Open-source advocate discusses the movement

Brian Behlendorf, 32, is a leader of the open source movement and a high-tech Renaissance man. He was a key developer of the Apache Web server and is now the CTO at CollabNet, which provides hosted solutions for Web-based software development to Intel, Sun, Motorola and others. He also is a lover of all-night raves, techno music and art. He recently spoke with Network World Senior Editor Carolyn Duffy Marsan.

How did you first get interested in the open source movement? Was there an "aha!'' moment for you?

It was long before the term "open source'' came to be. In high school, I used a piece of shareware called Fractant. It was really intriguing. It came with the full source code. The first screen was a scrolling list of e-mail addresses of all the collaborators. If you had a change to the software, you could send it to this address, and it would be incorporated in the next version. This was very different than any software I had seen or run before.

When I went to [the University of California] Berkeley, I saw how the Internet protocols were being defined through the IETF. That clued me in to the fact that innovation in software -- and this is probably true generally -- doesn't happen by one or two people but by a network of people working together.

Apache has 70 percent market share when compared with Web server software from Microsoft, Sun and others. How well is Apache doing in the enterprise sector?

The Web server has become a default. If you're running Linux or Solaris or anything that's Unix-based, Apache is it. Likewise with Mac OS 10. Apache on Windows is starting to catch on for the enterprise, but it has to compete with [Internet Information Services], which is the default when you start up Windows. We never expected it to be as popular as on Unix.

The most interesting story with Apache is the foundation as a whole. The Apache Software Foundation has 25-odd projects, and the Web server is just one. It's become this kind of tool chest, and each of these has its own developer community.

What's coming down the road for Apache?

For the Web server, it's a pretty mature space. We released Version 2.0 a couple of years ago, but there were lots of people for whom 1.3 was perfectly fine. 2.0 is a little faster and better if you're in a multithreaded environment. The Web server team doesn't try to expand the focus. The growth has been into these new projects.

Give me an update on CollabNet. How successful has the company been at making inroads into the enterprise market?

Our basic premise is that the open source community had come up with a really brilliant set of tools, processes and a mindset that supported worldwide software development. We've tried to pick the best of those tools and help corporations build a software development process around them. By plugging people and processes over the Internet, we've created a Web-based environment that's basically a big repository. It pulls a company's engineers together.

We have teams that can re-use other teams' work because with our environment they get visibility into how others are working. Companies tell us they're seeing breakthroughs in communications between teams.

What trends do you see in the usage of open source software in the enterprise market?

People have historically used open source software without bothering to tell their bosses. And they've historically used it in places where it is invisible: for mail servers, DNS servers and Web servers. That has started to shift. The next phase will be using open source for application servers. Enterprises are getting comfortable now that this stuff is production quality, at least some of it is.

Why is there a growing interest from corporate users in open source?

It starts with the cost. That's the thing that makes it easy to justify. The perception of greater security and greater flexibility is there, too. Flexibility is important. For every dollar an enterprise has to spend on licensing, they have to spend another five on consulting. They're already used to spending money on customizing software. With open source, they get a chance to more actively participate in the development.

What does the open source community need to do to attract more enterprise customers?

The open source projects are very good at building small components but poor at aggregating them together. But everything I recognize as a weakness [with open source] is really a business opportunity. That's why you see companies like Spike Source [which provides testing, certification and support services to enterprises, rolling out open source software.]

What do you see as the biggest challenges to broader adoption of open source software in the enterprise?

Open source software has different levels of maturity. You can look at the Web server and say it's pretty stable. You look at SugarCRM, and it has a couple thousand users. As an IT customer, being able to ascertain the maturity of an open source community is a challenge, as is knowing how to weigh the risks of using an open source package vs. the cost.

You need to assess how mature is this project. You also need more visibility into how active that project is. You need to know: Did they just solve this problem using an ad hoc check and two people wrote the code? Or is it a corporate standard that is on Version 4.0 and is heavily peer reviewed? The difference between these two [scenarios] is huge.

What predictions do you feel comfortable making about the future of the enterprise software market over the next five years?

More organizations can and should give Linux desktops a consideration for their low-demand applications like point-of-sale, customer support and data entry. We'll see that faster than most people are predicting.

Open Source Java is going to be a big story over the next two or three years. And you'll continue to see a dramatic shift away from software vendors who perpetuate selling expensive licenses and consulting toward organizations like SugarCRM or Spike Source.

Does it ever get frustrating for you to see Linus Torvalds get all the attention when it comes to open source issues?

No. If anything, he deserves more attention. He deserves every ounce of the credit that he gets.

I'd like to see more people share the limelight. There are lots of talented people in the open source community that are into it for the intellectual challenge and make a big difference. [Laughing] I'd be glad to wear a 'No. 2' T-shirt around.

You're the chief technology guru for the Burning Man festival. How does that artistic, survivalist event in the Nevada desert relate to your work in the open source movement?

Burning Man is all about artwork built by a collective, and open source is all about software built by a collective. They're both activities built by groups of people, where the results are always better than the sum of the parts. The coordination is more ad hoc, and they're less structured from above. That's the common thread in a lot of my interests. My premise is that bottom-up architectures and bottom-up organizations can be successful.

There's a huge wave in software engineering to add a degree of rigor and science. That dogmatic approach is great in theory, but sometimes I worry that it leads to a false sense of security. There's a better way.

Open source represents a reaction to that with its bottom-up approach. The model of a mutual fund manager acting as a filter and a manager of the chaos may be a good one.

Do you have any good Bill Gates stories? Sightings? Secret lunches? That sort of thing.

[Laughing]. No. The only one that I really like is in an article in 1987 when Gates was asked if he feared Netscape. He said, 'No I don't fear Netscape. I fear Apache.' That tickled me pink.

You've accomplished so much in the last decade. What are you going to do for an encore?

[Laughing] I have no idea. I'm fully engaged in what I'm doing at CollabNet. I feel I'm having as big of an impact there as with Apache. I get a front row seat to see how [open source] plays out. From the Defense Department to Sun and Intel to financial services companies, I get to see what works and doesn't work. All of the things I fought for in the abstract, I have to fight for in the concrete.

It's exhilarating at times. I'm having a lot of fun. Burning Man or throwing parties with 300 other freaks is a good way to keep balance in my life.

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