Tips on pitching Apache to the big wigs

Drawing from his experience as cofounder and chief technology officer (CTO) of CollabNet Inc. and president of the Apache Software Foundation, Brian Behlendorf on Wednesday sought to give the attendees of Apache Con Europe 2000 some practical advice on how to sell the idea of open source software to company managers.

“Companies have a fear of the unknown; accept that rather than fighting it and some managers also want something that can be accomplished in a nine-to-five environment. Keep that in mind,” Behlendorf told the highly targeted audience of Apache developers.

Behlendorf also passed on some “free buzz words” for the developers to “throw into your proposal for management.”

Reduce time to market, increase margins, expand public mind share, and last but not least, take ownership of your future, Behlendorf said.

The “fun” term among them is expanding public mind share, because it’s where a developer gets to make other people aware of what they are doing. “This is how Red Hat (Inc.) got where it is,” Behlendorf said.

One of Behlendorf’s own favorites is the “take ownership of your future” maxim. He cited the time it takes to get hold of a bug fix or added feature patch for a proprietary product from a company like Microsoft, versus what he called the speedy turnaround time for modifying open-source software.

Behlendorf held up Apache as an example of the current climate of corporate involvement in open source development.

“In 1998, Apache shifted into high gear when corporations like Sun (Microsystems Inc.), Apple (Computer Inc.) and IBM (Corp.) started to pay attention. But when the corporations expressed an interest we said: ‘you have to have an individual for your company sit on the Apache Developer List’.”

The NetBeans project with Sun was also a significant step in open source development because it “started getting other users from the outside contributing, and (Sun) opened up a lot of its internal processes,” Behlendorf said.

Corporate participation in open source development can also bring much needed cash to a project. Pointing to open source developers who successfully find resources from companies for investment, Behlendorf cited his own company’s work with, which produced Collab.Net’s open-source UML (Unified Modeling Language) modeling solution, ArgoUML.

In defining open source software, Behlendorf said its most important aspect is the right to fork, which occurs when open-source programmers disagree about software development plans, leading to the release of different software versions.

When forking, “you might have to rename the software, but you have the right to continue to maintain control for yourself over what you’re doing,” Behlendorf said.

He stressed the need for open source software to have an adjoining community set up around it that is “designed and built by collective wisdom and common needs.” As an example, Behlendorf credited the collaborative work of the open source community for Apache’s “really flexible API (Application Programmable Interface).”

Open software development also requires transparency, where all decisions, discussions and rationales about how things get built are exposed, Behlendorf said. “Transparency is all about bringing all of that data to a place where people can see it and see the reasoning behind it,” he said.

Behlendorf urged the audience to recognize good ideas and patches from other developers and to embrace the meritocracy principle in a consensus-driven decision making process.

When making the actual pitch to management for software based on open source development, if the company the developer working with is a software company, Behlendorf believes it’s fine to sell some percentage of the product as proprietary bits and some as open source. “Not everything you sell has to be released,” he said.

In terms of a company that is running a large Web site, remind the company that it will save money if the developer has to do less work by not reinventing the wheel and instead building proprietary layers on top of open software. “Today you can use any number of template systems and build on top of that. Draw a line that is as far to the right as you can,” Behlendorf said.

Consultants should also point out that building on top of open software would save money by saving the developer’s time. Furthermore, consultants – for an additional fee, of course – should offer themselves as conduits to the open source community, keeping an eye on new open source developments within the community for companies that may not be able to do so themselves, Behlendorf said.

Behlendorf also pointed out that the biggest stumbling block for most open source software projects is getting the details past the company’s legal department. “It may be controversial, but in my view, lawyers are just another breed of programmers who write code in the form of contracts,” Behlendorf said.

He encouraged developers to respect copyrights, and to be aware of the details, issues and developments of licences such as the GNU Public Licence and the Sun Internet Standards Source Licence as well as the concept of trademarks. “Apache cares about trademarks and it’s helped us maintain a pretty good product,” Behlendorf said.

According to Behlendorf, patents are the weak link in open source software but “at least in the United States, if you do the right thing (when accused of a patent infringement) and act in good faith, penalties are generally avoided,” Behlendorf said.

“Hopefully, we’ll have patent reform in the future, but right now, we don’t,” he added.

According to Behlendorf, many problems can be avoided if developers start a project gradually, point out to managers the many large IT companies – many of whom have large patent bases – that have “made the gamble,” and encourage nervous lawyers to talk with open source advocates outside of the company. “At least once or twice a week I have a conversation with a lawyer with questions about open source software,” Behlendorf said.

And when making a pitch to management for open source software development, make sure you come prepared with facts – such as research done by companies like Gartner Group Inc. – to show management just how open source software can make them money. “Just do a search on Google on something like Gartner and open source and you’ll find a lot of links to their research,” Behlendorf said.

After all, when it comes to open software and corporations, the bottom line is always the bottom line.

CollabNet, in San Francisco, can be contacted at The Apache Software Foundation, in Forest Hill, Md., can be contacted at The ApacheCon Europe 2000, in London, ran from Oct. 23-25 and more information can be found at