The Apache Software Foundation Blog

Tuesday March 19, 2019

The Apache Way to Sustainable Open Source Success

As Open Source software continues to grow in importance, it seems appropriate to reflect upon the ongoing success of The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) as it approaches its 20th anniversary. The Apache Way of community-driven development continues to gain momentum despite the compounding challenges of building software in the greater Open Source ecosystem.

This approach, The Apache Way, was defined over 24 years ago by the original Apache Group, prior to the establishment of the Foundation. It has led to our success as a foundation and we believe it has been fundamental to the triumph of Open Source as a whole.

While The Apache Way has been refined over the years, it remains true to the original goals of transparent, community-driven collaboration in a vendor-neutral environment that is accessible to all.

The Apache Way defines Open Source in terms of both a legal and a social framework for collaboration. It helps others understand what makes Open Source powerful and how participants are expected to behave. In this post we will examine The Apache Way in the context of the Foundation's mission:

"The mission of the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) is to provide software for the public good. We do this by providing services and support for many like-minded software project communities consisting of individuals who choose to participate in ASF activities." 

Let's dissect this mission statement. 

"Provide Software for the Public Good"

Key points in this section: 

  • We produce software that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous

  • Use of the software in any context does not reduce its availability to others

  • Users and contributors have no committed responsibility to the foundation, our projects or our communities

  • Use of a license that conforms to the Open Source Definition is necessary but not sufficient to deliver on our mission 

Investopedia defines a public good as "a product that one individual can consume without reducing its availability to another individual, and from which no one is excluded." On the surface, this is a good definition for our use of the term. However, there is a nuance in our use. Our mission is not to produce "public goods" but to "provide software for the public good". 

To understand why this is important, one needs to think about what motivates the ASF to produce software that is a public good.

Open Source software can be digitally copied and reused in an unlimited number of ways. Every user can modify it for their specific needs. They can combine it with other software. They can design innovative new products and services using it and can make a living from the proceeds. This is all possible without impacting other people's use of the software. As such, the ASF produces software that can be used for the public good in many different ways.

To allow us to deliver on this part of the mission, it is critical that we adopt a license that uses the law to protect the software curated here at the Foundation. For us that license is the Apache License, Version 2. In addition, we adopt an inbound licensing policy that defines which licenses are allowable on software reused within Apache projects. This policy can be summarized as: 

  • The license must meet the Open Source Definition (OSD).

  • The license, as applied in practice, must not impose significant restrictions beyond those imposed by the Apache License 2.0.

This means that you can be assured that software curated by projects within The Apache Software Foundation is both a public good and for the public good. You can use Apache software for any purpose and you have no responsibility to the Foundation or the project to contribute back (though as addressed in the next section, it is often in your interests to do so). 

It is important to recognize that there are software projects out there that adopt our license but do not adopt our inbound licensing policy. Such projects may bring restrictions that are not covered by our license; therefore, it is important to carefully examine the licensing policies of these projects. Using the Apache License alone may not provide you with the same options a Foundation project provides. 

Apache projects are successful, in large part, because of our diligence with respect to clearly-defined licensing policies. Such diligence makes it much easier for downstream users to understand what they can and cannot do with Apache software. The Apache License is deliberately permissive to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to participate in Open Source within the ASF or elsewhere. Modifications of our license are allowed, but modified licenses are neither the Apache License nor affiliated with or endorsed by The Apache Software Foundation. No modified license can be represented as such. Modified licenses that use the Apache name are strictly disallowed, as they are both confusing to users and undermine the Apache brand.

While we recognize that there are many ways to license software, whether Open Source or otherwise, we assert that only projects that use both our license (unmodified) and our inbound licensing policy truly follow and adhere to The Apache Way. 

While an OSD-approved license and associated policies are necessary for successful Open Source production, they are not sufficient. They provide a legal framework for the production of Open Source, but they do not provide a social framework, which brings us to the second sentence of our mission:

"The mission of the Apache Software Foundation is to provide software for the public good. We do this by providing services and support for many like-minded software project communities of individuals who choose to contribute to Apache projects."

"Like-Minded Software Project Communities of Individuals"

Key points in this section: 

  • The Apache Way provides a governance model designed to create a social framework for collaboration

  • The Apache Software Foundation develops communities, and those communities develop software

  • ASF project communities develop and reuse software components that in turn may be reused in products

  • Users of ASF software often build products and services using our software components

  • Our model, and others like it, have produced some of the largest and longest-lived Open Source projects that have literally revolutionized the industry 


There is a lot packed into these few words. It is an understanding of these words that makes the difference between software that is under an Open Source license and software that reaches sustainability through The Apache Way. These words underscore the fact that the Foundation does not directly produce software. That's right, The Apache Software Foundation, with upwards of $8Bn of software code, does not directly produce software. Rather than focus on software, we focus on the creation of and support of collaborative communities; the software is an intentional by-product. 

Our like-minded project communities come together because they share common problems that can be addressed in software. As the saying goes, "a problem shared is a problem halved". By bringing together individuals with their unique ideas and skills, we break down barriers to collaboration. 

The Apache Way is carefully crafted to create a social structure for collaboration, which complements the legal framework discussed above. Where the legal framework ensures an equal right to use the software, The Apache Way ensures an equal ability to contribute to the software. This is critically important to the long term sustainability of Open Source software projects. This social structure for collaboration is missing from many non-Apache projects, yet a robust social structure is invariably a key component in long-term successful projects outside of the ASF.

The Apache Way is fully inclusive, open, transparent and consensus-based. It promotes vendor neutrality to prevent undue influence (or control) from a single company. It ensures that any individual with a valuable contribution is empowered, and it seeks to assure that a project remains sustainable despite inevitable changes in community membership over time.

Apache projects typically produce software components that can be combined with other software (of any license) in different ways to solve different problems. This provides plenty of opportunity for participants to collaborate within a given software project independent of their relationship outside the Foundation. This is very different from the idea of licensing your product as a whole under an Open Source license. Our model offers more opportunities for reuse which, in turn, increase the pool of individuals likely to contribute to the project.

In addition, our merit-based system seeks to ensure that as people come and go, for whatever reason, there is always someone to take their place. As a result, some ubiquitous Apache projects have existed for over 20 years and helped commercialize the World Wide Web; while dozens of newer projects have defined industry segments such as Big Data and IoT (Internet of Things). 

A core tenet of The Apache Way is "Community Over Code", which encapsulates our deep belief that a healthy community is a far higher priority than good code. A strong community can always rectify a problem with the code, whereas an unhealthy community will likely struggle to maintain a codebase in a sustainable manner. Healthy communities ensure the Foundation has the stability to thrive for the next 20 years and beyond. Apache projects do not have the problem of scaling that others, who focus only on the legal frameworks of Open Source, suffer from. If you look around at projects that have grown up alongside the Apache projects, you will see a similar focus on scaling the governance model. This is no accident. 

Why this is Important

Software is a critical part of any modern economy. It touches every part of every life in the developed world, and is increasingly transforming everyday life, from womb to grave, everywhere.

At The Apache Software Foundation, we believe that every developer has their personal motivations for building software. We celebrate their right to choose when and how they build their software, including their right to use a non-open license. 

We will not dictate what is best for developers or for the software industry.

We care about the provision of software that enables our users, our contributors, and the general public to decide what is best for them.

We welcome you to use our software and contribute to our projects -- or not. It's up to you. 

We ask that you leave commercial interests at the door.

Countless organizations are proving that their team members who collaborate in a vendor-neutral environment often apply Open Innovation processes (such as The Apache Way) to their work. This helps create internal efficiencies and lays the groundwork for new external opportunities that may provide additional added benefits.

Bringing only your intention of contributing what best serves the greater Apache community reinforces trust in the people and projects behind the Apache brand, and helps us realize our mission of providing software for the public good. 

We learn together and work together to deliver the best software we can. 

Apache software is available for all.

The freedom to choose is what makes the Foundation and Apache projects so strong.

Summary

The software industry has changed and continues to change. The ways software is delivered to end users have changed. Some of the leaders in our industry have retired and new leaders have emerged. But some things have not changed. Our model of collaborative software development, through a combination of a licensing and social framework, remains one of the most successful models of software production.

Increasing the number of users, even those who do not contribute to code, should be seen as a benefit, not a problem, in Open Source. More users present an opportunity. At Apache, more users means more success since they are our future contributors.

As a US 501(c)(3) public charitable organization, The Apache Software Foundation helps individuals and organizations understand how Open Source at scale works in a highly competitive market. For more than two decades our focus has not been on producing software, but rather mentoring communities who produce software. The Apache Way advances sustainable Open Source communities: everything we do is Open Source so all kinds of users can benefit from our experience. Apache is for everyone.

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