Crafting the free-software future

At VA Linux's SourceForge, thousands of programmers are collaborating for both love and money.

By Ed Frauenheim
Published March 6, 2001 10:56PM (UTC)
main article image

In between his two to three hours of homework every night, 16-year-old Julian Missig plays the part of a software project manager at SourceForge.net, a Web site-cum-watering hole for programmers looking for a place to hack. At SourceForge, in collaboration with hackers from all over the globe -- Germany, France, Russia, the Ukraine -- the New Jersey high school senior works on a program called Gabber.

Gabber is an offshoot of Jabber, an open-source instant messaging system -- specifically designed for Linux-based operating systems that use the GNOME desktop environment. Only about 5,000 people are currently using Gabber, but that's not what makes Missig's work interesting. Instead, it's the place he's chosen for his programming.

Advertisement:

Gabber is just one of roughly 16,000 software projects hosted by SourceForge. The only thing the software programs in development at SourceForge have in common is that they are all free, or open-source: The underlying code to the programs is made freely available to the general public.

Since launching in January 2000, SourceForge, which is sponsored by open-source hardware and services provider VA Linux, has attracted 125,000 software developers, say company representatives. The site added more than 17,000 software developers just between Jan. 18 and Feb. 21 and has been averaging monthly growth of more than 30 percent. SourceForge, says John T. Hall, vice president for strategic planning at VA Linux, is close to eclipsing IBM as the world's largest community of software programmers.

But size isn't the only thing that matters about SourceForge. To some observers, the community of developers that has gathered together at SourceForge represents nothing less than the latest stage of the evolution of free software. It's a focal point for all the world-wide energy flowing out of hackers and into code that everyone can share. Eric Raymond, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative, a prominent advocate for open-source software and a member of the VA Linux board of directors, says the site is as significant to the open-source movement as the creation of Linux -- which focused the efforts of thousands of volunteer computer coders worldwide.

Advertisement:

"(Linux) created a kind of social synergy," Raymond says. "SourceForge is having the same effect."

Even so, Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, believes that SourceForge's emphasis on the pragmatic open-source approach to software development distracts programmers from the altruistic principles at the heart of free software. But perhaps of even more importance is the question of how long SourceForge can stay afloat. Brian Behlendorf, a co-founder of the open-source Apache Web server software effort, and the chief technical officer of Collab.net, wonders what happens if VA Linux runs out of money. On Feb. 20, after posting a quarterly loss of $74.1 million, VA Linux announced it was slashing 25 percent of its 556-employee work force.

But the company recently invested $500,000 in new hardware for the site and has dozens of employees focused on SourceForge. And it spared SourceForge from the cuts -- instead, executives called the Web site a priority and promised to beef up the site with additional hardware and staffing. Though VA Linux executives like to describe SourceForge as their "gift" to the free software/open-source world, they are also hoping that it will be a desperately needed key to commercializing open-source software development.

Advertisement:

SourceForge is the answer to a free-software developer's most basic need: computer resources for working together online. Programmers have been coding together for decades via electronic networks. The most famous example is what's commonly called the Linux or GNU/Linux operating system. Linus Torvalds could never have orchestrated the creation of Linux without the help of the Internet, e-mail and Usenet newsgroups.

But creating sophisticated collaborative software projects online has never been easy. The biggest challenges include finding a Web server computer to host projects, managing the various versions of the code, administering the power to choose who can tinker with the software and keeping a handle on which bugs have been fixed.

Advertisement:

VA Linux has a long record of hosting online collaborative workplaces. For years, one computer in a back room served as an important repository for work on the Debian GNU/Linux operating system. "(VA Linux) is based on the success of this community," Hall says. "We thought we should give something back."

By the summer of 1999, one of the company's employees did nothing but handle the system administration duties related to project hosting. VA Linux executives, looking forward, realized that the free software world could benefit from a more automated approach to software development. And so was born SourceForge.

SourceForge's mandate is to provide a solid infrastructure for the international, decentralized collaboration that has been at the heart of the free-software movement for decades. Services freely available at SourceForge include mailing lists, discussion forums, project Web pages, bug-tracking programs and a method for letting program leaders give selective permission to other hackers to make changes in the source code. SourceForge also enables managers to categorize their projects by programming language, software license type and intended audience. Project leaders also can post news items about their coding efforts.

Advertisement:

Although some developers grumble at a clumsy user-interface, bandwidth shortages, and occasional system crashes, developers also appreciate what VA Linux has given them for free. One grateful user is Dan Kuykendall, a leader of the phpGroupWare project, which is building a program for business collaboration with features like e-mail, a calendar and to-do lists similar to those found in the commercial software Lotus Notes.

"It's run so smoothly because of SourceForge," says Kuykendall, 26. "[Without SourceForge] I wouldn't be able to spend as much time on the code itself. I'd be managing the project."

SourceForge, says Kuykendall, has made it easier to handle the tricky business of virtually leading a team of roughly 20 programmers. For example, the CVS system -- a program for allowing developers to submit code, track changes and keep different versions straight -- and bug-tracking programs allow Kuykendall to parse out work to project developers based on their preferences. SourceForge also provides a way to invite contributions from and evaluate newcomers who haven't been given phpGroupWare programming privileges. Anyone reviewing phpGroupWare's source code can submit a bug report and also propose a software fix.

Advertisement:

"We've gotten a lot of developers that way," Kuykendall says. "If they can prove that they understand our code -- that they're following our design of it -- then we can invite them in." For phpGroupWare co-founder Joe Engo, SourceForge has allowed him to make a mark in the free- and open-source software world. "I'm 100 percent proud of this effort," says the 23-year-old coder. "When I first started this project, I never dreamed it'd get to this scale."

Software developers are coming to see posting code at the site as a rite of passage, says Raymond. And by gathering developers in one place, SourceForge simultaneously helps them become more effective in their coding collaboration and more unified in their beliefs, Raymond says.

"Watering holes can be very catalytic places," he says.

In Raymond's view, a number of events have galvanized the open- and free-software communities, including the creation of the Free Software Foundation in the early 1980s, the development of Linux, and the launch of the open-source movement in 1998. "(With each of those developments, the community) became more close-knit, conscious and effective," Raymond says. "SourceForge is another step in that progression."

Advertisement:

Brian Behlendorf isn't so sure. While loath to criticize a generous effort by VA Linux, he's concerned that SourceForge may foster fragmentation of the open-source community, because it may be easier to start a new project than help a related one in progress. Behlendorf also doubts the massive numbers of developers at SourceForge feel a strong connection to each other.

"My gut tells me that people don't like to be part of a 100,000-person community. They like to be part of a dozen-person or 100-person community," he says. "Scale isn't everything."

The sheer number of developers who've been drawn to SourceForge has surprised even VA Linux officials. They say they just expected to attract and host between 15 to 20 programming projects. Having 16,000 has forced them to reevaluate the whole project. The company won't reveal precise costs associated with SourceForge, but one spokesperson noted that the site consumes bandwidth equal to 60 T-1 lines. Dozens of server computers have been deployed to house the various software projects hosted at the site, and VA Linux has a staff of seven people devoted to site upkeep as well as dozens of programmers focused on writing code that will by used both at SourceForge.net and the commercial SourceForge product, SourceForge OnSite.

VA Linux is betting that the software and methodology of SourceForge itself will be attractive to tech companies hoping to improve their engineers' collaborative efforts. Historically, the bulk of programmers have worked largely in isolation from one another on fragmented sections of projects. The market success and stability of open-source software such as Apache, the various tools and utilities produced by the GNU project and Linux has made information technology firms eager to adopt the open-source approaches of tight teamwork and massive peer review, where thousands of interested hackers find and fix coding flaws.

Advertisement:

SourceForge OnSite is a package that includes hardware, software and services that can operate behind a company's Internet firewall for open and non-open-source programming. Essentially, it's a distillation of the tools available for free at SourceForge. Already, one Silicon Valley powerhouse, Agilent -- formerly the testing equipment arm of Hewlett Packard -- is a customer. VA Linux won't reveal the names of its other SourceForge OnSite customers. But Hall says there's been "tremendous interest" from software companies.

"(SourceForge OnSite is) going to be a major part of our business," he says. Which may explain why the seemingly altruistic SourceForge is surviving the VA Linux cuts. The day after the grim Feb. 20 financial report, VA Linux sent a memo to the SourceForge community explaining that SourceForge pulls in revenue through banner ads, corporate sponsorships and SourceForge OnSite.

VA Linux is not alone in attempting to capitalize on the process of creating open-source software. Brian Behlendorf's Collab.net is aimed squarely at the same target. Collab.net has set up sites for about a dozen firms hoping to tap into open-source expertise and interest -- one example is a site where Sun Microsystems invites coders to work on its package of personal productivity programs, StarOffice. A related effort launched by Behlendorf is Tigris.org, which is hosting online development of a number of specific open-source coding tools, such as a new and improved CVS program. Tigris.org has a total of 60 users. Both Collab.net and another starup, OpenAvenue, sell products designed to help information technology companies get their employees using open source-like collaboration tactics. Both these services run completely over the Web without a hardware purchase.

Behlendorf expects this type of product -- which can be configured to include contributions from software engineers at business partners -- to make up the bulk of Collab.net's business.

Advertisement:

There also are what might be called coding marketplaces. SourceXchange, part of Collab.net, links developers with open-source projects funded by businesses. Asynchrony.com hosts open-source and closed-source projects for developers and then markets resulting programs. Up to 90 percent of revenues go back to the programmers -- "Code for love and money!" the site urges.

Behlendorf and Hall are both bullish on the prospects of open-source tools and methods becoming a valuable, potent force in the world of commercial software. There are about 12 million software developers worldwide, and about $1,000 per coder is spent annually on productivity tools, Behlendorf reasons. He expects that $12 billion market to jump to $15 billion by 2004. So far, he adds, only about 1 percent of programmers practice open source-style coding.

"This industry is going to be huge. It already is huge," he says. "That's plenty of revenue for a number of open-source companies to go after."

Commercial firms are also paying programmers to work on free and open-source projects at SourceForge. Jabber.com, for example, pays programmer Dave Smith to devote himself to the Gabber project. Jabber.com earns revenues by selling copies of Jabber and offering professional services to firms using the instant messaging program. Gabber could conceivably make Jabber.com's business grow by increasing the number of potential Jabber users.

The full-time job at Jabber.com was a welcome surprise to Smith. Until he landed the gig last February, Smith worked as an information systems professional for a small company in Florida, and hacked away on open-source projects when he got home at night. He was amazed to find that the Denver company wanted him to work on Jabber-related software -- at twice his salary.

"I never really thought I'd make a living doing open-source stuff," he says.

Not everyone welcomes the kind of collaboration underway at SourceForge. Members of the Free Software Foundation, an older, radical wing of altruistic coders, argue that SourceForge effectively is stealing its thunder. Many software projects at the site are being built by coders sharing the foundation's philosophy -- namely, that all code should be freely published for the purposes of personal liberty and collective action. But SourceForge doesn't properly promote this philosophy, says foundation leader Richard Stallman. Instead, the site is portrayed as part of the open-source movement, which focuses on revealing the source code behind software for the more practical purpose of creating better software than that built under a proprietary license.

"We don't want people to assume we agree with the open-source movement simply because they see the words "open source" used to describe our project," Stallman says. "Or (because) they see our project on a site that describes all it's content as open source."

Stallman says the Free Software Foundation approached SourceForge.net asking for both philosophies to be endorsed equally, but SourceForge officials didn't step up to the plate.

"We're committed to supporting both the free-software and open-source movements," responds Patrick McGovern, SourceForge's site director. He adds that SourceForge makes it easy to display the free-software license on project home pages and wants to work with the Free Software Foundation on ways to better promote its ideals. Stallman and his allies, though, are planning to build their own site. In an intriguing twist, they're using the same software that powers SourceForge -- it's freely available to all, after all. The FSF hopes its site will recharge a philosophy that has been eclipsed in recent years with the advent of the open-source software movement and its more amiable attitude toward the traditional business world. Citing Raymond's own research, Stallman says about a third of open-source programmers identify with free-software principles. And he hopes to attract those to the free-software collaboration site under construction.

Whether Stallman and the FSF will succeed in stealing back some thunder is open to question. There's always the problem of how one pays for resources as such a site becomes more successful -- a problem that will also continue to plague VA Linux as the company seeks profitability. Meanwhile, the number of open-source coders gathering at SourceForge continues to grow. And if the newcomers are anything like Julian Missig, the site is likely to keep taking the open-source movement further. Missig's experience at SourceForge with the Gabber program has helped crystallize his college and career goals: He wants to study and eventually work on open-source user-interface programs.

The busy teen fully intends to keep cramming in his collective coding sessions.

"It's something I look forward to," he says. "It's a lot of people collaborating on a piece of software to make it better."


Ed Frauenheim

Ed Frauenheim is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

MORE FROM Ed Frauenheim


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Linux