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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Facebook's Thusoo feels the ASF is best for projects "that are interested in developing a broader community that has representation from a number of companies in the industry. For open source projects that focus really on having the controls with a single entity and that perhaps do not encourage a lot of wider industry participation in terms of authoring, ASF is not really a correct vehicle."

Part of the inflexibility hinted at here may arise from the way Apache's licensing conflicts with the GPL, still among the most broadly used licenses for open source software. The conflicts revolve around "patent termination and indemnification provisions," according to the ASF -- in short, some of the very elements that make the Apache license and community what it is.

While the GPL may in fact be falling out of favor, replaced largely by the Apache License, more permissive licenses like the GPL-compatible MIT License are becoming increasingly popular. GitHub CEO Tom Preston-Werner used his recent OSCON keynote to endorse the MIT License for its brevity and permissiveness -- central virtues for many projects on GitHub's rapidly evolving open source ecosystem.

Competition is your responsibility

Mention of GitHub brings to mind another criticism of the Apache Way: It doesn't automatically spur projects to remain technologically competitive.

Consider Apache HTTP Server, the ASF's original 1995 project, and still one of the foundation's flagship projects. Once responsible for powering the overwhelming majority of websites, it's now experiencing increasing competition from the Nginx server. Created in 2008, Nginx already powers around 15 percent of websites (Apache stands at 53 percent, down from over 60 percent since June 2011), in large part because it uses a different architecture that is said to handle high loads better, is far easier to configure, and is offered under the simpler and more liberal BSD license.

The ASF's version-control system Subversion has also seen challenges on the technical side, having taken a major backseat with developers to Git and especially GitHub, at least in some measure because the distributed nature of Git is a better complement to the work habits of modern developers.

While the ASF helped keep these projects alive and well, the need to keep them technologically competitive falls outside its bailiwick. But many argue this is a feature of the ASF, not a bug.

Apache CloudStack PMC member Brockmeier believes the ASF does want its projects to be "technologically competitive and widely used." But "it's not within the scope of the foundation to take responsibility for that. And I doubt Apache would be as popular as it is, were the ASF leadership to try to dictate to projects exactly how they can do that."

Ben Cherian, Chief Strategy Officer at Midokura, network virtualization company that contributes to Apache CloudStack, agrees. "I don't believe it's the Foundation's responsibility to deal with the changing market and evolution of the projects," he says. "It's the responsibility of each project's community to adapt to the changing winds of technology and market pressure. As with every software project, sometimes there are lifespans associated with these projects, and death and rebirth are part of the normal lifecycle of software. There will be some projects that are wild successes and some that flounder. This isn't a failure of the Apache project. It's just a reality of how software is accepted and adopted by the market."

To that end, any project under Apache's sponsorship must realize on its own how to remain competitive and not let the sponsorship of the ASF suffice for that.

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