Apache and Linux: A tale of two open source projects

Linux is going strong as it celebrates its 22nd anniversary, but some say the Apache Software Foundation has lost its way

Linux, the free operating system that Linus Torvalds created as a "hobby," turned 22 this week. From its humble beginnings, Linux now dominates on servers and supercomputers, and it's the basis for the Android OS proliferating on smartphones and tablets.

Two decades in, Linux is doing just fine. The Apache Software Foundation, on the other hand, seems to be wobbling a bit. Its leadership is coming under criticism and taking heat for its handling of OpenOffice.org and other open source projects. Fourteen years after its founding, are the best days of Apache behind it, or is this just an awkward adolescent phase?

InfoWorld's Sergar Yegulalp delves into the question of whether Apache has lost its way this week, noting:

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...[but] don't require a foundationlike atmosphere to keep them vibrant or relevant.

Yegulalp sees open source software development as increasingly split between two paths, one the world of "individually bootstrapped, spontaneously collaborative efforts hosted on GitHub, usually with little formal backing but great enthusiasm and vibrancy," and the other the world of "commercially sponsored open source, a world the Apache Software Foundation is heavily invested in, as OpenOffice.org, Hadoop, CloudStack, Tomcat, and several other projects show."

As Brian Proffitt, adjunct instructor of management at University of Notre Dame, puts it, "The ASF is very good at taking big projects that are on their last legs and revitalizing them with organization and resources. But their methodology is less than effective for smaller projects that can and should be more nimble in their processes."

InfoWorld's Andrew C. Oliver offers his own perspective on the contradictions inherent in Apache:

If you don't care about making a profit and want to attract contributors and users, Apache can be helpful. But Apache is also a big weight on any project. The Apache system for making decisions takes a lot of time, and it encourages the kinds of fights that probably don't need to happen. Projects need leaders, but Apache robs leaders of the semiautocratic power sometimes helpful to keep projects on track. Instead, the leader must become more of a community organizer. Some software developers are good at becoming community organizers, but most ... not so much.

This is not to say that any open source project leader, even outside Apache, can truly be autocratic. Open source allows people to "vote with their feet" -- to leave a project and start their own. Apache's system doesn't make it any less likely they will do so; it just makes it harder for leaders to herd cats.

Yegulalp concurs that while the ASF has been a boon to the projects suited to it, such as "wide-ranging platform-type technologies" or infrastructure, the foundation's rules can also be perceived as "a stricture rather than a structure. There's no reason for the ASF to try and be all things to all people, and that model so far has served it and its projects well. But it's also clear it's far from the only model in open source town."

And Oliver, whose opinions are shaped by his time working with Apache -- and the circumstances for his leaving -- still holds out hope. "I think the long-term health of the organization requires it get back to its ideals, open up its private lists, and let sunshine disinfect the interests. ...The world needs an Apache Software Foundation."

This article, "Apache and Linux: A tale of two open source projects," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.