When Closed Source Companies Contribute to Open Source Communities

I was reading a story last week about the Linux Foundation‘s third annual report [PDF] of the Linux kernel, and in it was a section that talked about the affiliation of the programmers that contributed to the development of the kernel. This got me thinking about the affiliation of programmers in the library open source community. More on that after a brief detour to explain what the “kernel” is.

For those that don’t know the inner pieces of how computers are put together, the “kernel” is that part of the operating system that governs everything else. It gets to say what programs are run and shuts them down when they misbehave. It arbitrates access to devices like the keyboard and the disk drive. It is the first thing that runs when the computer starts up and the last thing to quit when the computer shuts down. It is the heart of the device you see in front of you. There are some parallels that could be drawn to integrated library systems. So this is a thought exercise down one of those parallels.

Much of the Linux kernel report is about the rate of change to the Linux kernel source code (faster pace, broader base of contributers). But there is also a section that talks about financial sponsorship of the work. Beginning on page 12, I’ve excepted a few bits under the heading “Who is Sponsoring the Work”

The Linux kernel is a resource which is used by a large variety of companies. Many of those companies never participate in the development of the kernel; they are content with the software as it is and do not feel the need to help drive its development in any particular direction. …

There are a number of developers for whom we were unable to determine a corporate affiliation; those are grouped under “unknown” in the table below. … The category “None,” instead, represents developers who are known to be doing this work on their own, with no financial contribution happening from any company.

The top 10 contributors, including the groups “unknown” and “none” make up nearly 70% of the total contributions to the kernel. It is worth noting that, even if one assumes that all of the “unknown” contributors were working on their own time, over 70% of all kernel development is demonstrably done by developers who are being paid for their work. … The picture since [kernel version] 2.6.30 [in 2009] shows some interesting changes:

Company NameNumber of ChangesPercent of Total
None9,91119.1%
Red Hat6,21912.0%
Intel4,0377.8%
Novell2,6255.0%
IBM2,4914.8%
unknown2,4564.7%
consultants1,2652.4%
Nokia1,1732.3%
Renesas Technology1,0322.0%

If an Open Source ILS was Linux…


Linux is the largest open source project in existence, so making comparisons to other open source projects is difficult simply based on scale. I know this is a stretch, but I wonder what we could say about the nature of the library open source developer community if Koha or Evergreen were Linux. The largest number of developers would be folks working on their own time. The library community equivalent would be patrons who love their local library and wanted to make it better by adding features and bug fixes to the software. We would get 20% of our total effort from this group.

The second largest contributor would be a company that bases its existence on the open source product. Red Hat is known as the most successful commercial distributor of the Linux kernel, and its version of the kernel is used and trusted by a variety of commercial players. In the integrated library system community, an equivalent company would be someone like Equinox or ByWater Solutions. This might be as you would expect.

From there the list gets interesting quickly. Intel is primarily known as a hardware manufacturer, but it ranks third in the list of contributors to the kernel. It is hard to come up with an equivalent in the library community, but we might think of someone who is tangentially related to integrated library systems — say, Gale or ProQuest. (Until recently, I might have put OCLC in this group. With its introduction of Web-scale Management Services, though, it probably falls into the next category.)

Then it gets really interesting. Novell and IBM both have their own lines of operating systems and supplemental software, but they are also very large contributors of open source code to the Linux kernel. It would be as if Innovative Interfaces and SirsiDynix, in addition to creating their own products, also contributed substantially to an open source integrated library system.

Okay, like I said, making this comparison is a stretch. But it does lead me to think what it is about the culture of Linux community and the business opportunity of an open source kernel that makes this happen. Is it one benevolent dictator at the top (a.k.a. Linus Torvalds) looking out for the best interests of all involved? Is it a diversity of needs (such as servers to desktops to set-top boxes to phones in the case of Linux) under a big umbrella that makes sure everyone find enough value to contribute to the whole? Is it a form of job advertisements seeking to hire the best of 19.1% doing development on their own time? Or is it some sense of comradeship that transcends organizational bounds?

I don’t have answers, but it does seem like a useful case study to examine as we think about how open source software is created and sustained in the library arena.

The text was modified to update a link from http://www.linuxfoundation.org/docs/lf_linux_kernel_development_2010.pdf to https://www.linuxfoundation.org/sites/main/files/lf_linux_kernel_development_2010.pdf on November 19th, 2012.

(This post was updated on 19-Nov-2012.)