The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) had its annual U.S. bash and celebrated its 10th birthday simultaneously the week of Nov. 2 in Oakland, Calif. ASF grew from a half-dozen programmers who got together in 1995 to provide better Web server software than the codeset originally developed as part of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) Mosaic browser project. ASF was sponsored by IBM and a few other companies at the beginning. In 1999, it coalesced into a self-funding foundation, hence the 10th anniversary party. Today hundreds of companies and thousands of individuals are among the ASF sponsorship group. That even includes Microsoft (according to many press reports, although I do not find the release on the ASF Web site). Microsoft is also involved as explained in this recent blog post: Java, Microsoft Office Software at Peace.
Given its volunteer nature, one of the keynotes was not surprising. (Note: I did not attend; one of the conference's tracks was streamed live. This is an idea you would think cloud computing advocates would figure out: Talk about Not Getting the Cloud Computing Concept.) The volunteer-oriented presentation was given by one of the ASF pioneers, Brian Behlendorf. His session was titled "How Open Source Developers Can (Still!) Save The World." (For background on the rational, non-bombastic approach that Behlendorf takes to open source, see this May 2008 IT Investment Research blog post I did on his opinions on the difference between open source and open standards, and between open standards and Open Standards.)
Of course, the title was just old-fashioned hyperbole to fill the room. but his pitch absolutely captures the open source culture, much better than the self-serving Ingres hype I ranted about here:Ingres CEO's Advice about Enterprise Software Makes No Sense. Behlendorf's premise was that open source software communities like the ASF have done far more than just create low-cost, commodity software. The concept behind ASF demonstrates a way for communities of interest to band together and also solve non-software problems, assuming you do not want to join a monastery or nunnery, which also follow the same approach. Behlendorf points out that beyond operating systems and Web servers, open source software is being used to organize disaster-relief efforts, enable microfinance banking, integrate electronic health care systems and change the way citizens collaborate with their government.
As he explained it, these were things that "software as not key to, but could be an important part of." He would like to see the open source culture more frequently act on its underlying idea of "community before code." He explained how open source is a commons, like the original intent of most New England towns' common, the most famous of which is the Boston Common.
Examples included WSO2's involvement with the Sahana disaster-management system. See my interview with WSO2's founders here, which provides information on WSO2's ASF bona fides. WSO2 is based in Sri Lanka and reacted quickly to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean/South Pacific. Behlendorf outlined his own experiences, including his growing relationship with non-software entities such as the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) department. The HHS effort is called the nationwide health information network (NHIN) and is intended to overcome the fact that only 25 percent of U.S. medical records are digitized and only 3 percent are really comprehensive. NHIN started in 2006, and was open sourced in April 2009.
I find his approach of associating open source culture with real-life examples so much more refreshing than pure marketing ideas such as Open Source for America as a way to spread the news about the open source culture.
Of course, not said was the fact that you don't have to be into the open source culture to do all these voluntary non-software things. No matter what software license terms and conditions you prefer (if you have a preference), Behlendorf makes you think about how you can "contribute."