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Open Source Gerrymandering

Over the years, I have spent a lot of time thinking about and working on open source communities… from bootstrapping projects out of corporations (or broken communities), to starting brand new open source foundations.

I was recently having a conversation with an old colleague about bringing an open source project out of a company into the wild and how to setup the project for success. A key part of that discussion involved setting up the governance for the project and what that means. There was also discussion how neutral and open governance under a nonprofit foundation can be good for certain projects as research has shown that neutral foundations can promote growth and community better than other approaches. Also the conversation led to a funny side discussion on the concept of gerrymandering and open source.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, it’s become popular in the US political lexicon as a “practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries.” A practical example of this is from my town of Austin TX which is in district 35 which snakes all the way from Austin to San Antonio for some reason.

The same concept of gerrymandering can apply to open source communities as open source projects can act like mini political institutions (or bigger ones in the case of Kubernetes). I shared some of my favorite examples with my friend so I figured I’d write this down for future reference and share it with folks as you really need to read the “fine print” to find these at times.

Apache Cassandra

The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) is a fantastic open source organization that has been around for a long time (they celebrated their 20th anniversary) and has had a lot of impact across the world. The way projects are governed in the ASF are through the Apache Way, which places a lot of emphasis on “community over code” amongst some other principles which are great practices for open source projects to follow.

There have been some interesting governance issues and lessons learned over the years in the ASF, in particular it can be challenging when you have a strong single vendor associated with a project as was with the case with Cassandra awhile ago:

As the ASF board noted in the minutes from its meeting with DataStax representatives, “The Board expressed continuing concern that the PMC was not acting independently and that one company had undue influence over the project.” There was some interesting press around the time this happened:

“Jagielski told me in an interview, echoing what he’d said on the Cassandra mailing list, that undue influence conflicts with project leadership obligations established by the ASF. As he suggested, the ASF tried many times to get a DataStax-heavy Project Management Committee (PMC) to pay attention to alleged trademark and other violations, to no avail. Whatever DataStax’s positive influence on the development of the project—in other words—it failed to exercise equivalent influence on governing the project in ASF fashion.”

The ASF basically forced a reorganization of the Cassandra PMC to be in more in lines with its values and then caused the primary vendor behind the project to pull engineers off the open source project.

Containerd

The containerd project is an industry-standard container runtime with an emphasis on simplicity, robustness and portability. The history of the project comes from being born at Docker where their open source projects had a governance policy essentially aligned with the BDFL philosophy with one of their project founders.

In CNCF, (which containered is a project of), project governance documents aren’t considered static and evolve over time to meet the needs of their community. For example, when containerd joined the CNCF their governance was geared towards a BDFL approach but over time evolved to a more neutral approach that spread authority across maintainers.

Cloud Foundry

Cloud Foundry is an open source community that has a large and mature ecosystem of PaaS focused projects. In the Cloud Foundry Foundation (CFF), they have a unique governance clauses in regards to how affiliates are treated and voting.

Pivotal Platinum Director Voting Power. The Platinum Director appointed by Pivotal (“Pivotal Director”) shall have five (5) votes on any matter submitted to a vote of the Board. (i) On a date one (1) year after the incorporation date set forth in the Certificate, the number of Pivotal Director’s votes will be reduced to three (3). (ii) On a date two (2) years after the incorporation date set forth in the Certificate, the number of Pivotal Director’s votes will be reduced to one (1)

To bootstrap the foundation, the originating company wanted a little bit of control for a couple of years, which can make sense in some situations as the beginning of a foundation can be a tumultuous time. In my opinion, it’s great to see the extra vote clause expire after 2 years, however, it’s still very unfair to the early potential members of the organization.

Another example of open source gerrymandering can be how votes are represented by member companies that are owned by a single entity:

At no time may a Member and its Affiliates have more than one Director who is an employee, officer, director, or consultant of that Member, except that Pivotal, EMC, and VMware, though Affiliates, shall each have one (1) Director on the Board).

This is an interesting tidbit given that Dell owns Pivotal, EMC and VMWare. In some organizations, usually there is legal language that collapses owned entities into one vote.

I personally I’m not the biggest fan of this approach as it makes things unfair from the beginning and can be an impediment to wide adoption across the industry. There can definitely be reasons of why you need to do this in the formation phase but it should be done with caution. If you saw the recent news that Pivotal was being spun back into VMWare and their woes with adoption, it shouldn’t come as a surprise in my opinion as one company was bearing too much of the burden in my opinion and not building a diverse community of contributors.

Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF)

If you remember the early days of the container and orchestration wars, there was a lot different technologies, approaches and corporate politics. When CNCF was founded, the original charter included a clause that upgraded certain startup members from Silver to Platinum that were important in the ever evolving cloud native ecosystem.

“The Governing Board may extend a Platinum membership at the Silver Membership Scale rates on a year-by-year basis for up to 5 years to startup companies with revenues less than $50 million that are deemed strategic technology contributors by the Governing Board.”

In my opinion, that particular piece in the charter was important in bringing together all the relevant startups to the table along with the big established companies at the time.

In terms of projects, the CNCF Technical Oversight Committee (TOC) defines a set of principles to steward the technical community. The most important principle is around a minimum viable governance that enables projects to be self-governing. TOC members are available to provide guidance to the projects but do not control them. 

Unlike Apache and the Apache Way, CNCF does not require its hosted projects to follow any specific governance model. Instead, CNCF specifies that graduated projects need to “explicitly define a project governance and committer process.” So in reality, CNCF operates under the principle of subsidiarity, encouraging decisions to be made at the lowest project level consistent with their resolution.

GitLab

GitLab is a fantastic open source project AND company that I admire deeply for their transparency. The way the GitLab project is structured is that it’s wholly owned by the GitLab company (they also own the trademark). To the credit of GitLab, they make this clear via their stewardship principles online and discuss what they consider enterprise product work versus project work.

I’d love for them in the future to separate the branding from the company, project and the product as I believe it’s confusing and dilutes the messaging, but that’s just my opinion 🙂

Istio

Istio is a popular service mesh project originated at Google. It has documented its governance model publicly: https://github.com/istio/community/blob/master/STEERING-COMMITTEE.md

However, as you can see, it’s heavily tilted towards Google and there seems to be no limits on the number of spots on the steering committee from one company which is a common tactic in open governance approaches to keep things fair. On top of that, Google owns the trademark, domains and other project assets so I’d consider Istio to be heavily gerrymandered in Google’s versus the community’s interest.

JCP

I had the pleasure of serving on the Java Community Process (JCP) Executive Committee for a few years while I was at Twitter. It’s a great organization that drives standardization across the Java ecosystem, some of the fine print is interesting though:

“The EC is composed of 25 Java Community Process Members whose seats are allocated as follows: 16 Ratified Seats, 6 Elected Seats, and 2 Associate Seats, plus one permanent seat held by Oracle. (Oracle’s representative must not be a member of the PMO.) The EC is led by a non-voting Chair from the PMO.”

This essentially gives Oracle a permanent seat on the Executive Committee.

Here’s another fun clause:

Ballots to approve Umbrella JSRs that define the initial version of a new Platform Edition Specification or JSRs that propose changes to the Java language are approved if (a) at least a two-thirds majority of the votes cast are “yes” votes, (b) a minimum of 5 “yes” votes are cast, and (c) Oracle casts one of the “yes” votes. Ballots are otherwise rejected.

This essentially gives Oracle a veto vote on any JSR.

Note: The coolest thing the JCP has done is contribute the EE specification work to the Eclipse Foundation and form the Jakarta project over there to steward things in an open way.

Knative

Knative, like Istio mentioned above, is an open source project that was born at Google and controlled by Google. There have been a lot of discussion lately about this as Google recently decided to not openly govern the project and move it to a neutral foundation:

Kubernetes

Kubernetes operates under the auspices of the CNCF and openly governed by the Kubernetes Steering Committee (KSC). The Kubernetes project has grown significantly over time, but has done a great job of keeping things openly governed and inclusive in my opinion, especially compared to its project size these days. The KSC governs the project along with a variety of sub working groups. Also, the Kubernetes trademark is neutrally owned by the CNCF and openly governed via the Conformance Working Group which decides how certification works for the community, which there are nearly 100 certified solutions out there!

Spinnaker

The Spinnaker project was originally born at Netflix and recently spun out into the Continuous Delivery Foundation (CDF) as an openly governed project. The project assets, from domains to github to trademarks are all neutrally owned by the community through the CDF.

Vault

Vault is a fantastic and widely used secrets management tool from Hashicorp. It’s a single vendor controlled open source project that has an open core model with an open source and enterprise versions (see matrix). What this essentially means is that the buck stops at the single vendor on what features/fixes end up in the open source version, most likely that won’t include things that they sell in their enterprise offering.

Conclusion

I hope you learned something new about open source projects, foundations and communities as these things can be a little bit more complicated as you dig into the details. It’s really important to note that there is a difference between open source and open governance and you should always be skeptical of a project that claims it’s truly open if only one for profit company owns all the assets and control. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach at all, most organizations don’t set expectations up front which can lead to frustrations down the road. Note, there’s nothing wrong with single vendor controlled open source projects, I think they are great but I think they need to be upfront, similar to what GitLab stewardship principles on what they will put in open source versus their enterprise version.

In conclusion, as with anything in life, you should always read the fine print of an open source communities charter or legal paperwork to understand how it works. The lesson here is that every organization or project has its own rules and governance and it’s important that you understand how decisions are made and who has ownership of project assets like trademarks.