Mikeal Rogers recently published a blog entry entitled "Apache considered harmful"
. He writes:
The open source section of my brain was seeded and curated by Ted Leung, long time ASF member, and it is this ethos, Community > Code, that I've dedicated a significant portion of my life to. It is this ethos that has led me to the hard conclusion that as the world has changed Apache has become a net negative for its projects.
The Mikeal raises a fundamental question. Do the costs of developing software at the Apache Software Foundation, or any other foundation for that matter, outweigh the benefits? Apropos, what exactly are the costs and the benefits? Lets start with the costs.
The principal cost of developing software at Apache is loss of autonomy and freedom. The foundation owns your software. As far as your software development efforts are concerned, the foundation becomes your pointy-haired and clueless boss. In his very informative blog entry
, Ben Collins-Sussman writes:
The ASF has a great set of cultural norms that it pushes on its communities via political means and lightweight processes
The reader should not be fooled by the seemingly innocuous reference to cultural norms, political means and lightweight processes. After all, the official name for North Korea is "The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea" and not the more accurate "The Totalitarian Stalinist Dictatorship of North Korea". In the same vein, DDT was qualified as "harmless" in the 1950's, as are its considerably more
toxic equivalents of today. In the world of IT, everybody describes their software product as lightweight and simple. No body advertises their product as an over-engineered piece of crap.
Alright, coming back to Apache, once you join, you will be expected to obey rules disseminated throughout the organization many of which are open to interpretation. Rules are not necessarily bad. Any cohesive group must a have a set rules guiding its actions. It just happens that many Apache rules are forged by discussion and are not
the result of careful experimentation. The conquest of false opinion by free discussion is a philosophical question. For a much deeper discussion of this topic, do yourself a favor and read Democracy is not a truth machine
Again, forging rules by discussion is not bad per se. It becomes problematic only when the group is formed by electing similar thinking individuals (co-opting). As time goes by, less and less opposing voices are heard since dissenters leave quietly and those who remain tend to agree with the prevailing dogma. As a corollary, co-opting favors convergence of shared vision and stricter adherence to group's rules over time. Whether such convergence is "desirable" depends on the "desirability" of the rules. I should emphasize that of group convergence is not all black-and-white but a matter of degree, from loose counter-cultural groups on one end, to cults
on the other the extreme. It would be a great exaggeration to qualify Apache as a cult.
More concretely, Apache projects cannot designate a formal project leader. Every committer has strictly equal rights independent of past or future contributions. This rule enjoys very strong support within the ASF. It is intended to foster consensus building and collaboration ensuring projects' long term sustainability. Worthy goals indeed! However, one should not confuse intent with outcome. Note that strict committer equality contradicts the notion of meritocracy
, one of the core tenets
of the ASF.
As I have argued in the past, rejection of project leadership in addition to lack of fair conflict resolution mechanisms constitute favorable terrain for endless arguments. In case of conflicts arising during the lifetime of an Apache project, participants often resort to filibustering. In an all-volunteer project, where most of the participants are only lightly invested in the project, project disruption is almost cost-free to the disruptor. In nature, one of the opponents in a struggle eventually backs off because he or she has something to lose, typically the risk
of bodily harm. At Apache, the only cost incurred by the disruptor is the time taken by the disruption. In a highly-competitive industry such as IT, wasteful expenditure of time may imply software stagnation and eventually obsolescence.
When all else fails, a project can ask for the Apache Board's intervention to settle an argument. In the examples I've witnessed, lacking the proper context, the board will tend to intervene with the finesse of an elephant in a china-shop.
As another example, consider the Apache Board position on author tags. The board minutes from February 2004
- author tags are officially discouraged. these create difficulties
in establishing the proper ownership and the protection of our
committers. There are other social issues dealing with collaborative
development, but the Board is concerned about the legal ramifications
around the use of author tags
I fail to see the legal ramifications the Board has in mind. However, given copyright law in continental Europe, and in particular in France, removing author tags infringes upon the author's moral rights
which are perpetual and inalienable. In short, I would argue that removing author tags is illegal in continental Europe. The board statement also mentions social issues in relation with collaborative development. The idea here is that developers should not
mark code that they contribute as their own to avoid territorial conflicts. Thus, the board indirectly discourages developers to take pride in their code. Moreover, it removes one of the currencies in which open source developers are compensated: increased prestige.
As far as I can tell, Eclipse, Apache and the FSF all give unconvincing explanations about the benefits they provide. The main benefit of joining any organization is being part of said organization. Seriously, tautology aside, once you join a FOSS foundation, you automatically assume part of the aura of that foundation and have better access to its other members. Mike Milinkovich of Eclipse-fame lists the following benefits of FOSS foundations
- IP management
- Branding and community
- Industry collaboration
Regarding IP management, it is not too difficult to determine whether the dependencies of a software project are compatible with your chosen licensing policy. Eclipse takes the additional step of contacting the authors of projects to ascertain ownership. Who cares?
Regarding branding, it is by now apparent that Apache, Eclipse and the FSF all have very good as well as utterly useless projects. The same is true for software projects outside any FOSS foundation. While software projects in a foundation are perceived to be on average of better quality, many of the top 1% of FOSS projects are outside the control of any foundation. I suspect that given the overhead involved, being part of a foundation ultimately hurts quality. In any case, FOSS foundations do not oversee product quality, they only ensure that projects are alive and follow IP-related guidelines. (Apache projects in addition have to prove diversity before graduating from the incubator.) Good software will stand on its own and does not need any additional branding. If your software responds to an unmet need, users will come in their numbers.
As for industry collaboration, depending on project size, belonging to a foundation may truly help collaboration among corporations. I also think that collaboration can be achieved outside any foundation for large as well as small organizations.
In the early days, joining Apache felt like joining a friendly and informal group of capable geeks. This aspect of Apache is not mentioned often enough.
Thus far, FOSS foundations have been quite successful in attracting software projects. In fact, the Apache Software Foundation has been so successful that it can now brag about not having to advertise
to attract newcomers. The prevailing circumstances in 1999 allowed Apache to attract key Java software projects such as Ant, log4j, Struts and Tomcat. From then on, the immense aura of these early projects allowed Apache to be selective. However, by instituting rules largely tangential to software quality, the ASF is squandering the good-will capital it had accrued a decade ago.
Bertrand Delacretaz describes Apache as the turbocharged Diesel of Open Source
and Matt Asay compares Apache to IBM
. My comparison is less flattering. I consider Apache analogous to a carnivourous plant
trapping and slowly digesting insects. As unsuspecting insects find out, it is easy to step foot inside the rolled leaves of a pitcher plant but escaping it unscathed is a different matter. Donating software to Apache is a one-way street, you can enter but you can't leave without being subjected to the digestive juices of Apache dogma. I've been told that Eclipse is better managed and less dogmatic. I don't buy that. I believe that the disadvantages described here apply to software donations made to Eclipse as well as other FOSS foundations. You can enter a FOSS foundation but you cannot leave, much like an insect on the surface of a carnivorous plant.
For the reasons presented here, I urge you to not fall into the trap of complacency. Setting up and maintaining the infrastructure required for a software project takes time, but is becoming cheaper and easier by the year. If your software meets a need, then you don't need the brand-value associated with joining a FOSS foundation. It takes time and effort but by being consistently open, friendly and respectful you can attract long-term
contributors to your open source project.
In short, if you are thinking of donating software to and joining a FOSS foundation but have not actually done so, don't, joining is not worth the trouble. If you are forced to join a FOSS foundation, well, by definition you don't have a choice.
If you have already joined a foundation but would like to get out, try convincing the other project members to leave. If they share your point of view, then get out and liberate your software. If a sizable majority of the project members oppose departure, then there are two cases to consider. The software project you are trying to liberate is 1) marginally to moderately popular or 2) highly popular. In the first case, you can leave and start over to create a better product. Your users, few in this case, will follow. In the second case, unless you are willing to put all your energy in the forked project and continue to do so for a very long time, I am afraid you are stuck with the foundation. It might come as a surprise but your users have a radically different agenda than yours. They will consistently value stability over your purportedly innovative but unproven fork. Thus, you need to swallow your pride and learn to live with the foundation's rules regardless of how inane you find them. Patience is your best friend. With enough patience, most arguments will eventually reach a reasonable settlement.
Now, if you have joined a FOSS foundation and are thrilled with the outcome, then this post does not apply to you - until it does. The risk of the management/board raining down its wrath upon your project always exists and is non-negligible. After all, it is the management/board's prerogative to shutdown projects it disapproves of.
Or course, I am making a number of assumptions which may be totally incorrect in some relevant context. Studies indicate that former cult members
tend to shade the truth and blow out of proportion minor incidents, turning them into major incidents. My main point however, that there is an important distinction between intent and outcome, is hopefully as valid as it is generally applicable. Organizational ethos of FOSS foundations do not correspond to reality. You don't want to obey rules imposed left and right, writing FOSS software should be first and foremost fun! Why would you want to put up with masters if you do not have to?