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The secrets to LinkedIn's open source success

Matt Asay | April 20, 2016
Highly useful LinkedIn projects like Kafka, Samza, Helix, and Voldemort have gained broad adoption -- and LinkedIn engineers have benefited from the experience

Open source is the gift that keeps on giving ... unless it destroys your business first. As many an open source vendor can tell you, it's a slog peddling free ones and zeroes, and it's only getting harder as the Web giants flood the world with high-quality, zero-cost software.

Web giants like LinkedIn, for example: Take a look at LinkedIn's GitHub page, and you'll discover the death of dozens of real or potential startups. Yes, LinkedIn, the company ostensibly set up to "connect the world's professionals to make them more productive and successful," is also a company that has released more than 75 open source projects, some of which have grown up to become huge successes with developers and the enterprises for which they work.

Though Facebook and Google get more press for their open source work, LinkedIn has quietly built a world-class developer program that depends upon and feeds open source communities. I caught up with Igor Perisic, LinkedIn's VP of Engineering, to better understand how LinkedIn makes open source work for the company.

Open code is only the start

Anyone can open-source their code. Indeed, for years code repositories like Sourceforge were littered with open source "projects" that were lucky to get more than one contributor(80 percent attracted two or fewer contributors). Even if multiple contributors were listed, the majority of open source projects hadn't been updated in more than six months.

The fact that LinkedIn has open-sourced more than 75 projects to date means little in and of itself. An open source project is only as useful as the community it attracts -- and that's exactly why LinkedIn's open source story is so fascinating.

As Perisic says, "Numbers can often be vanity metrics. We consider community adoption to be our key indicator of success." For instance, both Pinot, a real-time distributed OLAP datastore LinkedIn uses to deliver scalable real-time analytics, and its REST.li REST framework have more than 1,000 GitHub stars and have been forked around 200 times.

Also, one of the best health metrics you can get from looking at a repository are the number of contributors and time since the last update. Both metrics are indicators of engagement, either over time or across the broader open source community, Perisic notes.

But there's more to community. Other, better ways of assessing the larger value of LinkedIn's open source work have more to do with industry standards of approval, such as inclusion within the Apache Software Foundation:

Several of our open source projects, like KafkaSamzaand Helix, have gained broad adoption and are now part of the Apache Software Foundation. Voldemort is a distributed key-value storage system this is becoming increasingly popular. REST.li is a very popular REST framework. Generally speaking, we've made a concerted effort to make our open source project attractive to other developers.

 

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