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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?
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 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 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?
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?
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? [PULL QUOTE: 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. END QUOTE]
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?
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?
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?
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. ]
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