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Linus Torvalds (left), the principal developer of Linux, helped change the direction of enterprise software. Now, Jim Zemlin (right), the executive director of the Linux Foundation, wields increasing influence on the sector's future.

Image: Martin Streicher, Christopher Michel and Protocol
The Linux Foundation became a force in enterprise tech. Is that a problem?
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The Linux Foundation became a force in enterprise tech. Is that a problem?

What started as a means of protecting an open-source operating system has become a juggernaut of influence in enterprise tech. Not everyone is happy.

The Linux Foundation never expected to find itself one of the most influential forces in enterprise technology.

When it was founded 20 years ago, as a vendor-neutral home for the early work of Linus Torvalds, open-source software like his Linux operating system was for technological hippies. Real businesses ran atop proprietary software from Microsoft, Oracle and IBM, and the notion that those competitors would one day collaborate with each other on a public code base was as unbelievable as the prospect of that guy from "The Apprentice" running for president.

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But the world changed, and open-source software became the blueprint for the tech explosion following the dot-com bubble. Rank-and-file developers building tech infrastructure loved the idea of collaborating on important projects and sharing them with their fellow geeks, and companies began to realize that many of those projects were easier and cheaper to implement than asking their developers to build the basic pieces of an internet business over and over again from scratch. That helped the enterprise software market balloon into a sector that Gartner says will be worth more than $426 billion in 2020.

Today, Linux is an unqualified and much-expanded success, the backbone for the cloud computing revolution as well as a powerful tool for mobile and embedded computers. And countless other open-source projects you've never heard of, also supported by the now 200-person nonprofit that the Linux Foundation has become, help to run the internet. "The collective value of the code in Linux Foundation projects is estimated at roughly $16 billion, and it's growing every day," according to the foundation's web site.

With that success, however, has come a lot of grumbling about the increasing power that the Linux Foundation wields across enterprise tech.

Fueled by contributions from the biggest enterprise tech giants and, until coronavirus came along, a vibrant calendar of lucrative events, the Linux Foundation recorded almost $100 million in revenue during 2018, the most recent year for which figures are available. That number was almost certainly higher in 2019, and some of its executives make high-six-figure salaries that raise eyebrows even among well-compensated enterprise tech workers.

Through the power of the marketing dollars it distributes across a wide variety of projects, the Linux Foundation has the resources to flood the enterprise market with support for the projects under its umbrella, making it harder for smaller projects that don't receive its backing to find an audience. While the Linux Foundation might not have set out to pick winners and losers in enterprise tech, the group and its members have an outsized effect on the projects, products and companies that are presented to the enterprise tech buyer.

In an interview with Protocol, Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin acknowledged its critics, pointing out that the open-source community is rarely shy about expressing strong opinions. But in his view, the group's impact has been positive, punching above its weight in trying to advance the cause of open-source software while bringing a variety of new voices, including end users, into the enterprise software development process.

"We are fixated on our mission: We want to create a shared technology investment, freely available to anyone at any time, permanently. We want to make sure we bring everybody into the party," Zemlin said.

The rise of the penguin

Back in the late 1990s, a relatively small number of people working in enterprise tech realized the potential that Linux had to disrupt the old guard. Todd Moore of IBM was one of them.

Moore was trying to reduce the cost of a line of IBM servers he was responsible for managing, and he just couldn't see a way to hit the desired price using Unix, the dominant (and proprietary) server operating system of the time. He came across a fledgling project called Linux and began speaking regularly with project leader Linus Torvalds, who was building the operating system more or less in his spare time.

Spare time turned into full time in 2000, with the formation of the Open Source Development Lab, backed by heavy hitters such as IBM, HP and Intel to create "the industry's first independent, nonprofit lab for developers who are adding enterprise capabilities to Linux," according to a press release at the time.

Image: Torkild Retvedt, Jordan Harrison and Protocol

"We realized that open source for the enterprise wasn't what people were thinking yet; they didn't quite know how to handle that," Moore, now IBM's vice president for open technology and developer advocacy, said in an interview with Protocol. The OSDL helped define the early parameters for Linux in enterprise tech, and after IBM and others asserted that they wouldn't use their formidable patent portfolios against the nascent project, tech buyers started to take Linux more seriously.

In 2007 the OSDL combined with two other organizations to create the Linux Foundation, which continued to pay Torvalds and other contributors (currently just Greg Kroah-Hartman), to oversee development of what at that point had become a substantial force in enterprise computing.

Ensuring that no single vendor hired Torvalds to develop Linux was arguably one of the most important things the Linux Foundation ever did, said John Gossman, a distinguished engineer at Microsoft.

Microsoft, which famously warred against the very concept of Linux for nearly a decade before acknowledging defeat about eight years ago, finally joined the Linux Foundation in 2016. Even then, concerns lingered internally about joining forces with a former enemy, but new strategic thinking around the importance of open-source software following the elevation of Satya Nadella to the CEO position won out, Gossman said.

"Having [Torvalds and Kroah-Hartman] be independent from any vendor, not having any commercial interest and just there to make sure the Linux kernel is as good as possible, is a value to Microsoft," he said.

But the scope of the Linux Foundation has expanded dramatically in the years since its namesake operating system was its primary concern.

More than 100 projects now fall under the Linux Foundation umbrella, spread across technology sectors like artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, networking and security. Several subset foundations have also emerged over the years, including the Cloud Foundry Foundation, the influential Cloud Native Computing Foundation, and the recently announced Open Source Security Foundation.

"Our mission is to bring together communities and large-scale investment in impactful segments of the tech economy in order to facilitate innovation, to accelerate time to value for upstream code, to make sure that code is written in a secure manner, [and] to help manage the intellectual property provenance of those great bodies of code that are critical to society so they are seen as safe and low risk to adopt," Zemlin said.

Open for business

There's no question that open-source software created a new wave of business opportunities. As more companies took interest in open-source projects, they realized they didn't necessarily have the in-house expertise to manage those projects themselves and turned to startups and larger companies for help.

"Before, there wasn't this expectation that open-source software was enterprise grade," said Abby Kearns, chief technology officer of Puppet and former executive director of the Cloud Foundry Foundation. "Now, it's like, you're collaborating on something together, and you're driving something forward with the expectation that this is really becoming the foundation for something else that this is built on top of, which adds another layer of criticality on top of it."

Image: XKCD.com

Those expectations have raised the stakes for open-source software. There are massive amounts of money floating through enterprise tech right now as companies contemplate, execute and manage a once-in-a-generation shift in how businesses use technology, thanks to cloud computing. And open-source software lies at the center of much of that activity.

Venture capitalists poured around $2 billion in open-source startups in just 2019 alone, according to Crunchbase data cited by Techcrunch. And this area of tech has only benefited from the economic disruption caused by the badly managed pandemic in the U.S. as companies turn to digital tools to survive.

As demand for open-source software intensifies, foundations ideally give promising open-source projects a neutral home with a governance structure that ensures no single vendor has outsized control over the technical direction of a project. Foundations also manage trademark policies for those projects, which allows a variety of companies to advertise their use of or support for strategically important projects with current and prospective customers.

"We all share a common perspective that there really is community and industry value for projects that are truly vendor neutral," said Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, another foundation for open-source projects that competes with the Linux Foundation to a certain extent.

Sarah Novotny, a longtime open-source community participant and currently head of Microsoft's open-source strategies, agreed.

"What the Linux Foundation or any of its named subprojects does is offer social proof that there is a greater group than the person who thought up this idea that is going to participate in it, which by proxy gives something more to someone who is considering using it," said Novotny, who is also Microsoft's representative on the Linux Foundation's board of directors.

Open-source projects certainly don't have to be a part of the Linux Foundation to ensure business success, as companies built around projects like MongoDB, HashiCorp and Mulesoft have demonstrated over the past few years. But support from the Linux Foundation — which has a much greater budget than that of the Eclipse Foundation or the Apache Software Foundation, another competitor — lends a ton of visibility to projects, and companies based around those projects, that is hard to duplicate as a lone startup or an independent developer.

Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation. Image: Linux Foundation, Christopher Michel and Protocol

Zemlin argued that the Linux Foundation's big tent and direct financial support for promising projects has helped enterprise tech buyers break free from a world in which they had only a handful of options for building a business on the internet.

"The move to a service economy in cloud computing has produced tremendous tailwinds for open source," he said, referencing how much enterprise software is now sold on a subscription basis rather than through licensing. "If you think of open source as this broad organic innovation, how do you balance having as little overhead as possible to facilitate that creative process that these incredible developers do, with enough structure around it so you can facilitate all the things [needed] to give people confidence to adopt that in commercial products and services? That has been something [the Linux Foundation] really tried to do as open source has become critical to the overall IT economy."

'Just a middleman for corporations'

To its critics, however, the Linux Foundation's embrace of the tech industry's most powerful forces has eroded its mission as an "antiestablishment" force in technology, which is how Zemlin described his view of the organization to Protocol.

His view is not shared as widely today among software developers and operations engineers who have worked in the open-source community for several years, and who remember a time when they might have agreed — if it weren't for everything that's happened since.

As one prominent open-source contributor and startup founder put it: "[The Linux Foundation] is just a middleman for corporations to work on this shared code base and sell it. They're great at fundraising and marketing, [but] they actually don't contribute to the thing which they are selling, which is code." Given the intertwined politics of the Linux Foundation, enterprise tech vendors and the startup community, the person asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

While the Linux Foundation does pay Torvalds and Kroah-Hartman for their contributions to Linux, an enormous project, the group has wrestled with the idea of paying contributors directly for the time they spend improving other open-source projects, Kearns said. But the discussion quickly became thorny.

You know, the problem with open source is Twitter.

"If I'm paying your salary, now I can dictate and describe the roadmap and the definitions, and now I start to look like a software company," she said. "The whole point of creating a foundation is a neutral place where you can build trust and moderate community around that."

Still, that community is not as grassroots as it might once have been. The top-tier platinum members of the Linux Foundation, which means they contribute $500,000 a year to the organization, include Microsoft, IBM and Oracle; the enterprise software establishment from two decades ago.

The new guard is represented as well, with Google, VMware and Facebook all platinum members of the group, too. The CNCF, meanwhile, counts all the major cloud vendors as top contributors and is sketching a view of what it means to be "cloud native" that is centered around containers and its flagship project Kubernetes, which is a valid but certainly opinionated view of the best way to build tech infrastructure in 2020.

The Linux Foundation has worked very hard over the last decade to make sure that it was independent of any one major tech vendor, Zemlin said, and that has had the effect of gathering all the major tech vendors under one roof. But that roof has room for more than vendors: Thanks to foundations, end-user organizations like Linux Foundation gold members Blackrock and Uber have a much greater influence on the future direction of enterprise technology than they did in the days when their choices were limited to their vendors' imaginations, he said.

"Prior to this, it was mainly IT vendors who could afford to participate that were really making a lot of the investments," Zemlin said. "[End users] are demanding that the products and services that they consume are based on open-source projects. [The foundation] allows those end users to directly participate in the development of the products that they eventually consume."

There are no easy answers to these issues in open source, which over the years has become as much of an identity for a generation of software developers as a software licensing strategy. And the emotional debates will continue for quite a while: "One of the first times I met Sarah, she said to me, 'You know, the problem with open source is Twitter,'" Microsoft's Gossman said, referring to the content posted on the flammable social media platform by open-source community members, not the company itself.

But one thing is clear: With so much money at stake, it is going to be difficult for vendors, end users, foundations and developers to maintain a true sense of community in enterprise tech. The Linux Foundation still thinks it is best equipped to thread that needle, but key parts of this community are increasingly wary of its intentions.

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