The Linux Foundation: It’s not just the Linux operating system
Jason Perlow | 02 March 2020
Why have so many of the world’s most important open source efforts come to the Linux Foundation? Because of the ability to scale and provide value-added services to its communities.
In April of 1991, while as an undergraduate student at the University of Helsinki, Linus Torvalds began a personal project to create a free operating system. In August of that year, he announced the project to the comp.os.minix newsgroup requesting input on features.
The rest, of course, is history. In the past 30 years, the Linux kernel and its surrounding userspace tools have become the most popular open source operating system in the entire world.
As part of its rise to prominence, increasing complexity, scope, and the number of project contributors, the kernel project required the necessary technology, administrative, and legal infrastructure to scale with the community. As a result, the Linux Foundation was founded in 2000 as the Open Source Development Lab (which subsequently changed its name to the Linux Foundation.)
The nonprofit purpose of the organization is to “support, promote, protect and standardize Linux and other open source software and technologies.”
Figure 1. Project communities hosted by the Linux Foundation increased dramatically between 2013-2019.
At the time of the Linux Foundation’s formation, the organization was focused on promoting and protecting one project — Linux itself.
Up until roughly 2010, approximately a dozen or so projects related to the Linux operating system were hosted at The Linux Foundation. Those projects were formed to enable Linux’s evolution and entry into new segments and industry verticals, with the objective of making Linux the dominant platform by market share in every category of enterprise computing.
Today, Linux is an undisputed industry leader — but we should remember that was not always the case. At the time of the Foundation’s inception, Linux occupied only a minority market share in high-performance computing. In 2020, it now has complete dominance of the supercomputer market, wholly displacing UNIX, which held 85 percent of all HPC systems just 20 years earlier.
As a result of the efforts of the Linux Foundation’s communities over the past two decades, Linux now occupies a majority share in automotive, embedded systems, mobile devices, and cloud computing, as well.
As Linux continued to take a dominant foothold in all major markets, the Linux Foundation embarked on becoming a “foundation of foundations” to enable developers, communities, and members that wanted to leverage the same model of the LF — but for non-Linux technologies. Over the past seven years, the number of new project communities that the Linux Foundation supports has increased dramatically — which is now 225 and growing. And while that figure may seem small in a world where there are 23 million open repositories on GitHub, the projects at the Linux Foundation are at the heart of multi-billion dollar economies in cloud computing, networking, embedded systems, film, energy, and more.
As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the formation of the Linux Foundation, it’s a good time to reflect on how the Foundation approaches support for open source innovation.
Scaling to support the world’s most important open source software communities
In the last 20 years, The Linux Foundation has become a critical commons for administration, support, enablement, and protection of open source community assets. This would not have been possible without first building a governance model that communities could trust to work for them, then building value-added support programs to support scale. The design goal has been to build the best upstream community model for downstream commercial solution providers and users.
As of February 2020, the Linux Foundation has become home to approximately 230 distinct project communities, spread among multiple industry verticals. In addition to the core Linux OS, the Linux Foundation communities build open source software technologies for Cloud, Networking, Security, Automotive, Blockchain, the Web, and even motion pictures. Beyond software, the Linux Foundation also supports open hardware communities such as RISC-V, OpenPower, and CHIPS Alliance.
The Linux Foundation’s communities have then gone further, building industry specifications and standards. The Joint Development Foundation (“JDF”) is the home to many of these specifications covering technologies such as GraphQL, video codecs, decentralized identity, and more. JDF is now also approved as an ISO JTC1 PAS Submitter, meaning that the Linux Foundation’s communities can now follow a path to becoming an international standard.
Every single one of these projects has associated community assets.
- Over 12,000 Contributor License Agreements (CLAs) signed by contributing organizations for project communities requiring them.
- Over 700 registered project domains and DNS records
- Over 700 trademark registrations and applications, as well as hundreds of unregistered marks
- Over 3,400 source code repositories
- Approximately 3,000 membership agreements supporting communities
Many of these communities also seek financial support from companies involved in the projects and raise funding to support their efforts. The Linux Foundation has supported projects with a process, templates, and agreements that make it easy for companies to support the project communities they rely on.
In addition to hosting the communities themselves, the Linux Foundation is also host to many open source in-person events, which feature some of the most highly recognizable open source brands, such as KubeCon, KVM Forum, Cloud Foundry Summit, OpenJS World, and the Open Source Summit.
Why projects choose the Linux Foundation
Ultimately, the objective of open source software projects is to produce the best open source software. That sounds fairly obvious and straightforward, but the reality is that managing even a small open source project has a considerable amount of overhead attached to it. The lead maintainers generally have to deal with the burden, and as a community grows, the challenges get more complicated.
It’s easy to set up a new open source project with all the free tooling available today at sites such as GitHub and GitLab. However, beyond having a fundamental repository, if a project community wants to do something more such as building neutral ownership and taking donations from companies, that overhead goes up exponentially. Now the maintainers need to deal with issues they never anticipated:
- Setting up a legal entity, which can take months of work and legal costs, then the ongoing maintenance of the entity and its associated state or federal filings
- Setting up a bank account, checks, accounting systems, and payroll systems, as well as benefits administration and hiring staff
- Getting legal agreements signed by the sponsoring companies
- Filling out paperwork and forms to be set up as a supplier with a sponsoring company
- Dealing with invoices, purchase orders, and procurement departments
- Setting up a financial reporting process, so stakeholders have visibility into where the funds went
Once a project graduates from simple hosting infrastructure, continual paperwork needs to be processed for establishing legal tax status, logos, trademarks, license agreements, as well as addressing other financial, legal, and different administrative needs. The complexity grows, and the project maintainers prefer to focus on what they do best — writing code and shipping the next release. Most maintainers have no desire to become experts at setting up a nonprofit entity, managing accounting, and dealing with procurement departments.
This is where an organization like the Linux Foundation can offer significant assistance and support the developer community using a low overhead model. The Linux Foundation is chosen by major open source initiatives to serve as a home for their projects because of the level of effort, as well as the startup costs for setting up many of these core assets, can be substantial. Additionally, very few reputable organizations with a global presence exist that can provide the level of neutrality required to host these assets in a trustworthy manner that would otherwise be free of influence from an interested corporate entity.
Figure 2: The portfolio of support programs that the Linux Foundation has developed to help its project communities.
The Linux Foundation can attribute some of the interest from communities to the comprehensive support programs it provides, which include:
- Providing funding support through membership models or securing one-off contributions through crowdfunding, leaving the complexities of managing the legal entity, financial oversight, and regulatory filings to professionals that are highly experienced and dedicated to their administration.
- Providing base policies that offer a known framework for organizations to collaborate, including an antitrust policy, trademark policy, templates for a code of conduct, and more.
- Providing entity management for maintaining the core administrative support infrastructure that enables communities to interact, including hiring leadership and community support personnel, in order to facilitate and guide projects on an ongoing basis.
- Supporting community events for face to face opportunities, as well as marketing and communications support to grow a project’s community audience and help people learn about the great things they contribute to
- Eliminating the burden of managing software releases through hiring neutral release engineers that support the maintainers
- Providing a platform in the form of CommunityBridge to address common challenges with fundraising, mentoring, security vulnerability scanning, and managing CLAs.
- Providing training and professional certification support that enables building an ecosystem of skilled professionals in order to use, implement, and manage solutions based on a project’s technology.
- Providing support for license compliance, export control, and security by the routine scanning of project repositories in order to help the community identify license and security problems before an official release proliferates issues to downstream users.
The Linux Foundation model for open communities
The Foundation’s work with open source communities focuses on building a trusted “foundation as a service” model for open collaboration based on five key principles:
- Organizational Neutrality: No single company or organization can ever “take away” assets from the community that forms around a project. As a neutral owner, the core assets, such as the internet domains, online service accounts, and trademarks, can never be held hostage by an interested commercial entity. The Linux Foundation “owns” the assets, but empowers the community to make decisions about how they want to use them through its governance model.
- Clear Separation of Funding and Participation: Additionally, any organization’s developer participation in an open source project hosted by the Linux Foundation is entirely independent of their financial support. While an organization may support a community financially, they cannot steer technical direction without contributing to the codebase like everyone else. For example, financial support does not grant any member the ability to name a committer, contribute a project feature, or set project priorities. All of that work is done through an open governance model.
- Open Governance: Successful open collaboration projects have neutral, well-defined governance models where those who do the work make the decisions. The Linux Foundation strives to provide “do-ocracies” where responsibilities attach to people who do the work rather than elected or selected by some identified decision-maker. Our projects operate transparently, and the community develops its own operational guidelines that serve to create a working technical community.
- Intellectual Property Clarity: The removal of uncertainty over the licensing of intellectual property makes it easy for developers to contribute and end-users to implement projects supported by the Linux Foundation. The Linux Foundation engages with the key stakeholders to understand and document the intellectual property terms that will form the basis for the collaboration. Contributors retain individual ownership of contributed code under an open source license and/or the terms of a project Contributor License Agreement (CLA).
- Commercial Support Ecosystem: Developers like to see the projects they’re working on show up in products and solutions — it’s great to have users. The Linux Foundation encourages commercial involvement in our projects, which leads to additional benefits for the community. There are opportunities to get new contributions from developers working at companies, expanding the use cases and features, and helping guide user requirements. Often our communities will see enhanced employment opportunities for project contributors. This commercial support ecosystem can also provide support for the project, helping cover the cost of running an event, paying for development infrastructure, or providing people to help with documentation or other needs.
The Linux Foundation permits its projects to concentrate on the daily business of software development, while also allowing the administrative overhead to be managed by seasoned professionals that can provide the necessary legal and financial oversight at scale.
The growth of the Linux Foundation over the past two decades, and most recently, the last seven years, can be attributed to the diversity of value-added support programs that make it unique among organizations enabling technical collaboration. Whether a collaboration covers software, hardware designs, standards, or open data, the Linux Foundation has developed templates, models, and best practices to support an open community model.
The Linux Foundation’s adherence to core principles of neutrality, transparent governance, intellectual property clarity, and its fostering of a vibrant commercial support ecosystem has enabled it to work with some of the most innovative communities developing technology the entire world depends on every day. That’s an amazing opportunity and responsibility — we hope you will consider working with us on your next open community project.
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