Survey: Open Source Programs Are a Best Practice Among Large Companies
Open source software programs play an important role in how DevOps and open source best practices are adopted by organizations, according to a survey conducted by The New Stack and The Linux Foundation (via the TODO Group). By implementing open source best practices, organizations are helping developers become both more productive and more structured in how they manage the often abundant open source software their businesses rely on.
In total, 748 people provided information for our survey, nearly half of them developers. Company size was broadly represented, with 21 percent of respondents working at large companies with more than 10,000 employees, and 42 percent from small and mid-size companies with 250 or fewer employees. The survey methodology is explained at the end of this article. The results shine a light on how open source programs are organized and what role they constitute in organizations.
What the Results Show
Large technology companies are leading the way in establishing open source programs to create and nurture best practices. Their substantial developer teams heavily rely on open source components. Outside of this group, all industries have adopted open source programs at an average close to 37 percent, but with varying expectations for the programs. Other significant survey results include:
- More than half of respondents (53 percent) across all industries say their organization has an open source software program or has plans to establish one.
- Large companies are about twice as likely to run an open source program than smaller companies (63 percent vs. 37 percent.)
- Based on the 49 respondents that self-identified as working at a company on the Forbes Global 2000 list, we expect that the number of large companies with open source programs will triple by 2020.
“Open source programs were popularized by internet scale companies to improve engineering efficiency and influence software ecosystems important to their business. I’m thrilled to see other organizations following suit in this best practice of establishing open source programs to improve business outcomes and aid open source sustainability,” said Chris Aniszczyk, co-founder of the TODO Group and chief technology officer of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF).
Survey respondents believe that their company’s open source programs are having a real impact on the company’s software teams. The success of open source programs has been realized on both product engineering and DevOps teams. Over 60 percent of respondents with a program believe their open source program is highly business critical and had a significant impact on their ability to do work.
Open source programs appear to nurture a culture of quantifying contributions by engineers and developers. Where this becomes critical is in enabling modern architectures like cloud native designs based on microservices. Such architectures become more effective if deployed alongside DevOps practices that utilize open source technologies for application architecture development.
The data demonstrates that companies with open source programs see more benefits from open source code and community participation. It’s notable that 44 percent of companies with open source programs contribute code upstream, while the figure is about 6 percent for other companies. Upstream contributions to external projects are the best way to measure a company’s commitment to dealing with maintenance/efficiency costs and also an indicator of a healthy open source culture — a factor well worth considering when doing an analysis of the compound value that an open source office offers.
Benefits of Open Source Programs
Thousands of open source projects have participants from organizations with open source offices that consume — and in turn contribute back to — any number of projects. The interest is showing enough results to merit companies considering deeper and more focused approaches to the development of the open source offices they manage.
Open source programs generally have three core characteristics: they 1) execute and communicate the organization’s open source software strategy, 2) maintain license compliance, and, most of all, 3) foster open source culture.
It may seem counterintuitive to put a structure around open source developers and processes, which have traditionally been outside of management’s purview. But survey results show that these programs have positive business value as well as improve software development. The top three benefits of managing an open source program, according to the survey: 1) awareness of open source usage/dependencies, 2) increased developer agility/speed, and 3) better license compliance.
Internally maintained open source projects exist at almost all (89 percent) enterprises with open source programs. In fact, 11 or more projects are maintained at 46 percent of these companies. Although creating OS projects is not among the top reasons to have a program, attracting external contributions for in-house projects is clearly expected to be a key benefit among both those already running and those planning to run an OS program.
A New Wave of Open Source Programs
Cloud native technology companies represent the first wave of companies that have used open source software in such a strategic manner. The engineers in these organizations often play active roles in open source software development.
The maturity of these companies’ open source involvement manifests itself in higher levels of contribution to upstream projects, as well as initiation of their own projects.
However, as many previous studies have shown, open source use has become commonplace among tech and non-tech companies alike. This survey supports those results: Seventy-two percent of companies surveyed say that they are frequently using open source for non-commercial or internal reasons, and 55 percent are doing so with commercial products.
The roots of open source programs are getting deeper as a new pool of open source programs have sprouted up in the last two years. These companies are less likely to be building their own projects and more likely to be using existing open source technologies. The hope, and expectation, is that they too will create their own projects as policies are developed and open source culture matures.
Of note is why companies with nascent programs get started in the first place. Forty-three percent of companies planning open source programs cite better speed and agility in the development cycle as a top expected benefit. Tied for second as the top expected benefit are lower license fees as well as promotion of open source culture. If these fledgling programs initiate new projects and provide real benefits, we expect they will mature into more formal entities.
For the most part, open source programs are created within a company’s software engineering or development department (about 41 percent of programs). Such programs tend to start informally — as a working group or a few key open source developers and a collection of policies around open source licenses and contributions — and evolve into formal programs over time. Overall, 55 percent of those with an open source program say it is “formal,” while that figure drops to 24 percent among those that are planning a program.
More than half (52 percent) of companies have policies governing the use of OS code and its dependencies in products, and 46 percent provide lists of acceptable licenses. Other policies were less common, except among organizations with open source programs. For example, only 11 percent of those with no plans for a program have policies upstream to a project, while 26 percent of those planning a program and 65 percent of those running a program have such a policy.
Challenges in Creating and Running Programs
Running an open source program does have its difficulties. One respondent said, “At this point the ROI is negative. We view it as a long-term strategic investment.” When asked about their top three challenges, the top response (39 percent) by companies with a program in place was insufficient budget and program costs. Besides budgetary concerns, there don’t appear to be any other noteworthy challenges beyond creating awareness within the organization, which means that although organizations are pushing forward to achieve their mission, the efforts will take time.
Of the 77 respondents planning a program, 70 percent expect to do so in the next year. With their initiatives about to begin, 54 percent said that “strategy: planning or knowing how to approach it” is the biggest challenge in establishing a program. Establishing open source policies and getting executive buy-in and support are the next two most frequently cited challenges in establishing a program. The need for organizations to address specific concerns about setting policy may be driving their own development of open source programs, as many of the respondents citing this as a challenge work at a company that already has policies governing the release and contribution of code.
Companies that do not maintain their own open source projects were more likely to cite challenges about finding legal staff with open source expertise and finding the resources required to perform license compliance. Although companies without internally maintained OS projects may have different needs, they can still look forward to real ways to measure success.
People with both existing and planned programs were asked how they will measure success. Even though culture is hard to measure, it was the top metric cited. Developer velocity, efficiency, and/or productivity was the second most common metric.
Companies with existing programs are much more likely to be using several other types of metrics. Almost three times as many practitioners cited tracking the volume of upstream code contributions. About twice as many count the decline in license violations in order to measure success.
The data confirms what The New Stack has anecdotally observed: Companies with open source programs have a culture that supports metrics, especially in terms of activity observed via online code repositories. This focus on quantifiable results explains why these open source programs are business-critical at many companies: They are looking to developers to improve and/or generate product revenues, as well as optimize operating costs.
Lots of Companies Have No Plans, But Why?
Despite broad interest in open source programs, 47 percent of respondents still do not have plans to operate one. When asked why their company doesn’t have an open source program, 43 percent said they had just not considered it before. In other words, the respondent had been interested in open source and learned about open source programs by taking the survey. A close second rationale (42 percent) was time constraints. At 27 percent, and tied for third, is the explanation that the organization is too small or does not see business value.
A whopping 70 percent of those without a program believe it would have a positive impact, despite the challenges. Among those that don’t expect a benefit, the top reason is that the organization is too small.
Five hundred and one people completed the survey, with another 247 respondents’ incomplete data included in the analysis. Twenty-three responses were excluded because they appeared to come from the same company (based on email address, name of company or IP address). The data cleaning allows us to more confidently interpret the data as being from individual companies rather than just individual respondents.
Company size was broadly represented, with 21 percent of respondents working at companies with more than 10,000 employees, and 32 percent from companies with 50 or fewer employees. Developers or software engineers comprised 43 percent of respondents. Forty-one percent of respondents indicated they work at an IT or software company, with this group more likely to be conducting a wide range of open source activities.
The full dataset can be found here:
The data can be used to make a few predictions about how many open source programs exist and will be created in the next two years. After reviewing many data sources (e.g., World Bank, LinkedIn) as well as the Forbes Global 2000 list of the world’s largest companies, we created a model that assumes: 1) there are at least 6,000 companies with more than 10,000 employees and 2) depending on the reader’s definition of a technology company, 200 to 500 enterprises will fit the description range. With 68 respondents coming from the largest tech companies, our sample captured at least 13 percent of all large tech companies that could have been surveyed. Furthermore, between 22 and 54 percent of all open source programs in existence at large tech companies were surveyed.
Although 48 of the 68 surveyed large tech companies have programs, the universe of actual open source program practitioners was likely oversampled. However, we believe that many of the larger tech companies that were not sampled are likely considering the creation of a program. Thus, while only three of the 54 companies planning a program in the next two years is a large tech company, we believe that more than the reported 6 percent of companies will initiate a program soon. Put in real numbers, that means a lowball prediction of 21 large tech companies that will create new programs in the next two years. That figure jumps to 88 if 25 percent initiate an open source program in that timeframe. Based on this analysis, we expect large companies to continue the trend of creating open source programs, following the tech industry best practice.