Fragmentation in open source: Recommendations for managing complexity
The Linux Foundation | 07 February 2023
Are global open source communities fragmented? New research reveals a multidimensional answer to the question. Here's how.
The open source community has grown significantly in the last two decades, but with this growth comes the question of whether degrees of fragmentation exist in the community and, if so, whether they are hindering its progress.
The latest LF Research report, Enabling Global Collaboration: How Open Source Leaders Are Confronting the Challenges of Fragmentation, authored by Anthony D. Williams of DEEP Centre Inc., sponsored by Futurewei Technologies, and in partnership with the Eclipse Foundation, LF Networking, LF AI & Data, and Linux Foundation Europe, explores this issue through interviews with open source leaders from around the world and breaks down the fragmentation question into three areas: open source solution development, global contributor integration, and community governance.
The report finds that fragmentation is a complex issue with both positive and negative effects on the open source community. Here are the issues at hand.
First, why is research into fragmentation needed?
Research so often informs our decision-making, and open source communities are no different. If a question or myth is circulating about whether, how much, or why a given phenomenon exists, it’s important to explore the issue and test a hypothesis. Regardless of the research questions posed, the objectives are often the same: that we at the Linux Foundation, in collaboration with our partners, strive to improve open source methodologies, fill existing gaps, and address challenges across our communities. So when the topic of fragmentation was presented as something of a curiosity, we jumped at the opportunity to explore it. Not everyone in the community agreed that fragmentation was “a thing,” making the topic even more worthwhile.
There were pleasant surprises, as well as uncomfortable truths.
Fragmentation is part of the open source evolutionary process, but it must be observed and managed
As with so many research projects conducted to date, some fascinating insights emerged in our exploration of the topic of fragmentation broadly. In addition to identifying legitimate fragmentation issues across project life cycles, the research report revealed that different open source software domains are unique, some being highly consolidated and others highly fragmented.
Several open source leaders who were interviewed acknowledged that some fragmentation is necessary for technological diversity and innovation, but too much can result in inefficiencies, confusion, and duplication of effort. Often, in the early cycles of emerging technology, there is duplication across innovation communities, but consolidation becomes more the norm as projects mature.
The downside of fragmentation is increased costs and complexity for consumers and vendors and the difficulty of identifying, testing, and deploying code libraries that may be similar in nature.
Additionally, fragmentation can reduce the collaborative benefits of having a large community work on a shared platform or standard and can result in competition for scarce resources.
With the proliferation of open source as a methodology for mass collaboration, and as it grows and expands to new industries, it is becoming an increasingly global and cosmopolitan space. However, language, culture, and geopolitics remain barriers to participation in open source communities, making diversity and inclusion critical to building a robust open source talent pool.
Open source is a global concern, not a national one
At its core, the report finds that the open source community has become more diverse and global, with contributions from all corners of the world, from Albania to Zimbabwe.
However, one of the biggest threats to open source collaboration is techno-nationalism – the restriction of critical innovations beyond national borders – which creates silos and exacerbates geopolitical tensions. It also restricts the distribution of open source code and undermines international collaboration, one of the core tenets of open source.
In spite of the existing barriers to full participation, open source leaders believe that investing in rapid machine translation, promoting open source norms, and fostering professionalism and diversity, equity, and inclusion, can help to address these issues. In doing so, access to talent and ingenuity is enhanced, and healthy and sustainable project communities can become the norm.
Actionable insights in managing open source fragmentation
Like all LF Research projects, Enabling Global Collaboration: How Open Source Leaders Are Confronting the Challenges of Fragmentation offers several actionable insights for addressing challenges in the development and governance of open source solutions.
These insights can be divided into three categories: managing fragmentation, confronting techno-nationalism, and fostering diversity and global inclusion, which will require new cross-foundational collaboration and dialogue with stakeholders.
- Forge greater alignment between open source projects: By aligning similar projects under a shared umbrella, open source communities can eliminate duplication, economize overhead, and reduce "vendor fatigue." However, open source foundations are often reluctant to pick "winning" projects, so there is a need for better project curation to ensure that projects are aligned around shared goals.
- Strengthen inter-foundation collaboration: Enhanced collaboration is needed between open source projects and foundations. Convening foundation leaders and working together to identify shared policy goals can help build trust and confidence in open source software and support the maintenance of critical open source infrastructure.
- Harness open source maturity models: Harnessing open source maturity models can help to identify robust code libraries and components, prevent "solving fragmentation" from killing the benefits of open source, and offer better filters for developers and end users to discover useful modules.
- Enlisting skilled community managers: Skilled community managers are needed to build high-performing collaboration networks. With the growth of open source, technologists are adapting to open source as open standards overtake proprietary approaches, and there is a need for people with skills for ecosystem leadership to avoid fragmentation.
- Confronting techno-nationalism and fostering global inclusion: Open source should be inclusive and accessible to everyone, regardless of location or background. Efforts should be made to confront techno-nationalism and ensure that the benefits of open source are accessible to everyone.
Fragmentation in open source is a challenge that needs to be addressed to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of the open source ecosystem. But it is also a natural part of innovative project cycles and a reality of open source itself.
With the report having identified challenges, it’s now up to the community to address them. We look forward to being part of next steps to fulfill this vision.
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