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Open Source not running short of developers

By Matt Whipp

Posted on 23 Feb 2005 at 11:37

Open-source has gained so much momentum of late that one might ask where all the developers needed for these new projects are coming from.

Microsoft's Nick McGrath, head of platform strategy for Microsoft in the UK recently told us that despite many big commercial companies now professing their commitment to Linux and open-source in general, the likes of IBM have just 'handfuls' of developers working in the arena.

Adam Jollans is IBM's Worldwide Linux Software Marketing Strategy Manager, and begged to differ. 'Right now, our Linux technology centre is about 800 strong - developers paid by IBM working directly on open source projects,' he said.

He said this had doubled in the course of a couple of years and that overall there were 8,000 to 9,000 IBM employees working on the company's Linux strategy.

Bill Weinberg, Open Source Architecture Specialist and Evangelist at Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) said, 'To cite a some very visible examples, there are 95,982 registered projects on SourceForge.net and over 1,000,000 registered users. OSDL member companies alone employ over 2000 Linux developers.

'The total number is, of course, difficult to estimate with any precision, but even pessimistic assessments place the number of FOSS developers worldwide in the millions.'

SourceForge suggests the developer pool is far from being stretched too thin. Of the nearly 100,000 projects, there are requests for just 86 developers to help out.

Yet finding the right developer for a project is sometimes difficult no matter what the platform is, and how many there are to choose from. Says Weinberg: 'Talented developers of any kind always presents a challenge. Developers with a FOSS background are at least as plentiful as those for proprietary systems. For my own part, I have several times had problems finding developers with any real depth of Windows expertise for projects that I have managed.

'Rules of supply and demand apply to the talent pool. The key difference is that Open Source provides a shorten path to retraining during a downturn, and offers the greatest source of newly-minted developers coming out of school.'

There's every reason to believe the developer pool will grow stronger. The open source maxim of free access to code chimes with academic research rather than the proprietary software shops' closed outlook. As OS de jour, the next generation of developers are likely to emerge with a strong Linux background.

'Graduates are increasingly coming into the workplace with a much better understanding of open source projects,' sais Weinberg. 'Most university Computer Science students are working on Linux today.

The other sources of fresh talent for Linux-based projects are from existing Unix developers who can easily transfer their skills and companies that want to extend the reach of their products into this area.

Yet building an application for Linux is not necessarily the same as releasing the code contained under an open source licence. Many commercial companies, including IBM and even Novell, which owns the number 2 distribution SUSE, also sell closed source products for the platform.

But at the same time these companies also feel obliged to contribute as well as take from the open source well. Weinberg estimates 'that between 70 per cent and 75 per cent of Open Source developers today either work as employees of mid-size to large corporations, or have their work sponsored by those companies.'

Jollans said 'We felt we needed to be part of the open source community.' But rather than build its own open-source operating system, it partnered with existing distributions SUSE and Red Hat. IBM's contribution, says Jollans, is focussed on where it can play to its strengths in enterprise systems, SMP and so on. Jollans is frank about IBM's interest in Linux being focussed where it can 'help IBM, help IBM's customers'.

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