Open source roundtable: Sam Ramji

Microsoft's senior director of platform technology holds out hope that open source developers will reap deserved rewards

As senior director of platform technology at Microsoft, Sam Ramji is positioned uniquely at the nexus of proprietary and open source development models.

InfoWorld spoke with Ramji about how each camp will play a pivotal role in the years to come as part of its roundtable on the state of open source. Here's how Ramji sees open source and proprietary development models evolving.


Sam Ramji
Senior director of platform technology

InfoWorld: What do you see as the most pressing challenges and opportunities for open source given the current tech climate?

Ramji: In terms of challenges, I think you have to start with the fact that most software today -- whether measured by usage or by lines of code -- is not open source, and is sold or written by commercial organizations using a proprietary model. For established companies, the shift to open source is not just about understanding what the strategy should be -- it’s about “programmatizing” open source in an organization when the primary revenue model is around traditional.

It’s also important to distinguish between commercial and community software. The maturity models for assessing community software are not well-established yet, which results in some confusion about what projects are ready to adopt at what level of importance or mission-criticality. This is an unsolved issue and represents an opportunity for the next wave of software companies or consulting organizations.

Finally, the word “open source” has become used to describe development models, licensing models, community models, distribution models, sales and marketing models, philosophical and ethical models, and is now being applied to politics. Clearly there are powerful core concepts of transparency and sharing at the heart of this. It’s starting to blur the original ideas articulated by Eric Raymond, Danese Cooper, et al, which are about the source code itself and the developers who share it. The risk is that the term itself loses meaning over time, which is unfortunate as it’s a powerful idea.

IW: Where do you see open source heading in the next five years, especially with regard to development, community, and market opportunities?

Ramji: As a development model, I think that five years from now open source will be like “object orientation” or “extreme programming” -- a once controversial and transformative idea that has found its way into how most people build software. I hope that we’ll find ways to consistently reward developers of open source with the fame or revenue that help them continue their work. At the heart of development is a love for problem solving and helping users -- and this focus is often at odds with figuring out business plans and asking for what you deserve. Ideally we’d have a small number of well-known, federated marketplaces for open source applications that can connect these dots worldwide. Information technology has transformed the U.S. economy, and I’m personally grateful that it’s the industry I’ve landed in. I’d like to see a marketplace environment enable developers in emerging markets to transform their lives by making their innovation broadly available and appropriately compensated.

As for market opportunities, the strength of open source development -- diversity -- is also a challenge when it comes to skills availability, consistency of user experience, and manageability. I would expect to see some standards emerge in these areas, or else to see new offerings that focus on integrating existing open source technologies in these three dimensions.

IW: Does widespread adoption and commercialization of open source software create new challenges or pressures for open source projects?

Ramji: There are at least two dimensions to this. One is simply growth of features and the resulting increase in the code base. If you look at the trajectory of the Linux kernel, as the amount of code increases, so does the complexity. With the added complexity come more defects. This isn’t anything new, nor is it a knock against open source software. All software evolves over time in this way. And it’s not a question of which model has more or fewer bugs. We have to make critical and strategic decisions about how to evolve the best models to maintain quality software.

A second dimension is that there’s a challenge to the community nature of some projects that have been developed in the commons. When these are commercialized, there is typically an uneven return of wealth from the commercializer to the original developers. This is currently causing some strains between the developers and the business people, but I think ultimately the industry will figure out some standards for fairness and generally follow them.

IW: What are the next steps needed for open source as a software production methodology to reach the next level?

Ramji: As a production methodology, open source development reduces to distributed collaborative software development with an implicit social model (power users, community developers, committers, leads, maintainers). This is largely independent of the scale of the project. Past models that have reached maturity have generally “arrived” when they are richly supported by tools (for example, object orientation and UML). We are already seeing team development tools on the market that are built around these distributed collaboration models, and include wikis, forums, and the typical features seen in open source forges.

IW: There has been a fair amount of controversy, competition, and dissent within the various open source communities. Does this lack of agreement damage the long-term goals of open source, or would you like to see more of this?

Ramji: We’ve made so much progress in terms of opening the channels of dialogue between the OS community, partners, vendors, and customers. Dissonance won’t help anyone progress and innovate. One of the biggest misconceptions that we continue to battle is that we compete with open source. Microsoft does not compete with open source. We have over 70,000 commercial software companies as Microsoft partners, and we compete with a relatively small number of commercial organizations. For example, when we did the deal with JBoss, we found that half of their users were running on Windows. After the deal, we sold more Windows server licenses. So if you want to look at this from a competitive standpoint, our work with JBoss essentially helped our Windows server business grow.

As for the overall conversations in the various communities -- I think we progress as an industry and as a species though honest conversations and a process of “creative destruction.” Dissent coupled with rational discourse leads us to new ideas and solutions. Choice and independent thinking are hallmarks of the most successful open source projects, and I can’t see how you would remove this characteristic and still see the communities grow and evolve.

Roundtable home page: The state of open source

Other roundtable participants
Matt Asay
Vice president of business development, Alfresco
Andy Astor
CEO of EnterpriseDB
Chris DiBona
Open source programs manager, Google
Bruce Perens
Creator of the Open Source Definition and co-founder of the Open Source Initiative
Eric S. Raymond
Programmer, author, and open source software advocate
Dave Rosenberg
CEO and co-founder, Mulesource
Javier Soltero
CEO, Hyperic
Mark Spencer
Founder and CTO, Digium
Robert Sutor
Vice president of open source and standards, IBM
Zack Urlocker
Vice president of products, MySQL

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.