The GSoC Process: A Tragedy in One Act

In just a few weeks I will hit the sixth anniversary of the day I became a maintainer of OpenNMS, and the day I started making a living selling services around open source software.

I know a lot of people thought I was crazy and that there was no way I was going to survive “selling free software” but I could see the real power in an open source approach to network management. To this day I can’t explain it to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. I often use the line from The Matrix that it is one thing to know the path, and another thing to walk the path. Not only have I survived, OpenNMS has prospered and grown tremendously over the last 6 years.

Unfortunately, the term “open source” has been so abused that it is being used by any company that makes even a token attempt to expose some of their code. It’s a marketing term used to sell expensive “enterprise” software licenses – licenses that are as closed and locked as anything from, say, Microsoft.

I’m not sure where things went wrong. Recently something happened that caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about it, so I thought I share some of those thoughts.

esr referred to open source as a “gift economy“. It dawned on me that perhaps some of the problem is in that term “gift”.

According to Webster, a gift is “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation”. The key there is “without compensation”. If compensation is required or expected, then it isn’t a gift.

We produce OpenNMS with no expectation of anything in return. When I was at LugRadio I met a number of people using OpenNMS without having purchased any of the commercial services products available for it, and they seemed a little embarrassed about not having paid anything. I told them not to worry about it – if you don’t need our services, don’t buy them. OpenNMS is a gift. Now, if you do buy commercial services then that money goes directly into making the project better, and the more services we sell the faster the product can improve, but there is absolutely no obligation to pay a cent.

(Note: unlike a true gift with no strings, there is one obligation with OpenNMS: honor the license.)

This doesn’t seem to be the case with the people who use “open source” as a marketing term. At SCaLE David talked with one such vendor, and the sales guy said that it really pissed him off when people came up and said they just used the “core” (or free) part of the product – he thought they should feel obligated pay for it. I was talking with the CEO of another similar firm about a controversial change he was proposing and how it would affect the community. He said that since they gave them the product in the first place, if they “didn’t like it, f*** ’em”.

It’s just so foreign to my experience. Back in 2002 when it was just me, it was the community of strangers around OpenNMS that kept me going. I didn’t have anyone else: no venture capital, no investment, just a project and some people who thought it was worth doing. Their involvement was a gift to me, something given without any expectations in return. I will always be grateful. In recognition of that time I came up with my two rules for OpenNMS:

1) OpenNMS will never suck.
2) OpenNMS will always be free.

So with that long preamble let me get the real meat of this post: Google.

I am an unabashed Google fan. Yeah, they are worth a lot of money and they make a lot of money, but if you look at the first Google page to the current one, not much has changed. It’s still minimalist and clean. They avoided the temptation to clutter it up.

And Google isn’t open source.

While they may use a lot of open source technology, Google is not and has never claimed to be an open source company. Yet with the Google Summer of Code they have done more for open source projects that any other vendor I can name. OpenNMS was lucky enough to become involved this year, mainly due to the efforts of Ben as an admin for our involvement, and we were awarded seven slots – seven people to help make OpenNMS a better product.

To put this into perspective, this is as if Google had given us US$35K.

Unfortunately, there was a downside. There was a person we were really interested in having work with us, but we thought he had been accepted by another project. When we found out that wasn’t the case, it was too late and we were out of slots. The guy was extremely enthusiastic and we thought he’d be a great member of the team, so we sprang into action to see what could be done.

I was on the west coast and was pretty removed from the action, so all I knew to do was to write Chris Dibona, one of the few people I know at Google. Ben, meanwhile, was talking with Leslie Hawthorn, the self-described “Den Mother” for GSoC, to see if something could be done. He was so concerned about getting this straightened out that he was doing this during breaks of Spamalot, a play he was attending.

Unfortunately, the person involved was taking the news poorly. Maybe somewhere along the way the gift of a GSoC slot turned into an expectation. My guess is that anyone as enthusiastic as this guy would quickly channel his disappointment into anger. This anger took the form of lashing out at Google, which was pretty unfair.

Tragically, at the very moment Ben had convinced Leslie to award us an extra slot for this guy, he posted another attack that ruined any chance he had of a slot within GSoC. He claimed to have been “betrayed by open source”. It was as when Romeo plunged in the knife seconds before Juliet woke up. So not only did he not get to be part of GSoC, OpenNMS lost a slot that could have been used to better the project.

If there is a lesson to be learned, it is to never forget the gift aspect of open source. It requires a certain amount of patience. Everyone is walking the path, although some are taking a more direct route than others. I hope that this GSoC candidate has learned something from the experience, just as I hope that the clients of the open source poseurs realize that they are paying for proprietary code that is no different, in the end, than commercial software.

By running our organization profitably, OpenNMS will be around for years to come, and thanks to companies like Google and the efforts of Leslie Hawthorn it just keeps getting better all of the time. Many thanks, Leslie, for your gift. We won’t squander it.