19.2 Apache's Corporate Core

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The Apache group is one of the more businesslike development teams in the free source world. It emerged in the mid-1990s when the World Wide Web was just blossoming. In the early years, many sites relied on web servers like the free version that came from the NCSA, the supercomputer center at the University of Illinois that helped spark the web revolution by writing a server and a browser. This code was great, but it rarely served all of the purposes of the new webmasters who were starting new sites and building new tools as quickly as they could.

Brian Behlendorf, one of the founders of the Apache group, remembers the time. "It wasn't just a hobbyist kind of thing. We had need for commercial-quality software and this was before Netscape released its software. We had developed our own set of patches that we traded like baseball cards. Finally we said, 'We had so many paths that overlap. Why don't we create our own version and continue on our own.'"

These developers then coalesced into a core group and set up a structure for the code. They chose the basic, BSD-style license for their software, which allowed anyone to use the code for whatever purpose without distributing the source code to any changes. Many of the group lived in Berkeley then and still live in the area today. Of course, the BSD-style license also made sense for many of the developers who were involved in businesses and often didn't want to jump into the open source world with what they saw as Stallman's absolutist fervor. Businesses could adopt the Apache code without fear that some license would force them to reveal their source code later. The only catch was that they couldn't call the product Apache unless it was an unmodified copy of something approved by the Apache group.

Several members of the group went off and formed their own companies and used the code as the basis for their products. Sameer Parekh based the Stronghold server product on Apache after his company added the encryption tools used to protect credit card information. Others just used versions of Apache to serve up websites and billed others for the cost of development.

In 1999, the group decided to formalize its membership and create a not-for-profit corporation that was devoted to advancing the Apache server source code and the open source world in general. New members can apply to join the corporation, and they must be approved by a majority of the current members. This membership gets together and votes on a board of directors who make the substantive decisions about the group.

This world isn't much different from the world before the corporation. A mailing list still carries debate and acts as the social glue for the group. But now the decision-making process is formalized. Before, the members of the core group would assign responsibility to different people but the decisions could only be made by rough consensus. This mechanism could be bruising and fractious if the consensus was not easy. This forced the board to work hard to develop potential compromises, but pushed them to shy away from tougher decisions. Now the board can vote and a pure majority can win.

This seriousness and corporatization are probably the only possible steps that the Apache group could take. They've always been devoted to advancing the members' interests. Many of the other open source projects like Linux were hobbies that became serious. The Apache project was always filled with people who were in the business of building the web. While some might miss the small-town kind of feel of the early years, the corporate structure is bringing more certainty and predictability to the realm. The people don't have to wear suits now that it's a corporation. It just ensures that tough decisions will be made at a predictable pace.

Still, the formalism adds plenty of rigidity to the structure. An excited newcomer can join the mailing lists, write plenty of code, and move mountains for the Apache group, but he won't be a full member before he is voted in. In the past, an energetic outsider could easily convert hard work into political clout in the organization. Now, a majority of the current members could keep interlopers out of the inner circle. This bureaucracy doesn't have to be a problem, but it has the potential to fragment the community by creating an institution where some people are more equal than others. Keeping the organization open in practice will be a real challenge for the new corporation.