large projects have used a consensus of project elders to make the task more sustainable.  These roles serve a critical need: they say “no” to work that does not align with the project’s mission and vision.  The challenge of defining that vision can be a big one, but without a clear vision, it’s impossible for the community to sustain growth because new contributors can dilute the utility of projects.  [author’s note: This is especially true of celebrity projects like OpenStack or Kubernetes that attract “shared glory” contributors]

There is tremendous social and commercial pressure driving this vision vs. implementation balance.

The most critical one is the threat of “forking.”  Forking is what happens when the code/collaborator base of a project splits into multiple factions and stops working together on a single deliverable.  The result is incompatible products with a shared history.  While small forks are required to support releases, and foster development; diverging community forks can have unpredictable impacts for a project.

Forks are not always bad: they provide a control mechanism for communities.

The fundamental nature of open source projects that adopt a permissive license is what allows forks to become the primary governance tool.  The nature of permissive licenses allows anyone to create a new line of development that’s different than the original line. Forks can allow special interests in a code base to focus on their needs.  That could be new features or simply stabilization.  Many times, a major release version of a project evolves into forks where both old and newer versions have independent communities because of deployment inertia.  It can also allow new leadership or governance without having to directly displace an entrenched “owner”.

But forking is expensive because it makes it harder for communities to collaborate.

To us, the antidote for forking is not simply vision but a strong focus on interoperability.  Interoperability (or interop) means ensuring that different implementations remain compatible for users.  A simplified example would be having automation that works on one OpenStack cloud also work on all the others without modification.  Strong interop creates an ecosystem for a project by making users confident that their downstream efforts will not be disrupted by implementation variance or version changes.

Good Interop relieves the pressure of forking.

Interop can only work when a project defines what is expected behavior and creates tests that enforce those standards.  That activity forces project contributors to agree on project priorities and scope.  Projects that refuse to define interop expectations end up disrupting their user and collaborator base in frustrating ways that lead to forking (Rob’s commentary on the potential Docker fork of 2016).

Unfortunately, Interop is not a generally a developer priority.

In the end, interoperability is a user feature that competes with other features.  Sadly, it is often seen as hurting feature development because new features must work to maintain existing interop standards.  For that reason, new contributors may see interop demands as an impediment to forward progress; however, it’s a strong driver for user adoption and growth.

The challenge is that those users are typically more focused on their own implementation and less visible to the project leadership.  Vendors have similar disincentives to do work that benefits other vendors in the community.  These tensions will undermine the health of communities that do not have strong BDFL or Elders leadership. So, who then provides the adult supervision?

Ultimately, users must demand interop and provide commercial preference for vendors that invest in interop.

Open source has definitely had an enormous impact on the software industry; generally, a change for the better. But, that change comes at a cost – the need for involvement, not just of vendors and individual developers, but, ultimately it demands the participation of consumers/users.

Interop isn’t naturally a vendor priority because it levels the playing field for all vendors; however, vendors do prioritize what their customers want.

Ideally, customer needs translate into new features that have a broad base of consumer interest.  Interop ensure that features can be used broadly.  Thus interop is an important attribute to consumers not only for vendors, but by the open source communities building the software.  This alignment then serves as the foundation upon which (increasingly) that vendor software is based.

Customers should be actively and publicly supportive of interop efforts of projects on which their vendor’s offerings depend. If there isn’t such an initiative in those projects, then they should demand one be started through their vendor partners and in the public forums for the project.

Further, if consumers of an open source project sense that it lacks a strong, focused, vision and is wandering off course, they need to get involved and say so, either directly and/or through their vendor partners.

While open source has changing the IT industry, it also has a cost.  The days of using software passively from vendors are past, users need to have a voice and opinion.  The need to ensure that their chosen vendors are also supporting the health of the community.

What do you think?  Reach out to Rob (@zehicle) and Chris (@christo4ferris) and let us know!

2 Comments on "Open Source Collaboration: The Power of No & Interoperability"

  1. The value of interoperability with permissive open sourcing surfaces the voice of the customer, in balance with the voices in the development community. It can be healthy to have multiple implementations of the same specification, as different approaches could lead to different performance characteristics across branches. However, the long term resource levels to support the variety of approaches may not be economically justified. Interoperability, openness and permissiveness enable an easier coalescing of diverging directions into a more productive path.

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