The Open Source Snowball Effect

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If you work for a technology firm, or your organisation makes heavy use of software, it is almost certain that you are using open source somewhere in your business. Whether that’s GNU/Linux on your servers, BSD coreutils on your MacBooks, or WordPress for your blog, open source is everywhere.

Increasingly, organisations are looking to give a little back.

If you and your organisation are in this position, there’s plenty in it for you. But perhaps you’re still wondering when and how you should give back to the open source community? Sometimes the way forward is unclear.

Betting On Open Source

The most common ways for an organisation to give back to open source are to allow employees to contribute on work time, or to push patches upstream. (And it’s a good idea to document this and communicate it internally.) But what about creating a new open source project? If you’ve written something that isn’t your “secret sauce” and you think the community would benefit, should you share it?

Open sourcing your projects has many long-term benefits. However, there are also short-term costs to this investment, which include providing a strong legal foundation for your software, and growing and nurturing an active community. All of this is hard work initially, but with the core components in place, the project should start to pick up momentum. With any luck, this can pay off in a snowball effect. One by one, the project will attract additional outside contributors. And as the project gets bigger, it becomes easier to attract more contributors.

The Big Payout

The larger a project gets, the faster the work on the project progresses. In many cases, this progress is actually super-linear. In fact, successful open source projects typically outpace commercial development!

One reasons for this is that you are able to attract contributions from a broad base of individuals in the open source and technology communities. Some will be independent individuals, and some will be sponsored by organisations. Organisations that may even compete with you in the commercial space. It is not at all uncommon to see this sort of collaboration in the open source world.

The rate of progress is so impressive that many large organisations now choose to open source projects precisely because they know that the community can build things faster, better, and for less money. Why try to compete with that when you can adopt the same model for your own business and reap the benefits?

If you’re looking for examples, look no further than the list of organisations that have contributed codebases to the Apache Software Foundation. This list includes Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Oracle, IBM, Sun, Adobe, NASA, CNET, Citrix, SourceForge, HP, and the NSA. These codebases started out as internal projects, but are now maintained by the open source community, often with significant ongoing involvement from the original organisation.


It is not always guaranteed that an open source project will be a success. It’s important to think about it as a “risk managed, short-term investment leading to massive potential long-term gains.” After taking care of legal matters, the best way to improve your chances is to put the community first. Work to include them from day one. Think about them, communicate with them, and listen to them. If you manage to build a healthy community of people who care about the project, the rest will follow.

This was the last in a series about making an investment in open source. Have you gone through this process at your company? Or are you current weighing up your options on a project? If so, throw us a comment bellow.


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