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Open Source / Tech Life

What Being an Open Source Software Vendor Really Means

This article will explain the role, rights, duties and challenges of software vendors leading or supporting open source software projects.
Jul 21st, 2021 3:00pm by
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Charles-Henri Schulz
Charles-Henri is head of strategy at Vates. He is a technologist, cybersecurity expert, Free Software advocate and has spent many years working on open source projects and cybersecurity policies.

This article will explain the role, rights, duties and challenges of software vendors leading or supporting open source software projects.

Conflict in major open source communities between software vendors, often the main sponsors behind the project, and other community members is common. Sometimes, the sponsor decides to do something unpopular within the community or brings development of an open source software back internally.

The truth is that open source software communities and projects often have one or more corporate, run-for-profit software vendor(s) among their members, and these companies are prime contributors and stakeholders. Yet, quite often a company willing to contribute to an open source software project gets it wrong, or is at least seen as a negative factor inside the community.

While there are historical and documented instances of bad behavior within an open source project, there are also many cases of miscommunication and misunderstanding across the board, leading one party to assume wrong things about the other or to hold some unrealistic expectations about the project and its other contributors.

Let’s dive deeper into these issues.

Contributor, Owner, Stakeholder?

It is crucial to understand how software vendors fit within open source projects. Did a particular company start it? Did it create the project as open source at the very beginning? Is it an active contributor? Does it reuse the code pretty much as-is or does it integrate and customize the code in order to monetize it? Does it provide support for the code?

All these questions must be answered to understand the basic posture and outlook of a vendor who is part of an open source community. Now, this may not be enough to understand the finer corporate strategy behind the organization’s participation in the project, but it will clarify the fundamentals of its presence.

Corporate contributors may have many different types of roles inside projects. It may simply sponsor a project leader and its main contributor while also serving as the only funder behind the project platform (paying for the code repository hosting, forums, mailing lists, etc.)

The main idea here is to realize that as the responsibilities grow, so do the expectations and opportunities for a faux pas.

Licensing and Business Interests

Software licenses play an important role at several levels. They define how the code can be used, reused, modified and distributed — and this has direct implications for the business models available to corporate members.

Understanding the business interests of software vendors beyond the choice of a software license is useful for predicting and seeing the assumptions — technical or commercial — that vendors may have.

As such, the difficulty within every open source software project is that as it gathers contributors coming from various backgrounds, so it needs to define how each contributor’s interests align, business or otherwise. Alignment is more difficult if a corporate contributor’s strategies or business interests change. Evolving perspectives ultimately force change in how these interests align with open source software projects. Renegotiation may be hard and painful, sometimes leading to a contributor leaving the project. If this turns out to be the main contributor to the project, the consequences will be important no matter how one looks at it.

How Does Vates Fare?

In this regard, humility must come first. Vates has a rather interesting experience when it comes to contributing to open source projects. After all, the company took the bold step of starting a new hypervisor project based on Xen in 2018, just as Citrix realigned its contributions to match a strategy change.

Perhaps one of the keys to the success of a project such as XCP-ng is its ability to be a good project steward. With over 300,000 downloads and counting, Vates is fostering a culture of contributions while communicating ahead its own technological visions for the XCP-ng hypervisor. That is, however, not enough. Contributors need to be valued, feedback answered and taken into account, and releases made with the best level of quality possible. It is hard work, but it is also rewarding on many levels.

You know you must be doing something right when contributors and users grow, and Vates hopes to keep that trend going! When there is clarity around business objectives, contributor roles and licensing, everyone wins and open source projects stay strong. Good vendors are good for the open source community at large.

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