5 lessons for win-win open source projects

Enterprises are contributing less and less to the open source community; Lockheed Martin shows how to change that trend

Lockheed Martin's newly open sourced social networking platform, Eureka Streams, has faced FUD when it should be received with open arms. IT decision-makers can learn important lessons from Lockheed Martin when evaluating whether to open-source an internal project.

Although usage of open source and open source-based software products continues to grow, enterprises' willingness to participate in open source projects is heading in the opposite direction. This fact was highlighted most recently in the 2010 Eclipse user survey, as the Eclipse Foundation's Ian Skerrett wrote:

In the survey, we asked a question about the corporate policies towards open source participation. In 2009 48 percent claimed they could contribute back to OSS but in 2010 only 35.4 percent claim they could contribute back. Conversely, 41 percent in 2010 claimed they use open source software but do not contribute back, but in 2009 it was 27.1 percent.

[ InfoWorld's Savio Rodrigues explains when you should open-source your internal apps | Keep up with the latest open source trends and news in InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

The wrong approach: Open-sourcing as a last resort

Considering this background, one would expect any enterprise that creates an open source project would want to promote active engagement with the open source community. But that's not always so, and sometimes for valid reasons.

Earlier this month, Vodafone announced the Wayfinder open source project. The project deposited a location-based services platform into the open source commons under a BSD license. However, as Wayfinder Systems, a wholly owned subsidiary of Vodafone, explains, "The operations of Wayfinder Systems has been discontinued since March 11 ... and after that Vodafone decided to contribute the software to the open source community."

In short, the project was open-sourced as a last resort. Although Vodafone didn't see any further business value in the code, at least it decided to offer the technology for others to benefit from. It's understandable, however, that other enterprises may not want to adopt or contribute to a project that the project's originators aren't going to continue developing for their own business needs.

Enterprise-founded open source done right
Lockheed Martin's Eureka Streams project is very different than other enterprise-founded open source projects, and it's a model for how enterprises can enage in open source efforts for mutual business and community benefit.

Eureka Streams is not being thrown over the corporate walls in an effort to see if some other entity can benefit from the code that is no longer of value to the creator. Eureka Streams is and will continue to be used by Lockheed Martin to address Lockheed's internal social networking business requirements.

The code is available under an enterprise-friendly Apache 2.0 license, meaning that other companies -- including Lockheed's competitors and open source support providers -- could adopt and build a business around the social networking platform. You could question why Lockheed would open-source technology that could very well help it differentiate versus competitors; in today's knowledge worker enterprise, social networking can help employees be more productive and improve employee satisfaction.

Far from questioning Lockheed's motives, I believe we should welcome Lockheed's efforts in the open. I suspect that Lockheed's executives realize that technology is of little use without employee buy-in. Although Lockheed and a competitor may in fact have access to the same productivity and employee-satisfaction-improving technology, the processes and culture around the technology -- not the technology itelf -- are very likely what would help Lockheed differentiate itself from the competition.

Eureka Streams is different than other open source projects, even commercial vendor-developed projects, in another way: The development and decision-making appear to be happening in the public. Lockheed engineers on the Eureka Streams project discuss build strategies and optimal search approaches on the Eureka Streams Google Groups forum. This helps prospective adopters understand and get involved in the project.

Five lessons from Eureka Streams
The Lockheed Martin approach reveals five key lessons on how enterprises should open-source software to gain more benefit for themselves and the open source community at large:

  1. Open-source an internal project that is valuable to your business and that could be appealing to other enterprises. Open-sourcing a project that your business no longer needs is a red flag to other enterprises that would rightly worry about the future of the project.
  2. Use a liberal license for the open source project. Doing so addresses a key concern among enterprises, especially if the project isn't from a commercial open source vendor. A liberal license also makes it easier for a third party to provide support or value-added extensions to the project. This in turn makes it easier for other enterprises to adopt the project's technology.
  3. Develop in public. The use of GitHub and Google Groups for ongoing development and project decisions is helpful in attracting other enterprises to your project. Allowing outside contributions to your project is the next step, of course. Even if the majority of your users don't take advantage of this option, it helps increase the credibility of the project.
  4. Allocate a sufficient marketing budget to the project. Code is great, but so too is a site that suggests that the project is credible and has a future. The visually appealing Eureka Streams website, demos, and documentation, while still incomplete, quickly suggest that Lockheed has a vested interested in the success of the project. This reduces the risk surrounding the project, making it easier for others to adopt the project.
  5. Link the project to developer recruiting. Most young developers want to use and participate in open source development projects during their day jobs, and yet not everyone can work for Google, Facebook, IBM, Oracle, or the like. If nothing else, Eureka Streams is a great example of why a developer should consider working for Lockheed Martin.

Done properly, enterprise-created open source projects have the potential of benefiting the enterprise and the open source commons. Is your company in a position to give it a try?

Follow me on Twitter at SavioRodrigues. I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions."

This article, "5 lessons for win-win open source projects," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Rodrigues et al.'s Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com.

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