Your business most likely depends on open source software. But are you doing your part to make sure it will be there in the future? For that to happen, the projects where it is both maintained and improved need to flourish.
How can you contribute to that goal? The first thought most of us have -- donate money -- is unlikely to be the best way to support the open source projects that are most important to you. While proprietary software companies want your money in huge quantities to pay their shareholders, executives, and staff, most of the people who develop the code in open source communities are paid elsewhere. As a consequence, there's a modest need for cash and a little goes a long way.
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So how best to support open source? Here are seven ways your company can strengthen the open source projects you depend on:
1. Buy from community members
Open source communities are typically composed of many of the people whose business interests most depend on the sale of services and extensions of the project. They are trainers, contract developers, support companies, integrators, and more. The very best way most of us can support open source is by trading with those people and businesses.
When you buy training or service-level agreements or contract development, check to see if your supplier is an active community member. Ask them about their commits to the project, their attendance at community conferences, their participation in governance. Some communities even have a way for members to prove their participation, such as official membership or even certification. There are a surprising number of companies -- especially offering level 1 and 2 support services -- that don't meaningfully participate in the community. In many ways, those companies are the real freeloaders and it's better not to encourage their existence.
2. Promote the project
Open source projects aren't like commercial products. They don't have the budget or inclination to market themselves, so it's easy for the casual observer to believe they're of marginal interest. But the very fact your company uses a particular set of open source software solutions is interesting.
Don't keep it a secret. Share the details in public. Add information to your website about the open source projects you use and how you use them. Encourage staff to contribute articles and case studies for publication. If you make your open source usage public, you'll discover other people using the same software who can also be encouraged to share their experiences. In fact, there's a word for them: community.
3. Participate in the community
As a user of an open source project, you have a role to play in the community. One direct and valuable way to support the projects upon which you depend is to participate. As simple an act as asking your staff to attend a local meet-up or even a regional conference helps. These events build the community and in some cases are the main source of funds to pay for the small staff and infrastructure costs for a community. Participating does not have to mean directly contributing to the code and documentation; just showing up is of value. Of course, you can go further and contribute in a more concrete way.