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

Since its inception, the Apache Software Foundation has had a profound impact in shaping the open source movement and the tech industry at large.

Founded by the developers of the Apache HTTP server and incorporated as a nonprofit in 1999, the ASF has served as an incubator and support structure to dozens of projects that range from the modest to the massive. Subversion, OpenOffice, Tomcat, newcomers Cassandra, Lucene, Hadoop -- all have come of age under the aegis of the ASF and its core principles, informally known as "the Apache Way."

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But tensions within the ASF and grumbling throughout the open source community have called into question whether the Apache Way is well suited to sponsoring the development of open source projects in today's software world. Changing attitudes toward open source licensing, conflicts with the GPL, concerns about technical innovation under the Way, fallout from the foundation's handling of specific projects in recent years -- the ASF may soon find itself passed over by the kinds of projects that have helped make it such a central fixture in open source, thanks in some measure to the way the new wave of bootstrapped, decentralized projects on GitHub don't require a foundationlike atmosphere to keep them vibrant or relevant.

The Apache Way: The ASF difference maker

Ask most anyone involved with the ASF, "What sets the foundation apart?" and a common answer will likely dominate: "The Apache Way."

The six tenets of the Way form the core philosophy of the Apache Software Foundation. In the foundation's own words, these are: "collaborative software development; commercial-friendly standard license; consistently high-quality software; respectful, honest, technical-based interaction; faithful implementation of standards; security as a mandatory feature."

Ashish Thusoo, co-creator of Hive at Facebook and currently serving on the Project Management Committee (PMC) for Hive at Apache, expresses the Way as "consensus-oriented communities whose aim is to create high-quality software that leads its field."

Thusoo explains that the ASF's approach is closer to mentorship than actual project management. This consists of "coaching new members on how to develop consensus, the various types of mechanisms to use for voting and project governance, making sure that new members of a project come from a breadth of companies in the industry," Thusoo says.

Arun Murthy, chair of the Apache Hadoop PMC, describes the ASF's "mantra" as "community over code, i.e., people are the lifeblood of the ASF."

The Way also emphasizes the practical over the theoretical. For instance, when incubating a project under the ASF, there is a strong emphasis on working code, not just an idea -- and on donating the resulting code and IP to the foundation "without fearing lock-in for itself or for its users," as Apache itself puts it.

This last detail, the fact that Apache as a whole becomes the custodian of the code, is part and parcel of an approach that also includes the ASF's trademark policy, which is designed to prevent Apache-sponsored projects from having their branding diluted. Being protective of patents may seem counterintuitive for open source projects, but Apache and others have argued for the use of trademarks as protection against predatory behavior.

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