Microsoft Funds Open Source Foundation

Microsoft has funded a new nonprofit organization formed to encourage commercial software companies to collaborate and contribute to open source communities.

The CodePlex Foundation, launched Thursday, aims to complement the work of existing open source organizations by providing a forum for developing best practices and finding common ground between open source developers and commercial software makers. It tapped one of Microsoft's senior leaders to spearhead the effort.

Sam Ramji, Microsoft's director of platform strategy who oversees the company's open source and Linux initiatives, was named interim president of the CodePlex Foundation. Incorporated as a 501.c6 nonprofit, the foundation received $1 million in startup funding from Microsoft. It is the latest move by the company to demonstrate its newfound willingness to work with the open source community.

Ramji will stay on as the foundation's interim president for the first 100 days, though he'll actually be leaving Microsoft before that. During the press conference, he revealed that he is leaving Microsoft on Sept. 25 to join an unnamed cloud-infrastructure startup in Silicon Valley. A family illness, he said, led to a personal decision to move back to California from Seattle.

"I leave Microsoft at a time when I believe open source has become part of the DNA of the company," Ramji said, "especially in the engineering teams. There are many people within and across Microsoft who will continue to advocate for open source."

During his 100 days, Ramji will help the interim board choose an executive director to manage the day-to-day operations, a permanent board and a board of advisers, he said. He plans to blog about this process to keep it transparent.

Ironically, Microsoft's hiring of Ramjii three years ago was seen by many as its opening salvo to shed its reputation as an opponent of open source software. "Those of us working to bring Microsoft closer to the open source world have come to believe that software companies and the developers that work for them under-participate in open source projects," Ramji said during a press conference announcing the foundation.

"Some of the reasons are cultural; some of them have to do with different software development methodologies; some have to do with different views about copyrights, patents and licensing. We see the foundation as a way to bring software developers and open source communities together."

Microsoft also contributed the foundation's name, which is taken from the company's open source project-hosting Web site, CodePlex. The name was transferred to the foundation, Ramji explained, and then licensed back to Microsoft. CodePlex will continue to host open soure projects, he said. More than 11,000 projects are currently hosted on the site.

The foundation will focus on projects that can serve as best-practice examples of how software companies and open source communities can collaborate effectively, Ramji said. It will work initially with a limited number of yet-to-be-named open source organizations to establish a set of core practices for that collaboration, along with a core management process. Software companies in open sourcers will be able to work through the foundation to create development practices and processes that are complementary by design and intent, he said.

This goal of complementarity is what differentiates the CodePlex Foundation from the swarm of similar groups operating today, Ramji said. "Existing open source foundations are mostly targeted at particular projects, such as Firefox and the Mozilla Foundation, or GNOME and the GNOME Foundation," he said. "CodePlex will complement the activities of other open source foundations by addressing a full spectrum of software projects while keeping the licensing, copyright and patent needs of the software companies in mind."

The foundation professes on its Web site to have "no pre-suppositions about particular projects, platforms, or open source licenses." Ramji said that the foundation would be "defaulting to the BSD license," but would support any open source license for the projects it sponsors.

When asked whether a group funded, managed and branded by Microsoft could actually operate as an open source organization, Ramji insisted that the foundation would remain project- and platform-neutral.

"As we add members and participants from open source communities and the broad software development world, any individual's influence will be diluted to the benefit of all," Ramji told reporters during the press conference. "Open source and Microsoft are no longer antithetical."

The skepticism was a bit of déjà vu for Stephen O'Grady, principal analyst at Redmonk. "When the Eclipse Foundation was initially spun out of IBM, the argument against it was that it was nothing more than an IBM subsidiary," O'Grady said. "Over time, that attitude changed. Eclipse's executive director Mike Milinkovich came from Oracle, not IBM, and the leadership of the foundation managed to establish itself as an independent entity. IBM is still a massive contributor to Eclipse, but nobody worries about it now. The CodePlex Foundation has admirable goals, but it remains to be seen whether its leadership can establish that same independence in the minds of developers."

Forrester Research analyst Jeffrey Hammond agreed. "If you'd asked the average developer about Eclipse before the Eclipse Foundation had established itself, they'd have said, 'Oh, you mean that IBM site?' There's a similar dynamic here."

Hammond sees the formation of the CodePlex Foundation as another step in Microsoft's maturation around open source.

"There's been a big change in attitude in Redmond," he said. "They've finally gotten to the point where they've figured out that open source is not specific to the platform -- which is where they care the most about competing -- and that they can use open source at higher levels than the platform to compete against folks like IBM and Oracle. This foundation gives them another way to begin to use open source to compete."

Microsoft's historical animosity toward open source is well-documented, O'Grady said. But in more recent years, there has been a kind of glasnost in Redmond. "Microsoft has done some pretty good work with some fairly high-profile open source communities," he said. "They engaged successfully with Mozilla, with the PHP community, with Apache and with Eclipse. And there's the company contribution of 20,000 lines of driver code to the Linux kernel" as reported in July.

The increasing participation in open source at Microsoft led to internal discussions about initiating a new open source foundation, Ramji said. "The positive community response to the contribution of the Linux drivers confirmed our belief that now was the time to move ahead," he said.

 "Sam is a great person to lead this organization," Hammond said. "My worry is that the momentum that he generated at Microsoft around open source might stall with his leaving. He's been a tireless champion of open source inside the company."

Bill Staples, general manager for Microsoft's Web Platform and Tools group, said Ramjii's departure from Microsoft won't slow Microsoft's open source strategy or approach. "Sam has been a great champion for open source collaboration and participation at Microsoft, as evidenced by our increased open source community participation over the past few years, and we look forward to working with him in his new role at the CodePlex Foundation," Staples said.

Microsoft is "actively seeking a qualified replacement who can continue the great open source momentum that Sam drove during his time at Microsoft," Staples added.

Ramji will have some help during his short presidency. The roster of interim board members supporting Ramji includes Staples; Stephanie Davies Boesch, a Microsoft systems engineer; Novell's Miguel de Icaza, a well-known open source developer as well as the developer and creator of GNOME and co-founder of Ximian; D. Britton Johnston, a product unit manager on Microsoft's SQL Server team; and Shaun Bruce Walker, co-founder and chief architect of DotNetNuke Corp. Mark Stone, former executive editor for open source at O'Reilly, is the deputy director.

The foundation's current board of advisers includes, among others: Monty Widenius, main author of the original MySQL; well-known open sourcer Stephen Walli; SugarCRM's Larry Augustin; HP's Robert Gobeille, lead architect of the FOSSology project; Rob Conery, creator of Subsonic; Microsoft's John Lam, creator of Iron Ruby; Sara Ford, program manager for CodePlex; Jim Newkirk, Microsoft's product unit manager for CodePlex and co-author of NUnit; Microsoft's Phil Haack, who runs the SubText.NET open source blogging engine; Microsoft's principle program manager Scott Hanselman; Aaron Fulkerson, founder and CEO of open source and collaborative network company MindTouch.

But the endorsement rock star coders and open source gurus aren't going to determine the fate the CodePlex Foundation, said O'Grady.

"The success of this organization is going to depend primarily on one thing," he said. "Participation. The question becomes: Can the backers of the foundation convince developers that it brings value to them, and that Microsoft is really not going to provide undue influence?"

Staples said that won't be an issue. "It is not owned or controlled by Microsoft," he said. "We fully expect and encourage the foundation to be independent, and know they will also be recruiting other commercial sponsors and participants."

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].


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