Web Techniques Magazine
Volume 3, Issue 9
IBM Takes "Free" Apache Seriously
By Dale Dougherty
Brian Behlendorf of the Apache Group had a big smile on his face,
which is not unusual for him. He was getting some of the credit for teaching
IBM to share. At a press conference, he was sitting next to Paraic Sweeney
of IBM who was there to tell the world that IBM would join the Apache Group.
IBM would also begin shipping the Apache Web server with its WebSphere
Application Server, a Java-servlet applications platform.
A friend of mine who works at IBM says he and others had been championing
"free" software like Apache and Linux inside the company. He describes
it as a succession of waves, the first of which was repulsed immediately,
its leaders left bloodied. Each new wave found less and less opposition
until finally this new idea to embrace Apache won over.
Like any large company, IBM has a hoarding mentality. It invests a lot
in R&D and keeps much of it under wraps. IBM might be expected to have
a problem with "free software" in which developers share their work with
each other. It also might be expected that a segment of IBM's customers
would have a problem with a "free" product. Furthermore, how could this
open network of volunteer hackers produce better software than a dedicated
team of in-house programmers or a lab full of researchers?
The openness of the Internet is making it difficult for companies like
IBM to hoard talent, that is, to have all the expertise it needs on its
own team. Teams are increasingly distributed and internetworked across
all kinds of organizations. Now, it's possible for innovation to come from
every corner and be distributed just as widely.
The Apache Group was begun in 1995 to "patch" the NCSA Web server. NCSA,
the birthplace of Mosaic, had lost many of its developers to Netscape and
suddenly the only "free" Web server was being neglected. An informal group
of developers who depended upon the NCSA Web server set up a mailing list
to discuss problems, share code fixes, and eventually develop new code.
Behlendorf, who worked at Organic Online, one of the first Web design
and development shops, recognized that his business was dependent upon
a reliable and robust Web server, something that commercial Web servers
from Netscape and Microsoft were unable to provide. Yet, Behlendorf knew
that Organic Online did not want to turn itself into a software business.
Instead, he and others formed a cooperative network of developers who had
become stakeholders in this Web server. What held them together was the
principle that "where we got value, we needed to give value back."
Now the Apache Web server is the dominant server in the market, used
by more people than the offerings of Netscape and Microsoft combined. Apache
developers will have their first conference this year, ApacheCon, which
will be an opportunity for some members of the Apache Group to meet face-to-face
for the first time.
Sweeney says that by supporting the Apache Group, IBM recognizes the
success of development efforts in the Internet community and wants to become
a part of it. Behlendorf says he has met with IBM developers to show them
the ropes of the Apache Group and what it takes to join a development team
that operates in the open and by consensus.
Openness is key. The willingness to share code is also key. That's why
developers like Behlendorf and others-including Larry Wall, the father
of Perl, and Linus Torvald, the eponym of the Linux operating system-support
a new term called Open Source to identify so-called freeware or free software
projects. When Netscape endorsed Open Source in announcing Mozilla.org,
they said that making the browser source-code freely available gave them
the best chance to compete with Microsoft in the browser wars.
If source code is freely available, anyone can participate in these
development projects, whether it's to customize code for a very small niche
of users or to fix a nasty bug that can't wait until a future release.
Those who make modifications generally make the source code available back
to the group, so it can be integrated into future releases.
A lot of Web development today is custom work involving systems integration.
Developers take a set of source code developed for one project and reuse
it on another project. They swap it with other developers. If one of them
makes an improvement, they can share it across multiple projects. This
is a free world market in code.
Still, traditional big business has its troubles with free software,
even though this software has been the engine running the Internet. Some
IT managers claim not to use it, even though they simply don't know what
developers are really using in their own shops. Now, if they see it coming
from IBM, maybe they will face reality.
Dale Dougherty is the editor and publisher of Web Review and editorial
director of Web Techniques. You can reach him at [email protected]