- Open Access
Support mechanisms provided by FLOSS foundations and other entities
Journal of Internet Services and Applicationsvolume 9, Article number: 8 (2018)
Foundations function as a vital institutional support infrastructure for many of the most successful open-source projects, but the different roles played by these support entities are understudied in Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) research. Drawing on Open Hub (formerly known as Ohloh) data, this paper empirically investigates how these entities support projects and interact with other projects. This study was conducted using the Theoretical Saturation Grounded Theory approach given the large volume of data on hand. The findings are synthesized as a taxonomy of support entities, a categorization of support mechanisms and a set of dynamics of the interactions between different FLOSS support entities.
Traditionally, economic activities have been organized into organizational hierarchies or markets that follow price signals . The third mode of production is called commons-based peer production, which brings about dramatic changes in economic organizing . Relations between FLOSS developers, projects and their support entities, such as foundations, are of key importance in understanding this emerging landscape. The continued success of Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) is thus attributable to the evolution of its projects and contributors [2, 9, 13], but more research is needed concerning the entitiesFootnote 1 that support FLOSS, such as foundations . These entities support individual FLOSS projects in different ways, but their dynamics remain an understudied phenomenon. In addition, interactions between these entities and developers pose several questions for further study.
We address these gaps in our empirical investigation of how these entities support and interact based on Open HubFootnote 2 data. In particular, our research questions and related contributions can be formulated as follows:
RQ1. What defines a FLOSS support entity? As a starting point, we study the initial characteristics of the support entities as a step toward formulating theories in the area. We present such characteristics as a taxonomy of different attributes.
RQ2. How do FLOSS support entities support FLOSS projects? We focus on identifying the support mechanisms provided by support entities in order to maintain the sustainability and viability of FLOSS projects in the ecosystem. The identified support mechanisms help us reflect on the role of the support entities in the ecosystem.
RQ3. How do FLOSS support entities interact between each other? We investigate the different ways FLOSS support entities interact and collaborate in order to understand the dynamics of the FLOSS ecosystem. Our findings reveal traces of a complex interplay in the FLOSS ecosystem. We argue that the study results are of relevance to both researchers and practitioners.
The paper is organized as follows: Section 2 provides a background on the related research. Section 3 presents the methodological details of data collection and analysis. The findings are reported and discussed in Section 4. Finally, the limitations and validity threats are also discussed at the end of Section 4.
FLOSS foundations support their community projects in many different ways. We explore FLOSS support entities (“Foundations,” “Organizations”) and their relationships to the projects with which they are affiliated. Generally, these entities are an association of developers from the different companies and organizations supporting the development of specific FLOSS projects.
Support entities and FLOSS developers
It is noteworthy that the role of these support entities is not like that of a manager; rather, it is like that of a steward supporting community-driven projects. For example, Riehle  demonstrates how FLOSS support entities manage and ensure the long- term survival of their projects. Examples of such support entities include ASF, Linux Foundation and Eclipse Foundation.
Understanding the role of these support entities helps us better understand the institutional arrangements that complement individual development efforts and provide infrastructural stability to the communities in charge of the actual software development. These entities are linked to FLOSS projects and facilitate their implementation, providing various kinds of financial support and legal protection . This makes the projects slightly less dependent on volunteer development efforts and enhances their credibility. Tasks carried out in the support entities can include infrastructural and back office work such as maintenance of member databases and financial reporting .
Riehle and Berschneider  investigate the different options faced by projects when they mature: whether to try to join an existing support entity or to start a novel support entity. There is also the option of not organizing activities through a support entity. Finding a match that suits the community goals is critical to securing long-term project viability . This founding of support entities can also be characterized as one stage in the development of the life cycle of a FLOSS community [10, 11]. For example, de Laat  discusses the development of governance in terms of three stages: 1) spontaneous, 2) internal and 3) external. In this kind of situation—i.e., when a support entity is seen as a “shell” that protects the development community  or is legally “guarding the commons” —the boundary between the FLOSS community and FLOSS support entity becomes analytically slightly more difficult to demarcate separately. In this study, we try to discuss community governance and the entities’ activities separately, especially focusing on the activities carried out by the support entities.
Support entities and FLOSS companies
Outside FLOSS research, it is still surprisingly common to encounter a misunderstanding that posits that FLOSS foundations and projects are somehow automatically and essentially antibusiness. Research shows that many different kinds of company–community relationships exist, ranging from firm-driven development to more decentralized approaches [5, 12]. On the FLOSS company side, the classification of FLOSS businesses as hybrid companies, pure-play FLOSS companies and FLOSS process-oriented companies is widely used .
Schaarschmidt et al.  provide a typology that divides projects into firm vs. community-initiated and single-vendor vs. multivendor to discuss different governance mechanisms used by the companies. It is worth noting that even if developers were employed by software companies, FLOSS communities would rely on indirect control, voluntary task assignments and lateral authority . One example is the Linux kernel community, which is driven by a group of core developers who earn their salaries in commercial software companies .
In contrast to development-driven communities, FLOSS support entities have bylaws, membership roles and formal positions often held by entrusted representatives of companies that support particular projects, although there exist large variations on how exactly support entities are organized. While these support entities are stewards and do not decide the road maps of development, providing these formal positions also seems to be attractive to the supporting companies; for example, providing access to a project and showing belonging to the wider community of FLOSS proponents.
Support entities and FLOSS projects
There is considerable variation in the services the support entities provide. FLOSS support entities may have other responsibilities related to the hosting and management of FLOSS projects. Responsibilities include: (i) organizing community projects (ii) marketing, (iii) managing intellectual property (IP) rights and (iv) setting strategic directions. Support entities may serve as legal representatives and provide a means to enforce the protection of community-generated content using IP legislation . Some projects require contributor agreements that are managed by support entities.
Entities may also serve as a platform for commercial companies that, for legal and institutional reasons, tend to prefer working with organizations rather than individual developers.
Occasionally, for commercial organizations, support entities build consensus by offering to impact the development road maps or voice their concerns about the direction of the development or legal issues surrounding specific community decisions. Foundations may also accept monetary donations and use these funds to support development efforts or maintain the necessary infrastructure. Support entities may also use funds to not only support development efforts and infrastructure directly but also for community building (e.g., funding conferences, recruitment of new members etc.).
In this paper, we empirically investigate the FLOSS environment, the role of support entities and the relationships between support entities. This study was conducted using the Theoretical Saturation Grounded Theory approach, which is a form of a qualitative data collection and data-analysis methodology . The main purpose of this research approach is to build toward a classification framework through a continuous comparative analysis of qualitative data collected by the sampling process. This approach supports data collection along with the data-analysis process. This research approach is also used to assess any sort of patterns (or) variations in a research area.
The Open Hub data repository (formerly known as Ohloh) was used as a primary data source for this study. This source holds key information about the support organizations concerning their sectors, development focuses, licensing policies, membership types and structure. The data repository also holds other information, such as projects and committers, which can be used to determine the relationships between support entities and projects. Open Hub can be accessed using the API.Footnote 3 We used this repository to identify the relationship a support entity may have with another entity as well as a support entity’s portfolio projects. We used Open Hub data from all FLOSS support entities that host at least one project. We have included an example from Mozilla Foundation in Appendix 1.
Support entity websites are another main source of data. These websites contain key information about support and services, incubation processes, project governance, maintenance, project-development practices, IP management, license-agreement policies, hosting services and so on. This information was used to map how the entities provide support for projects.
We used a Java program to parse the API data from the XML data format to plain text and then stored them in a database. We collected data from 88 FLOSS support entities. We have included an example of XML data in Appendix 2. Saturation point was considered to be reached when 20 sampling cases were investigated without obtaining new findings from the data.
Results and discussion
In this section, we first present our findings related to the three research questions and then discuss their implications. In section 4.3, we discuss the implications and limitations.
This section on the results is organized based on the three research questions of the paper. First we discuss the definitions of a support entity, discuss how these entities support FLOSS projects and then finally discuss how support entities interact with each other.
RQ1. What defines a FLOSS support entity?
To answer our research question RQ1, we report the characteristics of the different support entities by grouping these entities according to a taxonomic classification. The taxonomy outlines support entities’ activities and highlights some issues related to legal, financial and governance topics. This is depicted in Fig. 1. The numbers in Fig. 1 denote the number of cases identified for each characteristic.
As mentioned earlier, we collected data from 88 FLOSS support entities. However, some entities did not have explicit policies on certain topics. For instance, we could identify a clear organization structure for 60 entities only. In contrast, we were able to find out about the organization business type of all 88 entities.
In order to explain how we derived the taxonomy and variations on the data, we next provide two examples of the comparison in the theoretical sampling process and cases.
Example 1 : Case 1: Apache Software Foundation (ASF) is a nonprofit organization that is primarily sustained by donors (for example, volunteers and companies). ASF is governed by the board of directors, mostly deals with software-related projects, hosts free software license projects only and maintains free membership policy. Case 2: Wikimedia Foundation is also a nonprofit organization that is sustained by both donors and partners, unlike ASF, which is sustained only by donors. Wikimedia is governed by an advisory board instead of a board of directors. Wikimedia hosts only free software license projects, similar to ASF.
By comparing Case 1 and Case 2, we thus analyze that Case 1 and Case 2 have a similar organization business type and have slight variations in the form of the governance structure and sustainability factors.
Example 2: Case 7: Twitter is a profit organization that primarily focuses its development on service-related projects. Case 8: Los Alamos National Lab is a government organization that primarily focuses its development on science-related projects.
By comparing Case 7 and Case 8, we can notice that Case 7 and Case 8 have a different business type and organization development focus.
Following our criterion for saturation point, we did not find any new emerging attributes from Case 56 to Case 75. We thus decided to end our theoretical sampling process at that point. The resulting figure is thus Fig. 1.
A Profit (or) commercial FLOSS support entity generates revenue via sales of products, services and solutions. Such entities collaborate with different corporations and technical partners. In contrast, nonprofit foundations are primarily sustained through volunteer donations. Such foundations collaborate with external companies, educational institutions and other stakeholders to obtain funds to support projects. Most of these organizations are also primarily governed by a board of directors (BOD). Government FLOSS mostly consists of science-related projects. The funding for such projects mainly comes from public sources. Education FLOSS primarily comprises educational institutions. These support entities focus, for the most part, on providing education to the general public and are sustained through donations from public sources and student fees.
Organizations list different development focuses. Options include S/W oriented, service oriented and science oriented. Most service-oriented support entities are of the for-profit type, while science-orientated support entities are often government based and educational.
FLOSS support entities may support projects that use either free software license projects or commercial or proprietary software license projects. A free software license grants the user a piece of the software extensive rights to modify and redistribute that software. A commercial or proprietary software license is produced for sale or to serve commercial purposes.
FLOSS support entities evolve through different kinds of donors and revenue generators and partners, such as volunteers, corporations, open-source organizations, software products, government agencies, educational institutions and investors.
FLOSS support entities are governed by two different governance modes: a BOD and an advisory Board (AB). A BOD has decision-making authority and is responsible for governing the support entity. BOD committee roles may include founder, investor and director. In contrast, an AB does not have decision-making authority, and it is only responsible for assisting or giving advice within an organization. AB committee members can have roles such as senior manager, executive, volunteer and so on.
FLOSS support entities have different types of membership schemes. The no membership (NM) type has no members within the support entity. The free membership (FM) type allows any member to join without a membership fee. The paid membership (PM) type allows only paid members to take part.
RQ2. How do support entities support FLOSS projects?
To answer our research question RQ2, we explored how entities support FLOSS projects. We grouped our findings as (described in detail in Table 1 below): services, incubation process, project governance, project maintenance, IP, project acceptance and hosting services. Table 1 summarizes the key support mechanisms.
We used the same saturation point criterion to identify the support mechanisms. The following set of cases explains our data analysis process.
Case 1: Apache Software Foundation (ASF) provides various support and services to its foundation projects. New projects can be created only when they go through an incubation process. ASF is one of the few organizations that assigns a single project management committee (PMC) to govern its foundation projects.
Case 2: Within the Wikimedia Foundation, we have identified that developers cannot entirely create a new project by going through the incubation process. They can only start a new language version of an existing project by going through the incubation process.
By comparing Case 1 and Case 2, we determined that the purpose of the incubation process used within ASF and Wikimedia Foundation is different.
Case 7: We identified that Twitter requires developers from companies to accept and submit a contributor license agreement (CLA) so that their contributions are protected by Twitter.
Case 13: NIFGOSS can host open-source projects managed by third parties. However, it does not protect the contributions made by the third-party developers since the contributions are not covered by CLA.
By comparing Case 7 and 13, we found that different support entities have different strategies and mechanisms related to handling developer contributions.
Case 25: We identified that Genivi Alliance provides hosting services to its foundation projects.
Case 38: We identified that the MirOS project can be created/started by anyone who has the necessary skills.
Case 50: Tryton Foundation projects are divided into subprojects. We identified that each subproject is also assigned a project leader.
According to our initially set criteria, Case 51 to 70 did not provide us with any new emerging data; thus, we decided to end our theoretical sampling process.
Table 1 reveals that FLOSS support entities such as ASF, Gentoo and SpringSource provide various forms of support and services to portfolio projects. Organization incubation processes are used in ASF, Wikimedia Foundation, Eclipse Foundation and the MirOS project. Foundations such as ASF and Tryton assign a PMC to govern their projects. Some foundations, such as KDE, have limited hierarchical structures. Some support entities (e.g., the Outercurve Foundation, Eclipse and Gentoo) own the IP rights to protect their portfolio projects.
RQ3. How do FLOSS support entities interact with each other?
According to the Open Hub API definition, a portfolio project is claimed (or) hosted under a specific FLOSS support entity. FLOSS support entities and FLOSS projects are specified using unique ID numbers. From the collected API data, we explored the relationships between two FLOSS support entities by determining whether there are any overlapping projects between them, i.e., any project with the same project ID hosted under or claimed by more than one entity as a portfolio project. The data also contained information about which developers are affiliated with which projects.
In the generated database, we identified whether entities with unique IDs have (1) connections with projects affiliated with other entities and (2) whether an entity’s affiliated developers contribute to the projects of other entities. These different scenarios are described in Fig. 2 below. As depicted in the figure, a portfolio project of support entity A is a project that is hosted by entity A. A FLOSS project has affiliated committers who may contribute to projects hosted by other support entities through external commits.
This investigation is relevant to our research question from at least two perspectives. First, it would be interesting to determine whether support entities provide support mechanisms to portfolio projects only or to other non-portfolio projects as well. Second, in the latter case, it would be interesting to investigate whether the external commits of affiliated committers play a role in supporting non-portfolio projects.
As an example, Mozilla Foundation has a number of outside non-portfolio projects to which Mozilla’s affiliated developers are contributing to. On the other hand, support entity Homebrew has only one project with three affiliated committers contributing to that project only. We did not find any projects hosted under or claimed by multiple organizations as a portfolio project.
We then used a manual approach to search for the appropriate information through relevant online sources (e.g., foundations’ websites and forums) to describe the identified relationships between the FLOSS support entities. In order to identify the key reasons behind these relationships, through our set criteria for the Theoretical Saturation Grounded Theory approach, we have considered each and every relationship between any two entities within the FLOSS relationship network as a sampling case. We then qualitatively investigated and analyzed the identified details of the relationships and grouped them.
Based on our qualitative analyses, we list the identified reasons explaining support entities’ interactions. Two FLOSS support entities may have a relationship due to the following key reasons: plug-ins, sponsorships, tie-ups, packages, reliance, key persons and hosting (see Table 2 for detailed descriptions). We have listed the identified links in Appendix 3.
In this section we discuss our findings with respect to the implications for research and the industry.
Implications and future avenues for research
Our findings show the fertility of the overall research area of FLOSS support organizations and open several new avenues for further research. There are interesting research opportunities related to verifying and measuring the impacts of developer contribution and entities. Focusing on the relationship between individual projects and entities has potential for future contributions, e.g., as it pertains to governance, tensions or developer decision-making. Furthermore, support entities might enrich our understanding of traditional FLOSS research questions related to developer motivation, group collaboration or generation of a culture of contributions. Support entities also seem to be one of the main enforcers of IP as well as the area in which IP-related discussions take place. One particularly interesting question might stem from looking into how support entity projects differ from projects that lack support entities. Anecdotal evidence suggests that larger, more established projects move toward the founding of support entities, but there are, of course, other ways to procure the same services.
Our methodology focuses on certain parts of the interplay between support entities, so we expect future studies will shed further light on the important and understudied role of these entities in supporting and governing FLOSS. Specifically, more quantitative methods may yield a better understanding of these entities in the future.
The collected data showed that different FLOSS support entities have relationships when affiliated developers from one FLOSS support entity contribute to other FLOSS support entities’ portfolio projects. As this study mainly focused on support entities, we did not engage in an in-depth consideration of individual project information, although this information may offer more insight regarding specific projects and their committers.
Further, in this work we have not examined the connection between the key support mechanisms presented in Table 1 or the relationships’ information presented in Table 2 and the characteristics taxonomy presented in Fig. 1. For example, the kinds of services provided by a support entity (e.g., legal, financial, consulting etc.) (Table 1) may depend on whether the entity is nonprofit or for-profit. Similarly, the package-driven relationship (Table 2) may be motivated by the development focus of the organization in the sense that one expects software-oriented organizations to develop more packages than service-oriented ones.
Implications for industry
The findings have several intriguing implications for practitioners and the industry in general. These entities are key stakeholders for companies that rely on FLOSS projects in their operations or as a part of their offering.
For individual developers, these entities not only provide needed respite from IP issues but also provide an interesting avenue for how IP policies develop. Additionally, they provide the infrastructure of contribution and governance, helping relieve developers’ burden and in turn allowing them to focus on software development-related issues.
For support entities, benchmarking the relevant projects leads to valuable opportunities for the learning and diffusion of best practices. The links between projects also offer new areas for the potential cooperation or mitigation of possible tensions. Obviously, these support entities also have a considerable aggregate voice in promoting FLOSS toward external stakeholders.
We discuss a number of limitations/threats that may affect the validity of the research results along the guidelines of Runeson&Höst .
Construct validity threat is the extent to which the studied operational measures reflect what the researcher intended to study according to the research goals. In this research study, the main construct validity relates to our assumption that the terms “support entity,” “organization” and “foundation” are used interchangeably. Indeed, different data sources use different terms when describing the FLOSS ecosystem. Our approach has been rather inclusive with respect to the used terms.
Internal validity threat is the prospect where external factors may affect the study results. The researcher might be aware of these factors, but others might not be aware of them . Since we are conducting an exploratory study, there is a lack of existing evidence available on FLOSS support entities. We found that increasing growth of new entities and projects within the Open Hub repository may also affect our study results. We considered only 88 FLOSS support entities as the sample size, but the total number of FLOSS support entities within the Open Hub is much higher. However, we believe that the sample we are using is relevant for analyzing patterns and trends in the evolution of FLOSS support entities. During our data collection process, some of the FLOSS support entities and individual projects within the Open Hub repository did not provide us with relevant data that are essential for conducting this study. It will be impossible for us to avoid or minimize this threat because it is not feasible to inquire about the missing information through the Open Hub repository. Further, the process of identifying relationships among different FLOSS support entities is a continuous process and might change over time. In order to minimize these validity threats, we argue that our study results are specific to the study period.
External validity threats relate to what degree the results of the study can be generalizable . We argue that generalizability can be considered as a threat to validity in this study since we have used the Open Hub data repository as the main source for collecting data. To minimize this validity threat, we have considered the FLOSS support entity website data and other external web links to improve our study results.
Reliability is the prospect that is concerned with how the study data and data analysis are reliant on the researcher. This outlines how the results will be if the same study is conducted by other researchers . Exceeding the saturation point by other researchers might reveal other attributes, new organization’s support mechanisms and the relationships between different FLOSS support entities, which could affect our study results.
In this work, we use the term “support entities” yet recognize that, in many cases, “foundation” would also be applicable. However, we note that (1) not all of these entities are foundations and (2), even if they are, there are subtle differences regarding their legal and tax statuses in different jurisdictions. Thus, we limit these legal considerations, which fall outside the scope of this study, and employ the term “support entities.”
Open Hub (or Black Duck Open Hub) is a website that offers an open-source directory, community platform and set of analytics for open-source projects. The site contains in total 32,616,131,121 lines of code and indexes 472,078 projects that have in total 4,134,848 contributors. The site tracks 796,636 source control repositories. [27 January, 2018.] Open Hub website at https://www.openhub.net.
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This paper is an extended version of the article presented at OSS 2017, under the title of Investigating Relationships between FLOSS Foundations and FLOSS projects. The authors would like to thank Bharat Kumar Mendu and Joshua Smith Soundararajan who collected the original data and provided parts of the early analyses.
No external funds were used to carry out this research.
Availability of data and materials
The API used in data collection can be found at: https://github.com/blackducksoftware/ohloh_api
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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