Jim Zemlin and the Linux Foundation share not-so-secret open-source sauce

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Jim Zemlin and the Linux Foundation share not-so-secret open-source sauce

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Today, the Linux Foundation oversees not only Linux but also more than a thousand other open-source programs
Jim Zemlin, the Linux Foundation's executive director.
It wasn't always that way. The Linux Foundation, founded in 2007, was focused almost entirely on Linux. As Jim Zemlin, then and now the Linux Foundation's executive director, explained in an interview with Barton George, Dell Technologies' Developer Community manager, the Foundation has expanded well beyond what its founders ever dreamed. 
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The tale began in the early 2000s with the rise of Linux's acceptance in the enterprise world. Linux was no longer simply a hobbyist operating system. Enterprise companies such as IBM were putting billions behind Linux. To help manage its explosive business growth, two non-profit organizations, the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) and the Free Standards Group (FSG), were founded. 
They had similar missions. The OSDL employed key Linux developers such as Linus Torvalds and Andrew Morton, and funded legal support for Linux and open-source software's licensing and patent issues. Meanwhile, the FSG focused on the Linux Standard Base (LSB) and its test suite.  
Since the group's goals were so close, they decided it would be better to merge them. That's where Zemlin came in. "My task was to roll up these organizations into a single company, which we named the Linux Foundation."
Zemlin's first task was to create an enterprise ecosystem around Linux. "I spent most of my time criticizing Microsoft, talking about how much better open systems were than closed ones, I didn't really think that we could kill Microsoft. We were trying to create the perception of a two-horse race between Microsoft and Linux."
Linux certainly didn't kill Microsoft. Indeed, these days, Microsoft supports Linux, and its Azure cloud runs more Linux than it does Windows, which helped kill Sun. Zemlin explained: "Linux was consolidating the Unix space. You could easily move Unix workloads to Linux, and Linux would save you money."
George, who worked for Sun at the time, remarked, "We had someone from software strategy come in to present on Linux then, and my jaw dropped. I just thought, why are we not terrified of this? Why do we not see that we are in big trouble here?"
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Zemlin replied, "There's a theory that if Sun had open-sourced Solaris sooner, and had leaned into that technology, Linux wouldn't be the success that it is today." He's not wrong. Today, OpenSolaris and its forks are largely forgotten. 
Ironically, Zemlin noted that while "it was so fun to make fun of Microsoft, they certainly helped us out with all their fear-mongering of Linux. When Ballmer was talking about Linux as a cancer, that was great. It was free publicity. He was the Goliath to our David. What people didn't realize was that by creating this inevitability around Linux as the alternative to the proprietary Microsoft Windows," the Unix operating systems were the ones being hurt.  Zemlin added: "What's crazy is, now, all these years later, Microsoft is a prolific contributor to open source, and they've based a huge part of their business on open-source technology."  
As the Linux Foundation and Linux grew more successful in the business world, Zemlin and the Foundation crew realized they could use their knowledge of how to build communities; the same techniques could be used, he noted, "to build de facto open-source standards, create new markets to other forms of technology, and develop a new way for collaborative innovations to happen and to accelerate business outcomes. So, we started seeing new open-source projects and programs coming to the Linux Foundation for help and vice-versa."
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Zemlin called it a "reverse venture capitalist approach, where you're trying to understand the undefined investments and where markets are being disrupted. But, instead of monetizing that value, we give it away for free in order to impact society."
The first non-Linux program for which the Foundation used this approach was in software-defined networking (SDN).  "The concept of SDN," said Zemlin, "came out of Stanford University, but we realized, there's an open-source software-defined networking technology here that will be a fundamental part of computing. A technology called OpenDaylight came out, and we realized it would be a big deal. It's used by telecommunications companies as part of a larger SDN stack that runs the production networks for billions of mobile devices all over the world."
A decade ago, the Linux Foundation helped OpenDaylight get its start. At first, many companies assumed the start-up would be little more than a cheerleader for Cisco's SDN approach. Instead, OpenDaylight proved to be a wildly successful open-source project.
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OpenDaylight also showed that while we often think of open source as a bottom-up bazaar approach (as open-source co-founder Eric S. Raymond explained in his seminal The Cathedral and the Bazaar paper), it's more complex than that. For example, said Zemlin, "Organic innovation is what happens from the bottom up in open source. Where the metaphor breaks down is that it implies that leadership doesn't matter." 
Take Linux: "Linus is on top in a benevolent dictator model," said Zemlin. "But, it does have a very hierarchical way of running things, and that's more of a cathedral approach." In the case of OpenDaylight and other open-source enterprise projects, leadership can, and often does, take on a cathedral top-down approach.
Moving on, the pair talked about how the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) has exploded in popularity. Zemlin said,  "In 2014, I was contacted by Brian Stevens, who was Google Cloud's CTO. Google wanted to open source Kubernetes technology and to avoid corporate politics." 
George added: "That's a very interesting move for Google because, for the longest time, they were accused of keeping all their software to themselves. This was a very big deal with lots of code."
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Zemlin agreed. This "fundamentally changed the way that cloud applications get built, deployed, and managed. And that was the goal. Google had never run virtual machines in-house. They used a technology word that is essentially a container-based platform. The idea was in exchange for opening up this technology, we're going to work with everyone to build a cloud-native, ubiquitous way to build applications. That's exactly what was achieved. So, today Kubernetes is, without question, one of our biggest projects."
Because of this, George observed, "Over the last eight years, the Linux Foundation's growth has been like a hockey stick. Under the CNCF alone, there are about 830 projects."
Zemlin again:
"Today, we have about a thousand projects ranging from horizontal technology, things like Kubernetes, SDN, and JavaScript, and vertical projects such as Automotive Grade Linux for smart cars, LF Energy for electrical utilities, and the Academy Software Foundation for the film industry…We've really become an organization that enables collaborative innovation. Where technology companies used to build a standard, and everyone would create their technology around it. Now, you create a reference implementation and open-source code base, and everybody builds technology on top of that software. It's a faster way to innovate and have big outcomes."  
George then asked a question that I've often wondered about myself. How has the Linux Foundation not collapsed under its own weight?
Zemlin replied that it was by picking the right thing. And that thing is understanding that "collaborative innovation is an important new way of getting efficient outcomes." When people realize this, "they help us to really be successful in building and supporting their communities."
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Looking forward, Zemlin added: "As you go from the kernel community to the Kubernetes community, you have to go from hundreds to thousands to a million developers. So, we're trying to work on building tools and scalable systems that can provide the best possible developer experience for those developers who work on some of the most important technologies in the world."
Zemlin concluded that the Linux Foundation doesn't measure its success by numbers. "That's a business metric that we keep track of, in order to enable the more important goal, which is impact. As long as we're doing work in the energy sector to improve the efficiency of the French grid power distribution to impact climate change. I want to work on what's important for society. That's important for that industry. As long as you're doing that kind of work, the numbers and metrics are a little bit second."
"That said, the Foundation does measure a lot of metrics. We have a whole platform that we use to look at projects and figure out 'Do they have good documentation?' 'Do they have good security practices?' 'Does code velocity depend on a maintainer having to work outside of normal hours all the time because their employer won't give them enough time during the day?' We use those metrics to help support a great developer experience that gets great technology results, and that's really how we measure success."
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The Linux Foundation's commitment to open standards and interoperability has been a cornerstone of its strategy. Through collaborative projects and consortia, it has brought together industry giants and startups, competitors, and partners under a shared vision of an open, interconnected technology landscape. 
The results are all around us. We all share in the Linux Foundations' success every time we use the Web, talk to our friends on our phones, and enjoy a movie filled with special effects.