Why is Open Development Governance important?

How an open source project is managed defines the type of community and product that it will create. It is therefore critical that you put some thought into the suitability of the governance model of software you wish to adopt or develop.

In this post I’ll draw together a few recent observations about governance in various open source projects in order to highlight some common issues.

First, lets look at Firefox. A recent article on Ars Technica explored why Firefox is sticking with the Gecko rendering engine rather than switching, for example, to WebKit:

The WebKit governance model and Apple’s general lack of transparency are also issues that would negatively impact Mozilla if Firefox adopted WebKit.

This conclusion was derived from comments by Mike Shaver, Mozilla’s VP of engineering, published in the same article. For example:

I think we would have a hard time maintaining our momentum and depth of community empowerment in the WebKit setting. The level of visibility around patches and review is a lot higher in our world, as one example, and we don’t have bugs disappearing into an Apple-only bug system… We learned about fork maintenance and integration the hard way (and had to learn it a couple of times, to be honest), so that’s not trouble that we want to borrow.

In this case it can be seen that the Firefox team are unwilling to contribute to the WebKit project as they feel that they would not have sufficient control over the product to enable them to continue innovation in the direction they need.

Conversely, since Gecko adopts a very open development model it is used in a number of products that are quite differenct from a standard web browser (such as the Songbird music player, the Miro video player, and ActiveState’s Komodo IDE). Each of these products contributes development effort to Gecko and therefore contributes to its sustainability and quality. This is possible because Mozilla careful separate the web browser functionality from the core rendering engine that is useful in various web based applications.
However,  managing an open development project is not without its costs. Balancing the demands of a diverse community and your own needs takes time and effort. The more open a model you adopt the more effort is required.

The trick is to carefully segment your product and to write a governance model for each sub-project that maintains control the control you need in key parts of the software stack whilst allowing a more open model in shared components.

Most models start off with all control in a single central location – thus providing a bottle-neck for the management of third party contributions. Over time trusted parties may be given control over specific parts of the system in order to spread the management load.

This can be seen in projects like the Linux Kernel, an example of a “Benevolent Dictator” governance model where all control is held by a very small number of individuals, in the case of Linux that is Linus Torvalds. However, due to the hard work of Linus (and a handful of carefully selected people) the Linux Kernel recieves contributions from a wide range of third party contributors, each focussing on a specific part of the kernel.

Getting the right balance between central and distributed control is hard. Ken Drachnik, marketing manager for open source software infrastructure products at Sun told OStaic:

we have spent quite a bit of time working on our open source governance models to ensure our communities are open to all and utilize the Open Source Initiative (OSI) approved open source software licenses.

It’s even harder when you have to balance the demands of multiple upstream components, Roberto Galoppini observes:

OpenLogic scaled federated support to hundreds of components and, by focusing on enterprise customers, found established development and governance best practices that themselves didn’t scale beyond a few hundred components.

Understanding how open source software is developed is vital to the success of your project, regardless of whether you are producing or consuming software. OSS Watch are are here to help you develop that understanding and will be running a “Community Building and Ooen Source Development Workshop” in which governance will be a primary topic.

On the OSS Watch wiki Gabriel Hanganu and I have been working on describing what a governance model is and why it is important. We’d welcome your input on that document.

2 thoughts on “Why is Open Development Governance important?

  1. Maciej Stachowiak

    It’s true that Gecko is used in some projects outside the Mozilla Corporation’s control. But the same is true of WebKit, and projects outside of Apple’s control. This includes desktop browsers, such as OmniWeb, Shiira, Sunrise Browser, Epiphany, Midori, Arora and Google Chrome; mobile browsers such as S60 Browser, Iris Browser and the Android browser; chat programs such as Adium, Colloquy, MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger; and many other projects ranging from web developer tools to media players to set top boxes.

    Whatever you may think of Gecko or WebKit, or their development processes, I think the facts are clear: WebKit is actually used in more third-party projects, and many different kinds of projects.

  2. Ross Gardler


    You are correct, WebKit is indeed used in other products and my post should have acknowledged that.

    My key message was not about the extent of reuse but the type of reuse and community engagement. This is defined by the governance models of the projects themselves.

    In the case of WebKit it is very tightly controlled and there is little opportunity for a third party to become involved with the project at a strategic level. Thus WebKit is not suitable for a project like Mozilla who have different strategic objectives.

    My intention is not to say one approach is right and the other is wrong, but rather to say that a project should consider what shape they want their community to take when defining their governance model.

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