Web Techniques Magazine 
September 1998 
Volume 3, Issue 9
 
 

IBM Takes "Free" Apache Seriously

By Dale Dougherty
dale@webreview.com
 

 Brian Behlendorf of the Apache Group had a big smile on his face, which is not unusual for him. He was getting some of the credit for teaching IBM to share. At a press conference, he was sitting next to Paraic Sweeney of IBM who was there to tell the world that IBM would join the Apache Group. IBM would also begin shipping the Apache Web server with its WebSphere Application Server, a Java-servlet applications platform.

A friend of mine who works at IBM says he and others had been championing "free" software like Apache and Linux inside the company. He describes it as a succession of waves, the first of which was repulsed immediately, its leaders left bloodied. Each new wave found less and less opposition until finally this new idea to embrace Apache won over.

Like any large company, IBM has a hoarding mentality. It invests a lot in R&D and keeps much of it under wraps. IBM might be expected to have a problem with "free software" in which developers share their work with each other. It also might be expected that a segment of IBM's customers would have a problem with a "free" product. Furthermore, how could this open network of volunteer hackers produce better software than a dedicated team of in-house programmers or a lab full of researchers?

The openness of the Internet is making it difficult for companies like IBM to hoard talent, that is, to have all the expertise it needs on its own team. Teams are increasingly distributed and internetworked across all kinds of organizations. Now, it's possible for innovation to come from every corner and be distributed just as widely.

The Apache Group was begun in 1995 to "patch" the NCSA Web server. NCSA, the birthplace of Mosaic, had lost many of its developers to Netscape and suddenly the only "free" Web server was being neglected. An informal group of developers who depended upon the NCSA Web server set up a mailing list to discuss problems, share code fixes, and eventually develop new code.

Behlendorf, who worked at Organic Online, one of the first Web design and development shops, recognized that his business was dependent upon a reliable and robust Web server, something that commercial Web servers from Netscape and Microsoft were unable to provide. Yet, Behlendorf knew that Organic Online did not want to turn itself into a software business. Instead, he and others formed a cooperative network of developers who had become stakeholders in this Web server. What held them together was the principle that "where we got value, we needed to give value back."

Now the Apache Web server is the dominant server in the market, used by more people than the offerings of Netscape and Microsoft combined. Apache developers will have their first conference this year, ApacheCon, which will be an opportunity for some members of the Apache Group to meet face-to-face for the first time.

Sweeney says that by supporting the Apache Group, IBM recognizes the success of development efforts in the Internet community and wants to become a part of it. Behlendorf says he has met with IBM developers to show them the ropes of the Apache Group and what it takes to join a development team that operates in the open and by consensus.

Openness is key. The willingness to share code is also key. That's why developers like Behlendorf and others-including Larry Wall, the father of Perl, and Linus Torvald, the eponym of the Linux operating system-support a new term called Open Source to identify so-called freeware or free software projects. When Netscape endorsed Open Source in announcing Mozilla.org, they said that making the browser source-code freely available gave them the best chance to compete with Microsoft in the browser wars.

If source code is freely available, anyone can participate in these development projects, whether it's to customize code for a very small niche of users or to fix a nasty bug that can't wait until a future release. Those who make modifications generally make the source code available back to the group, so it can be integrated into future releases.

A lot of Web development today is custom work involving systems integration. Developers take a set of source code developed for one project and reuse it on another project. They swap it with other developers. If one of them makes an improvement, they can share it across multiple projects. This is a free world market in code.

Still, traditional big business has its troubles with free software, even though this software has been the engine running the Internet. Some IT managers claim not to use it, even though they simply don't know what developers are really using in their own shops. Now, if they see it coming from IBM, maybe they will face reality.
 


Dale Dougherty is the editor and publisher of Web Review and editorial director of Web Techniques. You can reach him at dale@webreview.com

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