Originally Published: Monday, 6 August 2001 Author: S.A. Hayes
Published to: develop_articles/Development Articles Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

Linux.com Interview: Brian Behlendorf

Linux.com sits down with Brian Behlendorf, President of the Apache Software Foundation and CTO of CollabNet to talk about open source, the meaning of freedom, Richard Stallman and aliens from outside our solar system.

Brian Behlendorf

Linux.com: Are you still involved with the Apache project?

Brian Behlendorf: Yes, very much so. My role right now - my official role - is president of the Apache Software Foundation which means I'm responsible for making sure the organization works together as a team, trying to handle some of the interpersonal politics at times, keeping the developers happy and smooth, keeping the relationships with companies - you know there are real companies putting real investment and developer time into Apache - trying make sure they are happy and make sure the back ends of their systems are going well and stuff and try to provide some leadership here and there where I can.

I don't get a chance to code any more. I'd really like to. But the reality is that the ten hours a week I can give it, or whatever, keeps me mainly focused on [my role]. And, I think that is actually appropriate because I'm really not the world's best programmer, I think it's a good thing that I'm not touching the code.

So that's my main role right now and really the politics also includes going out and communicating to the world why Apache is a good thing, why companies should be involved in it, and why individuals should be involved in it too.

Linux.com: What do you think is the most important thing you learned from being involved in Apache and continuing to be involved?

Brian Behlendorf: The most important thing that I've learned?

Linux.com: Yeah, what's the most you have gotten out of it, because obviously you've given a lot into it.

Brian Behlendorf: I think the most that I've learned has been, how do I put this? The innate goodness inside of all of us. I mean, I know that sounds really cheesy, but you know what is nice about Apache and its license and the community that formed around that license is that it is not a community compelling somebody to do something, it's a community based on not just one time generous acts but ongoing generous acts and giving time to the common good, and they are there because it is the most effective way to get software developed, they're not there because they have to be or because someone is paying them or because the license makes them contribute things back. And that is reassuring, to see people who are very positive - five years after the first explosion, the first release of code - is a very good thing.

Certainly I get a lot personally out of it as well, there's the recognition and things like that but mostly I try to take that as an opportunity to explain why I hope we could see more projects like Apache out there and why it's a good thing for society.

Open Source and Freedom

Linux.com: Switching to just open source: Looking back a 100 years from now, what do you think people are going to see as the most important thing that open source contributed to the world?

Brian Behlendorf: A 100 years?

Linux.com: 50 years? What do you like best about open source?

Brian Behlendorf: Well, OK, you put a really long time cycle on it. 50 to 100 years is pretty long and, well, what's happened over the last 50 or 100 years? Society has gotten more technologically based, machines and computers are more important to us than ever, and there is a large number of people who are concerned about that, concerned about whether at some point mankind will give up its humanity to machines, I mean, there are all these sci-fi stories about that, everything from Terminator to The Matrix or whatever, but what is it that is going to help keep humanity sane and keep us from surrendering too much of our humanity to the machines? It's going to be: do we retain our control and how do we retain our control by controlling the instructions that those machines use to run, and that is source code.

And, there are a lot of people who think very long term about this, and I think this is probably inside of Stallman's head too; that the only way we are going to preserve our humanity is preserving our source code connection to the software that is controlling the machines. So that's what I hope a hundred years from now people look back on - depending on whether we have won or lost that war, < laughs > is that hey, here's the group that was first identifying the importance of that.

Linux.com: So, are you saying that our souls are dependent on open source?

Brian Behlendorf: I don't know if I'd say that exactly. But I would say that source code is our language for communicating to the machine and if we ever loose that language or that language comes to be the domain of a few select individuals then the rest of humanity is at a severe disadvantage.

Linux.com: Yesterday you mentioned freedom, in the Richard Stallman sense of the word, was important to your thinking about open source business models at the moment. Could you talk a little about that?

Brian Behlendorf: Sure. When I talked about freedom on Wednesday the context I was thinking about was this: lets looks at Microsoft's shared source code license and let's compare that to the Apache license. After a few provisions about patents and certain other things the main difference is commercial right to use.

So, let's imagine that the Microsoft shared source license was successful, let's imagine for a second that there was a community of people who pay for the right to use it - you could call that the Microsoft tax if you wanted, and these people were sharing code within themselves, within that community, it might be a healthy community. Over time what happens is that those people, the individuals in that community will develop enough of their own IP, of their own intellectual property, their own source code, so that it could be what was once 100% of the code written by Microsoft , or whatever company, comes to be less than half of the code in that community, or maybe even 10% of the code in that community, and in that kind of situation you might see that community start to rise up against having to continue to pay their "Microsoft tax" .

We had a revolution in this country two hundred years ago that in addition to the set of freedoms everyone likes to talk about, including the right to free speech, also included the concept of no taxation without representation, and what that brings up is that when you have too much of a gap between those who do and those who charge, or those who set the power structure and those who have to work within it, you create a very politically unstable situation, and that exists when you have a licensing regime like with the shared source license, it doesn't exist when you have a licensee like the GPL or the BSD license or any open source license, which is rather a bi-directional type regime, everybody is an equal, a peer in the process no matter how much contribution of code they make.

Linux.com: Everybody wins?

Brian Behlendorf: Everybody wins. So, I think that's a form of freedom that is not as easy to encapsulate as the terms free speech or free beer. It's almost a third kind of freedom, but I think it might be at the root of what Stallman talks about when he talks about the freedoms that are important to him.

So, maybe we need more discussion about that, but it is something that is going to become more apparent over time.


Linux.com: Let's talk about CollabNet, your current project. You are currently CTO and founder of CollabNet, can you tell us about the company, its focus and roles?

Brian Behlendorf: Sure.

So we started out with this idea that there has got to be something to this "open source thing" that can be turned into a process, that could be understood as a science, and if we could make it into a science we could make it repeatable and then we could take it to the rest of the software industry and say "This works, lets use it".

So we had a bunch of different ideas, we were almost like a laboratory in the beginning, and one of those ideas - SourceXchange - we gave it a shot, and well there wasn't the environment there that was appropriate for it, although I still think it's a good idea < smiles> but you need money to make a good idea into an actual successful company.

There was another idea that we started that has turned out to be a lot more interesting, and that is our SourceCast product, and the underpinnings of that is Tigris, which you might have heard of, it's hosted at tigris.org. The main idea is a software development infrastructure. You can think of it - well your readers are probably going to be familiar with Sourceforge: very similar to that. We pull together all the basic tools for software development and create an environment for software developers to create software collaboratively. And it could be for open source projects, it could be for shared source projects. One of our more successful projects these days is a giant shared source project with HP and a whole bunch of their customers

Linux.com: Is Tigris open source?

Brian Behlendorf: Tigris is open source, you can pull down the code, you can run it yourself, the main value add is in the form of services on top, providing it as an ASP, as well as integrating it into third party tools, and other interesting stuff. Then, of course, training for companies on how to build collaborative development processes and all that kind of stuff. So, we want other people using our tools, today we use the common open source tools like CVS and Bugzilla. We are spending significant amounts of time building the next generation of those tools, so, for example, CVS is a great tool but it is also about a fourth generation hack and we're building a tool called Subversion which is based on webdav and based on Sun and some other very interesting properties that bring in security natively and it's a native client-server application unlike CVS which had that bolted on at the last minute.

There's another project we have underway called Scarab that is an open source project for a Java-based bug-tracking tool.

Our business model does rely on building open source software and engendering its use. We want people using these tools. We want to see Subversion become the code versioning standard out there because we know that just like Red Hat benefits from Linux being the standard we similarly want to benefit from being the integrator and the whole provider of the commercial half of those components.

Linux.com: You probably know more about, or as much about, managing open source development teams as anybody else on the planet. How does that factor into your work at CollabNet?

Brian Behlendorf: Well, we are trying to build a process. You've heard of extreme programming, you've heard of other methodologies. Open Source development shares a lot of traits with extreme programming but has differences as well. So, we've been focusing on distilling that down to a science, to where we can train other companies on it and have sessions with engineers from those companies where we teach them how to put aside the ego from time to time and share code.

Many engineers inside software firms think that sharing their code with others would just be the worst thing in the world. So, you have to work with them at times, hear what they are saying, and hear what their concerns are. Sometimes our advice might be to not take a certain project open source or to hold off and re-implement it until it's ready to remove some barrier to adoption by others.

A lot of it is just figuring out what are the attributes of successful open source projects and how do we replicate that? Are all of them just a matter of chance? Maybe they are, in which case we don't have much of a business < laughs>, but I think a healthy amount of them are a matter of focus and a matter of learning about it and communicating it and distilling it down into action.

Linux.com: Many people have spoken about many successful open source projects having a leader, and I just heard one of your customers - Sun - talk about 'community managers". How do they figure into CollabNet?

Brian Behlendorf: We have a community development team who work for companies who pay us for that service. We'll participate on projects, sometimes up front but a lot of times behind the scenes. For instance if we have a project we will work with the company to identify the engineer who has both a wide scope of knowledge of the whole project and has the interpersonal skills: can communicate with people, can effectively write. What we do is help identify those people, help train them, help them understand what the attributes are of being a good leader in the open source community, how to carry on discussions, how to contain flame wars, thing that we know are very critical.

These are things that we know Linus does very well because it's in his genetics or something; he picked it up from somewhere...

Linux.com: It's a European thing. They teach it in high school in Finland

Brian Behlendorf: Oh really? < laughs> They should, they should teach this kind of stuff in high school. It's important for the future. Yeah, so basically it's just identify the good stuff and train people on it.

Linux.com: OK. What do you think are the principle benefits of "open source development" versus more traditional collaborative behind-the-firewall products like Rational and stuff like that?

Brian Behlendorf: OK, so the main difference as I see is tools like Rational, tools like Merant and others were never designed for the scenario that we see in open source. Here you have very geographically widespread developers - so the tools have to understand that they work over a WAN natively, a wide area network. They also were not really designed for what you see quite a bit in open source communities where you have core developers but you also have peripheral developers.

So, for example, my core is in Apache so I follow a bunch of Apache lists, but I also follow the FreeBSD mailing list because I run FreeBSD on my laptop, and a lot of Java mailing lists because obviously we're involved there. So, I have this peripheral involvement in those communities. I rarely have a need to submit a patch or anything like that but I do like hearing what is going on there.

In the traditional software development environment you had very segmented groups of who rarely shared things outside of their groups.

You also had those tools encouraging a model where the group in Boise would have their own infrastructure, the group in Seattle would have their own, the group in Sacramento would have their own and they'd be very disconnected, and so we have been focusing a lot on how do you get all those groups of people using the same infrastructure and what are all the implications of something like that?

Linux.com: OK, well I know a lot of our readers will want to know the answer to this next question: Are you hiring?

Brian Behlendorf: < laughs> Unfortunately, I'd have to say - well there is a job's page on Collab.net's site, we might have a few positions here and there but, overall, we're not hiring as much as we used to. Actually I used to have that in my .sig, but I had to take it out because we're not hiring so much any more.

Linux.com: Times have changed.

Brian Behlendorf: Times have changed. We do have a pretty healthy engineering team. It's going to be a matter of when - when people start spending more money, and we get even more customers, then we might start hiring again in the future. But right now, things are tight.

The Future

Linux.com: OK. Few last questions about the future. What do you see yourself doing ten years from now?

Brian Behlendorf: < laughs> Well, so long as CollabNet stays interesting I might be there, I'm not the kind to just dive in, dive out. Yes, you introduced it as my current project but it is really much more than that. So long as it stays interesting for me and is something I feel that I'm making a difference doing, I could do it for the next ten years.

If I weren't there? I don't know. I have kindof resolved that this is my last high tech. job, I'm probably not going to do another start-up but I won't rule it out conclusively.

Linux.com: What else would you do?

Brian Behlendorf: Well, I wouldn't necessarily start another business, I might do some combination of writing source code for fun, travel and, well, doing something with music. I've got a lot of different interests and many of those I've just had to shut down to focus on the business and on open source software, and I might like to pick them up again.

Linux.com: What's your favorite kind of music?

Brian Behlendorf: Electronica, ambient, dub.

Linux.com: Moby?

Brian Behlendorf: Uh, yeah, but, not as much as some others. The Orb is probably a better example that people might know. But really spooky electronic kind of music, that is nice.

Linux.com: So, how old are you?

Brian Behlendorf: I'm 28.

Linux.com: And, do you think there is intelligent life on other planets?

Brian Behlendorf: I think it is supreme hubris to think that there are not other forms of intelligence out there in the universe.

Linux.com: Do you think that we will communicate with non earth-based life forms in the next 50 years and what do you think the most likely form of that communication will be?

Brian Behlendorf: I don't think it will be within the next 50 years.

Linux.com: I do.

Brian Behlendorf: I would like to think that it is, but if you are asking me to wager, I'd like it to be but I don't think it will be that quick. I don't think it is local to our solar system. Unless there is Amoeba living in oceans on Europa or something, there might be primitive life forms on other planets or their moons, within our solar system, but I don't think there is intelligent life within our solar system.

We won't be able to verify any out-of-the-solar-system communication until we get a response and the speed of light, to get a response, it takes so long that we'd never hear back.

Linux.com: So even if we received what we thought was a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence we wouldn't really have communicated until we get a response?

Brian Behlendorf: Right. I think we're going to have to wait until we travel faster than light.

Linux.com: Cool. Well, thank you very much for talking with us at Linux.com.

Brian Behlendorf: < laughs> My pleasure.

About the author: SA Hayes is a writer, editor and tinkerer living in Northern California, for which he is grateful. When not working on computers Hayes spends his days building things and his nights driving away raccoons.