Has Apache lost its way?

Complaints of stricture over structure, signs of technical prowess on the wane -- the best days of the Apache Software Foundation may be behind

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This doesn't mean just defending against packaging copies of OpenOffice with malware. Apache OpenOffice contributor Rob Weir has noted how Tightrope Interactive attempted to file for ownership of the OpenOffice trademark immediately after Oracle announced it was no longer developing the project.

What's still worth asking, though, is whether a project needs to be assigned to a foundation to be kept both alive and out of the hands of corporate meddlers -- or, for that matter, whether an existing foundation is even needed for such a thing. (Monty Widenius created his own foundation to oversee MariaDB, his fork of MySQL.)

No one-way ticket to success

In practice, the Apache Way is not a one-size-fits-all solution for incubating or supporting open source projects. Much of this is due to the ASF's highly laissez-faire approach to the projects that come under its stewardship.

As Thusoo explains, the ASF may step in "if it feels that the project is blatantly violating the Apache Way," but by and large it provides "infrastructure, the legal guidance, and above all coaching and membership. Seldom does it come to micromanagement."

This approach is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, projects are largely left on their own on a technical level. On the other hand, the Apache Way can come off as "a very regimented, planned form of governance," as Brian Proffitt, adjunct instructor of management at University of Notre Dame, puts it.

"This can be a very good thing, since some projects are in need of organization," Proffitt says. "But it can also cause tension, since the rules and regulations of the ASF may rankle those who see it as a bureaucracy."

Joe Brockmeier, Apache CloudStack PMC member, notes that the ASF is not "magic dust you sprinkle on a project for instant success. If the people doing day-to-day development [on the project] aren't good at building community, or if the project just doesn't appeal to a large enough audience, Apache isn't going to make it magically successful."

Here is where the first real test of Apache's future comes to the fore: Can today's climate of bootstrapped, intensely collaborative open source projects stand to benefit from the Apache Way if the added bureaucracy provides no sure path to greater adoption?

The ASF's open source niche

The answer, of course, is that it depends on the project.

"ASF and open source in general are best suited for wide-ranging platform-type technologies," says Hadoop PMC chair Murthy. "These are the foundational elements of a development and infrastructure community. Some of the most successful Apache projects have been foundations or infrastructure."

Rob Davies, currently of Red Hat and a member of the PMC for Apache Camel, Apache ActiveMQ, and Apache ServiceMix projects, had the latter two projects moved under the wings of the ASF in 2005 "because we wanted to build a larger community, and at the time, the ASF was the only main open source community for middleware."

Davies explains the attraction of putting a project under Apache's care: "[The project members] know that a project will not die if a key developer gets run over by a bus or the company that developer works for gets taken over. [But] in reality this means it's hard to start new projects at Apache and grow a diverse community, as open source projects don't typically work that way."

An open source project typically starts because of the efforts of one or two people, Davies asserts, and attracts contributors only after it shows it has legs. To that end, Davies adds, "the ASF is best suited to established projects that want to benefit from wider exposure and attract a greater diversity," as was the case with Hadoop, which was donated by Yahoo. "If you want to start a completely new project, the ASF might not be the first place to start."

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