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Sam Ramji: On the CodePlex Foundation and more

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By Jake Edge
October 16, 2009

A few weeks back, we looked at the newly announced CodePlex Foundation. At the time, there were a few questions about the foundation and its plans. We asked Sam Ramji, interim president of the foundation—and, previously, Microsoft's senior director of platform strategy—to fill in some of the gaps. Below are his answers to our questions, ranging from the foundation's governance and plans, to his thoughts on Microsoft's open source strategy going forward, as well as information about his new company and its relationship to open source software.

LWN: I'd like to start by discussing the CodePlex Foundation, can you give us your high-level overview of the foundation and its mission? Is it meant to serve the open source community, software companies, or both?

Both. The CodePlex Foundation's mission is to enable the exchange of code and understanding among software companies and open source communities. We are organized to serve both the open source community and software companies, which is why we chose to operate as an independent, non-profit foundation. As LWN and others have noted, other foundations exist – GNOME, Mozilla, Apache, Linux and Eclipse, for example – which share similar goals, although those foundations have a specific technology focus. We saw the need for an organization that more broadly addressed the process of participating in open source communities. In my travels in open source I've observed that corporate software developers don't often participate as much as one might expect in the open source projects that they make use of. We are working to provide an answer to the question: as a software company or as a corporate software developer, how can I contribute code, or a project, to an open source project or foundation?

LWN: As interim president, you, the board of directors, and advisory board are tasked with finding an executive director and permanent members for both boards. What time frame do you have for putting that all together? Will the adoption of a charter for the foundation be done in a similar time frame, or is that something that will be done by the new boards once they are in place? Will you be staying on as president after that or will that role fall to the new executive director?

We set some tough deadlines. In the first 100 days, we will remake the board of directors, appoint a new president, and hire a full-time executive director. I expect the new board members to come equally from software companies and the open source community, which will shift the center of influence away from Microsoft. Incidentally, if you look at the current board, three of us are not employed by Microsoft, so I would argue that this balance is already shifting. Additionally, the board of advisors represents a cross-industry and cross-community team of experts; we have people ranging from backgrounds in MySQL to VA Linux to open source .NET projects.

We will continue to recruit new members for the board of advisors. The board's intent is to have the advisory board more accurately represent collaboration between software companies and open source communities. When the permanent boards are seated, they will take on the task of formulating the Foundation's charter, so look for that document to take shape in the 180-day timeframe.

For the first 100 days I will serve as interim President, but my path is back to the private sector: I am VP Strategy for Sonoa Systems, a Silicon Valley cloud infrastructure company. After my term as Foundation President ends, I will continue to work with the Foundation, probably as a member of the board of advisors. I'm not a candidate for the Executive Director role. Just as a point of education – the roles of President (which is a board of directors role) and Executive Director (a full-time paid staff role) are quite different. You have exceptions to this model like Jim Zemlin, who is both an operational manager and a spokesperson/leader, but in general for non-profits the ED is a very hands-on operational person, while the President provides high-level direction and spokesmanship. .

LWN: There has been criticism of the make up of the initial boards, notably from Andy Updegrove (and follow-up), because they are Microsoft dominated. His contention that the appearance, at least, is that this is a Microsoft-focused foundation with little or no room for outside voices, and more importantly, the ability to act independently of Microsoft's wishes. Does that seem accurate to you? If not, why? What gives it the ability to act independently?

I really appreciate Andy's comments. He spent a lot of time analyzing the Foundation's structure and governance, and his suggestions are guiding the board as we look for a permanent president and executive director.

I understand that the initial makeup of the boards would lead observers to the conclusion that the Foundation is dominated by Microsoft, but the 100-day target we set for revamping the boards should reassure observers that there is plenty of room for other points of view. The more companies that participate, and the more points of view represented, the better.

Microsoft's founding donation gave us the ability to operate independently. That might not seem obvious, but with the sponsorship, Microsoft gave the Foundation the ability to open a bank account, hire employees, revisit the mission, reconsider governance and formulate a work plan to move forward. It set the ball rolling, and now the Foundation is on a distinct – and separate – path.

In order to bring in more sponsors, we're clear that there will need to be balance and independence not just in our actions but in our governance, and therefore in the makeup of the board of directors. We're working through Andy's suggestions and those of others with experience in this area. You will see some changes by the end of the 100-day period.

LWN: What are the criteria for finding new members for the board of directors and advisory board? Is one of the goals of the search process to increase the diversity (i.e. fewer Microsoft employees and/or voices from outside of the Microsoft sphere of influence) of those boards? If so, how might that be accomplished, or, if not, why?

We are looking for board members who are independent thinkers who understand open source, know the value of open source in a commercial context, and have a proven ability to bring the two together. You can see some good examples of these on the current boards. Those parameters mean we are searching a diverse pool of candidates. For example, right now I think we need a board member with open source legal expertise as well as one who has led use of open source within corporate environments beyond the software industry. We're looking at people within open source communities and also at people in commercial software companies that are outside of Microsoft's sphere of influence. We expect that Microsoft will still be represented – the company is the founding sponsor – but there will be many voices. Also, the interim board is committed to the long-term success of the Foundation, and knows that we'll be judged by what we do, not just by what we say we'll do.

LWN: Will the foundation be sponsoring particular projects, something like what the Apache Foundation does? What criteria will be used to decide which projects make sense to sponsor? What benefits would a project gain by becoming a part of the CodePlex Foundation?

We're still working through the process for accepting projects, and will be talking about our progress on our website and at my blog and Mark Stone's blog. October will be the month where we're able to post a public draft of our project acceptance and governance process as well as go into reviewing projects that are submitted to us.

LWN: Up until recently, you were the open source "point man" for Microsoft. Over your tenure there, large strides were clearly made, what are your thoughts about Microsoft's open source initiatives (separate from the foundation) going forward? Where do you see the company headed in terms of open source participation? In a 91,000 person company that is hiring engineers constantly, it's impossible to hire engineers under 30 years old who have no open source experience; I think of it as a generational shift that's inescapable. Their collective views create pressure within the company to find ways to adopt and work with open source.

Advocacy for open source has been growing within Microsoft for years. It was my job to get that initiative going strong, and in that I was successful. We socialized the idea that open source is complementary to Microsoft's core business. The contribution of the Linux device drivers at OSCON was one good proof point; that work is complementary to Hyper-V and the virtualization business. What I saw as I left was that the range of advocates within the company had grown, both through our collective successes with work on PHP, OpenPegasus, and MPICH2, and through the natural influx of industry talent. In a 91,000 person company that is hiring engineers constantly, it's impossible to hire engineers under 30 years old who have no open source experience; I think of it as a generational shift that's inescapable. Their collective views create pressure within the company to find ways to adopt and work with open source. The same is true for more experienced developers and business leaders who have come to Microsoft from companies who make extensive use of open source – for example, Lee Nackman from IBM who shepherded the Eclipse project is now a Corporate Vice President at Microsoft. So I expect to see more participation and contribution, focused clearly on areas that deliver long-term, sustainable growth in core businesses like operating systems and databases.

LWN: Many Linux developers are concerned about Microsoft's patent attack against TomTom and its attempted sale of 22 patents to non-practicing companies. What would you say to those developers to convince them that Microsoft's motives are benign and that cooperating with Microsoft (either through the foundation or in other ways) is a safe and appropriate thing to do?

There is a real issue and a red herring in that question. On the red herring, it's my understanding that those 22 patents were offered to both Red Hat and IBM individually before they were sold to Allied Securities Trust, a non-profit that counts both Red Hat and IBM among its members. You have to wonder why they would turn down the option to buy the patents, subsequently accept AST's membership benefit of gaining a license to those patents, and then raise issues in the public about the risks posed by both the patents and AST and stepping in to buy them through OIN. It strikes me as disingenuous at best.

On the real issue, which is patent litigation, I think that Microsoft is not very different than other large software companies in their behavior on patents – for example IBM has a longer history of patent litigation, and similar issues with the management of their patent portfolio. The structural problem that I see in this industry is a lot like the cold war and the related nuclear proliferation: large companies feel that they need them for protection from each other, so they take actions to ensure that their arsenal is strong, including testing them in court or other bodies. These actions end up causing a lot of fear for other people and companies, and tend to inhibit innovation in the industry. Personally I'd like to see a structural solution such as legislative reform or even a revision of the application of patents to software with a focus on copyright instead, as it used to be in the 70s and 80s. Until this happens it's not clear to me that any of the large software companies are going to change their behavior.

Finally, working with the CodePlex Foundation is quite separate from working with Microsoft. What we are building is a safe harbor for software companies and open source communities to collaborate in. One of the ways we plan to do this is by requiring software companies to grant a patent license for any code they contribute to the Foundation, and then by relicensing those patents at no cost to all downstream users and developers, including their use in derivative works. I think that for the projects and companies that participate in CodePlex Foundation projects, this will prove to be a valuable innovation that lets more developers participate in open source.

LWN: What can you tell us about your new job? It is said to be at a "cloud computing" startup, is that right? Is that company using (or planning to use) open source technologies? If so, how?

I'm responsible for strategy at Sonoa. It's a cloud computing infrastructure company focused on the analysis, control, and security of cloud services. We've all seen a ton of expansion of cloud services – as an example, a year ago eBay stated that 60% of their traffic was coming through the cloud rather than the web. That was 6 billion API calls per month as of 2008 that went directly to their backend rather than their website. As the "invisible web" of programmatic connections to business services expands, and those connections become more critical to the businesses providing and subscribing to them, there's value in being able to ensure availability and performance, logging and auditing, and dynamic modification to how they're being offered to different customers or partners. Sonoa's products do just that; we have a free product called APIgee.com, which runs in Amazon's EC2 environment and lets any cloud service provider manage their uptime, rate limits on subscribers, and get visibility into their current subscribers. That's built on ServiceNet, which is our paid product that runs in the cloud (EC2) and on-premise as a software or hardware appliance. ServiceNet has a lot more features accessible than APIgee currently – it's effectively a high-scale, low-latency routing platform for cloud services.

We use a number of open source technologies, starting with Linux, which is our base platform. While much of the product is in C, we're using Java, and more specifically Apache technologies in the server. We use Xen in packaging our EC2 AMI and some of our customer environments. We also have a design studio for cloud policies which is an Eclipse-based authoring and editing environment.

I think there's a lot more that Sonoa can do in this area – both in giving back to the projects that we're benefiting from directly in the product, and in the projects that we're benefiting from as a company. Here's an example: before someone needs our products, they need to have cloud services, whether those are REST APIs, SOAP APIs, or RSS feeds. They need to build them, and they need to deploy them. We don't have any offerings in those areas – we're not an IDE or application server provider. It's only logical that we should support projects like Apache Axis2 and PHP REST frameworks. The open source strategy at Sonoa is a blank slate, which is one of the things that makes it exciting to me.

LWN: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?

It's been a privilege to work with a number of industry leaders in the role that I served in at Microsoft. The Samba Team taught me a great deal and I appreciated their optimism in being willing to work with me after prior negative experiences with Microsoft, and our success together enabled us to move a lot of things forward, including our relationship with the Linux Foundation. In general those who have taken the time to understand the work that my team did on interoperability with Linux have appreciated the work and had good advice. I feel that there was much more I would like to have done, but that work will fall to my successors and to the company as a whole. I am glad to carry on putting my beliefs into practice at the CodePlex Foundation – that we can build a better software industry by getting software companies consistently contributing to open source projects – but I will miss guiding Microsoft's progress on Linux and Open Source.

I would say this to each of your readers: it's through the outreach and education that you have to offer that will narrow the rifts in the industry. I think every systems administrator would prefer to do less work in making multiple operating systems work in a single environment, and I know that every developer would like to have their work have more impact by running on more platforms and more computers. So if you have advice for the people making decisions and enacting strategy, give it to them constructively and with patience, because meaningful change takes time.

[ We would like to thank Sam for taking the time to answer our questions. ]


(Log in to post comments)

Sam Ramji: On the CodePlex Foundation and more

Posted Oct 17, 2009 0:32 UTC (Sat) by rahulsundaram (subscriber, #21946) [Link]

Good luck Sam. I have good reasons to be sceptical of Microsoft but I have no problems believing that individual people within Microsoft and outside of it are willing to put a genuine effort to change the nature of the organization's interactions with Free and open source software for the better. I will continue to keep a open mind and a open eye for progress.

Sam Ramji: On the CodePlex Foundation and more

Posted Nov 4, 2009 19:51 UTC (Wed) by hozelda (guest, #19341) [Link]

Microsoft's monopolies are extremely profitable and give than advantages into new markets (eg, retailing). They hope to be able to also leverage FOSS on their terms (pushing technology, standards, organizations, licenses, etc, that they control, lead in, patent, or are heavily invested it) to help them beat out Linux and other threats to their monopolies.

They want to tap into the time and efforts of volunteers (this much hasn't changed).

They can't eliminate what attracts people to FOSS, but they hope to set the terms of the game so that dollars and control flow towards them and their closed monopoly environment.

Monopolies implies monopoly pricing and control. Losing existing monopolies (all else that is material remaining mostly the same) implies stock price tanking and losing levers and openings into new revenue streams.

Hopefully, SCOTUS will make a decision on software patents that helps society and is consistent with the US Constitution. Neuter software patents.

Hopefully, those that value FOSS will see through Microsoft's games and work on real FOSS instead of contributing in ways that augment the value of Microsoft's monopolies.

The question I have is, when is Microsoft going to get serious and open source their platform and applications (and drop sw patent attacks) instead of polluting FOSS?

Stockholders won't allow it?

Next.

Sam Ramji: On the CodePlex Foundation and more

Posted Oct 17, 2009 23:40 UTC (Sat) by BrucePerens (guest, #2510) [Link]

Under what terms were Red Hat and IBM offered those patents? I doubt they were fair ones. But there's a lot we're not being told about those patents, by any of the players.

Sam Ramji: On the CodePlex Foundation and more

Posted Oct 21, 2009 16:07 UTC (Wed) by Trelane (subscriber, #56877) [Link]

Or outside confirmation. "hearing" something doesn't mean that it actually happened, let alone in the way you think.

Sam Ramji: On the CodePlex Foundation and more

Posted Oct 22, 2009 13:52 UTC (Thu) by johnflux (guest, #58833) [Link]

I knew someone who used to be in a lot of negotiations. He said that if you don't want to do something, you should never outright say no, but instead just attach complex conditions that you know the other side will never accept.

Then paint the other side as being unreasonable for refusing your request. That way you gain what you want (Redhat etc not accepting the patent), while making it seem like the other side is being unreasonable, giving you greater leverage in the future.

Note that the conditions you attach should be complex - that way if it hits the news, the average person won't be able to follow the conditions and understand that they are unreasonable, making it very difficult for the other side to explain themselves.

Sam Ramji: On the CodePlex Foundation and more

Posted Nov 4, 2009 20:04 UTC (Wed) by hozelda (guest, #19341) [Link]

>> Note that the conditions you attach should be complex - that way if it hits the news, the average person won't be able to follow the conditions and understand that they are unreasonable, making it very difficult for the other side to explain themselves.

The patent system comes to mind. Why? Because I think most people understand what a patent is supposed to be (and can accept the general motivation behind such a system), but don't appreciate how broken the system is in allowing fast runners and those piggie-backing on the industry to gain monopoly control (or taxing powers) over huge areas of intellectual development and products.

In the patent world, prior art means nothing. Only those taking out patents (which can carefully cut around your tiny prior art implementation) have any real leverage and are ridiculously empowered to control things whose details their authors will never dream up or implement. This happens because English and other spoken languages allow generalities to "cover" in scope many things over which the details are unknown.

You either work and contribute to society (if you are allowed to) or you rake in profits via patents as you leech off society's bounties created by others -- this is where software is headed if SCOTUS permits this potentially ridiculously perverse system to apply to software.

Is less than a week, SCOTUS hears verbal arguments on Bilski.

Sam Ramji: On the CodePlex Foundation and more

Posted Oct 18, 2009 2:24 UTC (Sun) by jmm82 (guest, #59425) [Link]

When I read an article such as this I can not help but ponder the question, "Has hell froze over?" When I finally determine that the answer is "NO." it makes me believe that open source is winning the battle. It may not have hit the mass public yet, but large cooperations such as Microsoft are realizing this and trying to adapt before it is too late. While there may be some *good* people working at Microsoft, I know I will personally have a lot of difficulty warming up to this new open source Alli[?].

AST and Red Hat

Posted Oct 18, 2009 3:31 UTC (Sun) by rahulsundaram (subscriber, #21946) [Link]

"On the red herring, it's my understanding that those 22 patents were offered to both Red Hat and IBM individually before they were sold to Allied Securities Trust, a non-profit that counts both Red Hat and IBM among its members."

Sam's understanding seems incorrect since he seems to have confused AST and OIN. I looked and couldn't find any information that Red Hat is a member of AST and in fact AST membership requirements would exclude Red Hat

http://www.alliedsecuritytrust.com/index-3.html

"Operating companies with over $1 billion in annual product revenue"

Wikipedia doesn't list Red Hat as a member either

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allied_Security_Trust

Open Invention Network however has both IBM and Red Hat as members

http://www.openinventionnetwork.com/about_members.php

AST and Red Hat

Posted Oct 18, 2009 9:30 UTC (Sun) by AlexHudson (guest, #41828) [Link]

It has been said that "OIN has a patent treaty with AST I" (http://www.linux.com/news/featured-blogs/168-brian-proffi...) so it may be that Red Hat, while not being members themselves, benefit from the AST I licensing arrangements.

I find it difficult to believe that Microsoft were intending be malicious by selling their patents to a defensive patent trust (which is what AST is). It sounds more like - to me - they tried selling the patents individually first and ended up having to auction them as a lot later. Which basically infers that there isn't a lot of value in these patents.

AST and Red Hat

Posted Oct 18, 2009 20:38 UTC (Sun) by BrucePerens (guest, #2510) [Link]

Except that Microsoft didn't have to sell their patents. Especially patents that effect Linux and Open Source software. They aren't really short of money, although they've tightened their belt a bit they still have around 20 Billion of cash and short-term investments, and longer-term assets worth more. So, I still don't believe much of what we are being told about this.

The patent issue

Posted Oct 18, 2009 11:35 UTC (Sun) by job (guest, #670) [Link]

The comments about software patents are dishonest at best. It would be interesting with some follow-up questions on this, also contrasting what he describes as business as usual with Microsoft's behaviour in the EU swpat directive. After all, patents are some of the common criticism against the foundation in which he is active.

Sam Ramji: On the CodePlex Foundation and more

Posted Oct 19, 2009 13:51 UTC (Mon) by txwikinger (subscriber, #57821) [Link]

"... it's impossible to hire engineers under 30 years old who have no open source experience;"

Well, I think it is very difficult to hire engineers over 40 years old that have no open source experience. Most engineers of this age would have had exposure to gcc, emacs, TeX and a lot of other GPL licensed software during their studies. I remember most papers being written in TeX during my first degree.

Sam Ramji: On the CodePlex Foundation and more

Posted Oct 22, 2009 13:58 UTC (Thu) by johnflux (guest, #58833) [Link]

Just a quick point - Tex and Latex are not GPLed.

Sam Ramji: On the CodePlex Foundation and more

Posted Oct 30, 2009 7:55 UTC (Fri) by sanxiyn (guest, #44599) [Link]

I think he meant "contributing to open source", not "using open source".


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