VA Linux was riding the wave. Founded in 1993, the company earned a modest profit selling computers with Linux pre-installed, replacing aging (and costly) Unix boxes. Big boy vendors like Dell and IBM hadn’t yet flexed their muscles in this market, so a small-fry like VA Linux could still make a few bucks.
Consequently, hopes ran high for VA Linux’s initial public offering. When the company went public in December (symbol: LNUX), its stock rocketed from $30 to almost $240 in one day – a delirious 700 percent return. Around this same time period, just months before these dizzying champagne fortunes, the company had an idea. A wildly optimistic idea.
It decided to launch a Web site to host the work of open source software developers. The site would offer a full box of tools, from a Concurrent Versioning System (CVS) to a bug tracker to mailing lists. And the site would be – in the spirit of 1999 – totally free of charge.
How, exactly, the site would pay for itself was presumably not fully figured out. At first glance, offering a free service to people who were themselves working for free didn’t sound like a goldmine. But no worries. If it involved technology, it had to profitable, right?
(In fact the company would not eke out a profit until 2006, but that sour news was still in the future.)
The management of VA Linux tossed around a few possible names. At one point, “Cold Storage” was considered – the site would be an archive for OSS projects. The name finally chosen was SourceForge.
Ross Turk, SourceForge’s community manager, remembers: “Basically, they put seven guys in a room, and they said, “All right, write us SourceForge – we’ll provide you with Mountain Dew and pizza.” Guzzling soda, the developers crafted code for several weeks, not sure how big or small the finished project would need be.
When the site opened in November 1999, growth was respectable, if modest. At the time, the term “open source” was known only by those with a deep techie background. Though the site offered myriad free tools, only a small crowd of projects registered by the end of the year.
That soon changed. By the end of 2000, SourceForge had thousands of projects registered; by the end of 2001, almost 30,000 were coding away. And the following year, the flood commenced. Since 2002, “we’ve been adding a hundred projects a day,” Turk says.
Fast forward to 2007 and SourceForge is now home to a sprawling universe of open source developers. It’s an intense hive of software creators. Some 150,000 projects – and growing – reside there, covering every conceivable computing function.
Just as important, SourceForge is the place to “see and be seen” if you’re an up and coming open source project. It’s developers chatting with developers, sharing, rubbing elbows, strutting their stuff, watching each other build. It’s a global community of coder geeks, just jonesing to give birth to that next line of Java or PHP or Perl.
There are, to be sure, other repositories for developers, like GNU Savannah, hosted by the Free Software Foundation, or Novell Forge, or BerliOS, funded by the German government. But none has reached the critical mass of SourceForge, which boasts1.6 million registered users.
Remarkably, it’s a community comprised largely of volunteers. The developers are there primarily for the joy and pleasure of coding. (Or, alternately, because they want to make themselves more marketable; developing a high profile project boosts your job offers.) Yet this free software is used a vast amount of times daily for many highly commercial uses.
SourceForge is home to, for example, rising star OpenBravo, a Web-based ERP app written primarily by Spanish developers; Inkscape, a Linux, Windows and OSX vector graphics editor, coded by a 7-man team from the U.S. and Europe; and FreeCol, a game like Civilization, the objective of which is to start an independent nation.
Some of the projects are lesser known, like Tabslider, which allows you to slide thru tabfiles (on a guitar) synchronized to a MP3 file. Others are household names, like the immensely successful Gallery, which helps you post photos on your family Web page.
And some projects incubated at SourceForge have broken through to the big league. Zimbra, recently acquired by Yahoo for a heart-stopping $350 million, began life as a SourceForge project. So, too, JBoss, now owned by Red Hat. SugarCRM, launched as a SourceForge project in April 2004, raised $26 million in venture capital; its customer list includes Starbucks and NASA.
Despite nurturing some runaway successes, SourceForge continues to be an open door for newbies. Or just about anyone who wants to learn about software development. Like, for example, this recent Forum guest:
“Hello, Just Joined the site. I came to the forums looking for some help…I want to Get started Programming. I think [it] might be good for my job…” Several veterans chimed in to help – no one is shy at SourceForge – suggesting books and programming languages to start with: “Never ever start with PHP, PHP was written wrong…” and “Don’t do VB, it is useless for you…”
SourceForge’s Blue Period
Rapid success caused problems for SourceForge. As tens of thousands of developers set up camp, they began to overwhelm the site. The infrastructure groaned under the weight of so many users. Some developers grew disenchanted. And the financially-strapped parent company lacked the cash to fix all the holes.
VA Linux, in fact, was suffering from rapidly vanishing revenues. The dotcom era had gone poof. Corporate America realized Linux was a cost saver, so IBM and HP were making a healthy profit selling Linux boxes – but little players like VA Linux couldn’t compete. The company struggled to reinvent itself.
Changing its name to VA Software, it sold an Enterprise Edition of SourceForge. (The fact that Enterprise Edition was closed source caused considerable kvetching in the SourceForge community.) VA Software also nurtured or acquired a raft of media properties: Linux.com, IT Managers Journal, Newsforge, Freshmeat, and that mother lode of unexpurgated opinion, Slashdot. In its most recent incarnation, VA Software sold its Enterprise Edition to CollabNet, and in March 2007 the company renamed itself SourceForge, Inc.
But as the company searched for steady revenue, the SourceForge site suffered from under funding. The grumbles of complaint from developers’ grew to an unhappy chorus.
“There was a period from ’03 to ’05 when things were pretty bad,” recalls Dominic Mazzoni, the founder of Audacity. (The well-known audio software has been downloaded tens of millions of times.) “Their CVS servers were getting really, really slow. Very basic things about the site were just completely broken, and had been broken for a long time, without really an acknowledgement that they were broken, or that they were ever going to be fixed.”
Bharat Mediratta, the founder of Gallery, recalls his project’s growing pains: “As the project grew bigger and more complex and sophisticated, SourceForge wasn’t exactly providing for all of our needs.” Among other things, he felt the site’s forum lacked features, which prompted him to build a forum on his own site.
One serious sore point: the site’s tracker that counted downloads wasn’t working. “That was really bothering a lot of people,” Mazzoni says. “It seems really silly, but sometimes, when you’re not getting any money, statistics about how many downloads you have is really a form of currency.”
The lack of staff meant that addressing these concerns was nearly impossible. This sprawling venture, serving hundreds of thousands of users, was staffed by no more than 3 to 5 people. “It’s absolutely scary how much growth they had to deal with,” says SourceForge’s Ross Turk.
Somewhere around 2005 or 2006, as the number of projects soared past 100,000, SourceForge faced a break point: either invest, or see this primary open source incubator start to wither. It was time to put up or shut up.
Pennies from Heaven
Something profound happened in February 2006: SourceForge’s parent company celebrated its first ever profitable quarter. This infusion of cash must have boosted corporate morale; at the very least, SourceForge saw a funding boost.
“The funding went through the roof and we got a lot more head count,” Turk says, noting that the staff was beefed up to about 30. “When we started getting additional funding and staff, one of the first things we focused on was, ‘Wow, our infrastructure is really aging.’” In response, “We’ve replaced almost every piece of our infrastructure, systematically. And I don’t think we see nearly the reliability problems we used to see.”
Mazzoni noticed the change as he continued to lead Audacity’s development team. “They’ve really come back. They fixed the statistics problem, they’ve scaled things up, they started making major improvements to the Web site,” he says.
He’s pleased that SourceForge inked a deal with Google to allow developers to place AdSense ads on SourceForge pages. “That’s been great because there have been a lot of people who had to chose between SourceForge, which means taking in no ad revenue, or doing everything themselves and taking in ad revenue. And now they don’t have to make the choice. They can essentially share that revenue with SourceForge and become part of the community.”
The biggest site improvement: in early 2006, SourceForge enabled Subversion support for all projects. This robust replacement for the aging CVS system was a breath of fresh air for developers. “When we launched Subversion, a lot of the developers using CVS jumped over to Subversion,” Turk says. “It’s a more intelligent work flow.”
Gallery’s Mediratta hails the upgrade: “Subversion’s great…In the last 6 months, we’ve had practically no problems.” The Subversion launch was accompanied by a number of infrastructure build outs: new Web servers, enhanced uptime and service monitoring capabilities, and search improvements.
While the site’s technical infrastructure made great strides in 2006, it’s not technology alone that has enabled SourceForge to continue flourishing. The real SourceForge story – the secret sauce, you might say – transcends servers and uptime connectivity rates. Underneath it all, the true fuel for SourceForge is, well, essentially a pretty human thing.
To talk with some of the leading developers at SourceForge is to understand the unusually wide open nature of the community.
For some of the newer projects, contributing is as easy as sending an email and offering your services. Remarkably, even for many of the most popular projects – downloaded millions of times – new people are welcome if they’re willing to work.
“We’re a meritocracy,” explains Gallery leader Mediratta. “We have a Web page where we tell people how to join the development team. People show up, and we give them a task. If they complete that, we give them another two more. They establish a track record, and over time we get to know them and we basically give them a role.”
Indeed, SourceForge embraces open source at more than one level. The software is open source – anyone can see the code, anyone can alter it – and membership in the community is just as open.
“I’ve always been welcoming and inviting about getting people involved, because I realized early on what a massive project it would be,” says Audacity’s Mazzoni. He’s well aware he needs to trade some control for coding help.
“I took the early approach: trust people now, until they give me a reason not to. I would grant someone CVS access almost instantly. I would say, ‘Let me know when you’re going to check something in and I’ll look it over.’ And not once did we ever have to revoke CVS privileges. Once or twice we would roll back a change somebody made, because they hadn’t thought it through very well. But we never had anyone abuse the privilege.”
Naturally, these days it takes considerably more time to achieve that level of privilege in the venerable Audacity project. Still, no one gets turned away.
“When someone comes along, we throw a few ideas at them, we point them to the documentation. And nine times out of ten it goes nowhere. Because the person is in way over their head,” Mazzoni explains. “A lot of people in that boat, it may be that they’ve only been programming for a year. And Audacity is not a great place to start. It’s 150,000 lines of code. It’s C++. A program of that complexity is way beyond someone who’s still struggling with the basic concepts of programming. It needs someone who has a certain level of maturity.
“Luckily, it’s not that much effort for us for those nine [people], and then that last one out of ten, it’s really valuable, because someone will start with something really easy – they’ll make a patch.” Then they’ll build up from there.
“We really don’t have to tell people how to develop. They usually have their own idea. And if they’re capable, they’ll just jump right into it.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what drives SourceForge’s success. It has tapped the power of community – in the truest sense of the word. A real community, a thriving community, is never a closed loop. It allows in new ideas, new concepts, shared input, a constant (if at times raucous) back and forth. Along the way, it produces things of value – software – and provides its members with a sense of belonging. If a community can do those things, it will always be a success.