The Age of Foundations

At OSCON last week, Google announced the creation around Kubernetes of the Cloud-Native Computing Foundation. The next day, Jim Zemlin dedicated his keynote to the (recently-renamed) Open Container Initiative, confirming the Linux Foundation's recent shift towards providing Foundations-as-a-Service. Foundations ended up being the talk of the show, with some questioning the need for Foundations for everything, and others discussing the rise of Foundations as tactical weapons.

Back to the basics

The main goal of open source foundations is to provide a neutral, level and open collaboration ground around one or several open source projects. That is what we call the upstream support goal. Projects are initially created by individuals or companies that own the original trademark and have power to change the governance model. That creates a tilted playing field: not all players are equal, and some of them can even change the rules in the middle of the game. As projects become more popular, that initial parentage becomes a blocker for other contributors or companies to participate. If your goal is to maximize adoption, contribution and mindshare, transferring the ownership of the project and its governance to a more neutral body is the natural next step. It removes barriers to contribution and truly enables open innovation.

Now, those foundations need basic funding, and a common way to achieve that is to accept corporate members. That leads to the secondary goal of open source foundations: serve as a marketing and business development engine for companies around a common goal. That is what we call the downstream support goal. Foundations work to build and promote a sane ecosystem around the open source project, by organizing local and global events or supporting initiatives to make it more usable: interoperability, training, certification, trademark licenses...

Not all Foundations are the same

At this point it's important to see that a foundation is not a label, the name doesn't come with any guarantee. All those foundations are actually very different, and you need to read the fine print to understand their goals or assess exactly how open they are.

On the upstream side, few of them actually let their open source project be completely run by their individual contributors, with elected leadership (one contributor = one vote, and anyone may contribute). That form of governance is the only one that ensures that a project is really open to individual contributors, and the only one that prevents forks due to contributors and project owners not having aligned goals. If you restrict leadership positions to appointed seats by corporate backers, you've created a closed pay-to-play collaboration, not an open collaboration ground. On the downstream side, not all of them accept individual members or give representation to smaller companies, beyond their founding members. Those details matter.

When we set up the OpenStack Foundation, we worked hard to make sure we created a solid, independent, open and meritocratic upstream side. That, in turn, enabled a pretty successful downstream side, set up to be inclusive of the diversity in our ecosystem.

The future

I see the "Foundation" approach to open source as the only viable solution past a given size and momentum around a project. It's certainly preferable to "open but actually owned by one specific party" (which sooner or later leads to forking). Open source now being the default development model in the industry, we'll certainly see even more foundations in the future, not less.

As this approach gets more prevalent, I expect a rise in more tactical foundations that primarily exist as a trade association to push a specific vision for the industry. At OSCON during those two presentations around container-driven foundations, it was actually interesting to notice not the common points, but the differences. The message was subtly different (pods vs. containers), and the companies backing them were subtly different too. I expect differential analysis of Foundations to become a thing.

My hope is that as the "Foundation" model of open source gets ubiquitous, we make sure that we distinguish those which are primarily built to sustain the needs or the strategy of a dozen of large corporations, and those which are primarily built to enable open collaboration around an open source project. The downstream goal should stay a secondary goal, and new foundations need to make sure they first get the upstream side right.

In conclusion, we should certainly welcome more Foundations being created to sustain more successful open source projects in the future. But we also need to pause and read the fine print: assess how open they are, discover who ends up owning their upstream open source project, and determine their primary reason for existing.