Yogi Yarns – IBM throws in the towel

Yogi Berra:

“The towels were so thick there I could hardly close my suitcase.”

We continue our occasional series on open-source and “forking” with the tale of how IBM first engaged with open-source as a serious business issue, why it “threw in the towel” and took another path.

I first learned this story from James Barry. He is, I believe, the unsung hero of IBM’s engagement with open-source. He left IBM not long after the events I will relate below, first to work with Brian Behlendorf at collab.net,then later to Jabber, and then returned East when his beloved wife decided she preferred to live on this coast.

Back in early 1998 James was the product manager for what is known as “websphere.” Indeed, I think he may have helped picked that name. The issue he had to face was how to market what we today call a web server.

Back in those days IBM had its own offering, I think it was called Domino server. James faced a grim reality. Domino server was used by about 50,000 sites while a piece of software with the same function from Apache was used by about 500,000 sites, about ten times more.

James’s great insight was two-fold:

  • No amount of marketing dollars and skills, however well applied, gave IBM a realistic chance of competing with, yet alone displacing, Apache’s server.
  • In particular, web server technology has a unique property. Once a company decides on a web server, it becomes a key piece of their corporate infrastructure. To change it is not a task to be taken lightly. It’s as if a plumber were you to offer to replace every sink if your house with a fixture with gold faucets, so long as you agreed to replace each and every pipe in the house as part of the installation.

So James and his colleagues embarked on a great adventure — to convince IBM to jettison Domino and engage with Apache.

As best as I can tell, James spent most of the time over a period of many months on a plane, with occasional landings at various IBM sites to sell this vision.

There are a few URL’s I need to include here, and will do so at a later time:

  • Forbes article from 1998, “We’re doing a deal with a web site?”
  • Andrew Leonard’s Salon series on the history of open-source
  • An interview with Brian, but I forget where it came from.

(I’ll try to track them down as time permits, but will continue this post in the interimn rough form.)

In any event, IBM engaged with Apache in June 1998, and the rest is history.

A notable aspect of that history is that IBM help create the Apache Software Foundation. IBM didn’t want to “do a deal with a web site” and so helped establish a formal organization, what is now known as the Apache Software Foundation, in order to have an entity to deal with.

What is also worth noting is that Apache asked that IBM provide meaningful contributions to Apache,and as best I can recall, IBM found it challenging to find programmers skilled enough to compete with Apache’s programmers on their home course. This is yet another reminder that the best open-source programmers are truly as good as it gets.

But the real lesson to be drawn from this experience is that corporations, or at least well-managed corporations, don’t engage in open-source for the hell of it, or on a whim, or for the fun of it.

Corporations enage with open-source when it makes good business sense. No more. No less.

And I equally think that those folks who consider themselves members of the open-source community, not bound by any corporation, should also take the same view. Engage with corporations in open-source activities only when it makes sense for the community.

We are, after all is said and done, or in the words of corporate-speak, “at the end of day,” in this joint enterprise together.

It is the community that provides the core technology and defines the rules of the game, and it is the corporations who play by the rules who provide resources that enable the growth and maturation of what I refer to as the “open-source artifact,” the collections of thousands of packages that have brought us to where we are today.

For either side to treat the other with less respect than is due is to demean the whole enterprise. We all deserve better than that, and each of us should do our best to make it so.

There is also another side to this story. As if often the case, a primary story or even can have interesting side effects. This was certainly the case with IBM’s engagement with Apache, as it happened at just the right time for me. It was that event that made Jikes possible, as I will relate in the next post.

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2 Trackbacks

  1. By Trivia « The Wayward Word Press on December 20, 2006 at 21:44

    […] Yogi Yarns – IBM throws in the towel, “In particular, web server technology has a unique property. Once a company decides on a web server, it becomes a key piece of their corporate infrastructure. To change it is not a task to be taken lightly. It’s as if a plumber were you to offer to replace every sink if your house with a fixture with gold faucets, so long as you agreed to replace each and every pipe in the house as part of the installation. what is inbound licensing […]

  2. By Google Optimization « The Wayward Word Press on March 16, 2009 at 10:53

    […] Yogi Yarns – IBM throws in the towel, “In particular, web server technology has a unique property. Once a company decides on a web server, it becomes a key piece of their corporate infrastructure. To change it is not a task to be taken lightly. It’s as if a plumber were you to offer to replace every sink if your house with a fixture with gold faucets, so long as you agreed to replace each and every pipe in the house as part of the installation. […]

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