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Big names like Google dominate open-source funding

Jon Gold | Jan. 12, 2015
Companies can get plenty of bang for not many bucks via open-source sponsorship.

But those brownie points are far from valueless. All those services provided by non-profits are important to lots of people in the open-source community. Tejun Heo, a prominent kernel developer and Red Hat employee, gave the example of a hobbyist developer attending one of the many conferences on open-source held every year.

"A sponsoring company ... would have a lot easier time getting acquainted with the person, and he or she would be a lot more likely to be familiar with and have a positive impression of the company," he said.

+ Debunking the top open source myths +

A lot of that goodwill, Heo added, has to do with the job market sponsorship can make companies more attractive to potentially valuable developers, while keeping them in the loop on individual projects.

"Even if it doesn't directly result in hiring, the wider contact surface ensures that Red Hat at least can stay in contact with what's going on in terms of both technical and human resources aspects of the project," he said.

More even than that, companies like Red Hat employ a lot of people that are just big fans of open-source in the first place, according to Heo.

Of course, some see hints of whitewash in the movement of big tech companies toward the open-source world's nonprofits. It's important to note that support for those organizations doesn't necessarily translate into actual code contributions to open-source projects.

A look at the most recent edition of the Linux Foundation's "Who Writes Linux" publication, which covers 2013, found that Red Hat was the largest corporate contributor of code to the Linux kernel, at 10.2% of the total. Close behind is Intel, at 8.8%. So far, that tallies with the list of open-source organizations sponsored, but the similarities partially fall away from there the two next-biggest code contributors were Texas Instruments and Linaro, both of which are supporters of just one organization, the Linux Foundation.

Obviously, this doesn't prove much on its own it's tough to directly compare code contributions and sponsorship, and it doesn't account for work done on any other projects besides the kernel. But the discrepancy is noteworthy in several cases. Google, for example, contributed less than a quarter of the kernel code that Red Hat did.

Jay Lyman, an analyst with 451 Research, highlighted both positive and negative attributes to corporate sponsorship in open source.

"[Participation] is good in the sense that organizations are focused on real benefits and results, but it could make it easier for those seeking to leverage open-source communities without participating or contributing," he said.

What do foundations do?

So what do foundations do? In the case of major organizations like the Linux Foundation, it seems almost easier to ask what they don't do.

 

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