Yes, vendors are vital to open source

Fellow ZDNet blogger Dana Blankenhorn asks the question, "Are vendors vital to open source?" No, not at all.

Fellow ZDNet blogger Dana Blankenhorn asks the question, "Are vendors vital to open source?" No, not at all. Unless you want steady improvements to the software, timely security fixes, ISV and hardware support, and distribution methods that allow users to actually download or receive FOSS on physical media. Then they become sort of important.

Blankenhorn says:

All of which leads to a profound and interesting question, namely are vendors vital to open source?

I know they believe they are. Folks like Matt Asay and Dave Rosenberg probably can’t conceive of a vital open source movement absent its vendors. Yet the most vital open source projects are run by non-profits — Linux, Firefox, Eclipse.

To be clear, Linux isn't run by a non-profit. Linux is an open project that accepts contributions from many vendors, including Red Hat, Novell, IBM, HP, and dozens of others. The Linux Foundation, which pays Linus' salary, is a non-profit, but it isn't really accurate to say that it "runs" Linux. Firefox is run by a non-profit which works in conjunction with a corporation to help fund the operations of the project -- and it receives much of that money from Google.

Eclipse, again, is a non-profit -- spun off of a project founded by what? Yes, a vendor. It's primarily contributed to by what? Vendors. Dozens, as a matter of fact.

Any cursory examination of major open source projects like KDE, GNOME, X.org, Apache, MySQL, PostgreSQL, the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), OpenOffice.org, etc. shows that the bulk of the work is done by people paid by vendors to ensure that those projects are suitable for production work.

In some cases, they're employed largely by a single vendor (like MySQL) or by many vendors (GNOME, X.org, GCC) -- but any interested party that does their homework would discover very quickly that yes, vendors are sponsoring a huge portion of that work.

It's not just a little ironic that Blankenhorn is asking the "are vendors vital to open source," using a publishing platform that is -- wait for it -- backed and developed by a vendor. (That'd be WordPress, which is a product from Automattic, btw.)

The $10.8 billion figure he references includes a lot of code written by people employed by vendors to improve and support Linux and the surrounding ecosystem of software. I have no doubt that some of the work would continue without the vendor ecosystem around FOSS, but any observer that takes the time to watch how the open source industry works understands that a huge percentage of FOSS developers are paid for what they do.

This was pointed out in the post I put up a few weeks ago, about core developers vs. "peripheral" contributors to KDE and GNOME. The core developers of projects tend to be paid for their work, while volunteers do a lot of work that can be done in volunteer-sized chunks of time.

And, of course, vendors contribute more than code (or more accurately, they contribute in ways that go beyond paying developers). In addition to hiring developers, vendors also contribute to the FOSS ecosystem by:

  • Providing infrastructure for projects. When you download a Linux distro or updates, there's a good chance you're using infrastructure that directly or indirectly is hosted by vendors. The servers that run projects like openSUSE, Fedora, Ubuntu... they also are provided by vendors, as is the bandwidth, etc. (Mirror networks also play a part, which includes a lot of corporate servers and university servers.)
  • Physical media. The openSUSE Project, for example, gives away tens of thousands of DVDs with each release. The money comes directly from the corporate sponsor.
  • Sponsorship for travel and events. It's not absolutely necessary that FOSS developers meet face to face, but it certainly helps. And much of the travel, and the events that FOSS developers travel to is funded by the vendors who support FOSS.
  • Documentation. A lot of documentation is written by paid tech writers (even if not as much as I'd like... I'd still love to see a Google Summer of Code equivalent for documentation!) and wouldn't be produced for free.

I could come up with more examples, but I hope this provides some idea where vendors fit into the system -- basically, vendors provide a lot of the hard lifting and "boring" work that wouldn't often be done by volunteers. The reality is, vendors provide stability and continuity that FOSS would otherwise lack. Many dedicated volunteers contribute to open source -- but they also have jobs and lives that pull them away from projects at times, and if the FOSS ecosystem relied only on volunteers, it wouldn't be nearly as vibrant and reliable as it is today.

Blankenhorn does make one good point, namely that "confidence we have that Linux will prosper in the coming recession is based on this independence from vendor control. Vendors may come and go. The code, like the dude, abides."

This is crucial -- vendors, plural, are vital to Linux and FOSS. At least as we know them. But the nature of FOSS also means that no one vendor is irreplaceable. The ecosystem will survive and flourish, even if and when the economy or other factors remove a vendor from the food chain.

But as a collective, yes -- vendors are vital to open source.