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What CIOs need to know about open source forking

Paul Rubens | Oct. 5, 2016
Forking is a concept that can strike terror into the heart of any CIO that relies on open source software. Here’s how to make sure you’re on the right side of the split.

But there are things you can do to make sure you come out on the right side of the split.

If a fork is announced, you “should treat it as a standard risk assessment exercise," is Randal's advice. "You need to evaluate both forks and see if one has a critical mass of developers — that is the key. You also need to see if one is getting a critical mass of users. If so, then bet on that one because it will win — even if there is no company behind it. If a fork is successful then companies will come in to provide support for the fork."

Real life can be messy

Sometimes it won't be quite so clear if a fork is going to be successful, and neither side will quickly get a critical mass of developers and users. "In that case you should take a wait and see approach, or you could use a different project — or at least look for a back pocket alternative," Randal says.

When Nextcloud forked from ownCloud earlier this year it was the co-founder of ownCloud, Frank Karlitschek, who was behind the fork, and it was he who founded Nextcloud. Despite this, he says that forks are to be avoided whenever possible. "In general forking is not a good thing. It comes with significant drawbacks and it should be the last option. It disrupts and harms the community, and in the worst case it can spit the community in half," he says.

Karlitschek adds that he was acutely aware when he founded Nextcloud that for a CIO whose company makes use of a project, and who may be paying for a subscription or support package, instigating a fork causes problems that need to be minimized if possible. "If a company (like ownCloud) has customers then you have a responsibility to them, and something you always want to do in a fork situation is keep them happy. You need to make sure it is possible for users to make a smooth transition (to the fork) with no financial loss — and that is really tricky."

He says that with Nextcloud it was important to ensure that that the initial release was a "drop in replacement" for ownCloud that was 100 percent compatible, and Nextcloud also offered to honor ownCloud customers' existing support contracts.

A potential problem for CIOs when trying to judge which branch of a fork to back is that the eventual winner is not always obvious for non-technical reasons, according to Michael Meeks, a key member of the LibreOffice project.

"Branding is a problem when you fork," he points out. "Engineers think a fork is all about features, and LibreOffice is feature packed. But it still took a long time for LibreOffice to take off even though both LibreOffice and OpenOffice are zero cost and you can move freely between them. Building a brand is expensive, and it can be frustrating for a fork if it doesn't have the resources to build the brand.”


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