Network World's analysis of publicly listed sponsors of 36 prominent open-source non-profits and foundations reveals that the lion's share of financial support for open-source groups comes from a familiar set of names.
We found 673 companies on the donor rolls of our list of organizations which was drawn heavily, though not entirely, from the Open Source Initiative's list of affiliates.
Google was the biggest supporter of open-source organizations by our count, appearing on the sponsor lists of eight of the 36 groups we analyzed. Four companies Canonical, SUSE, HP and VMware supported five groups each, and seven others supported four. (Nokia, Oracle, Cisco, IBM, Dell, Intel and NEC.) For its part, Red Hat supports three groups the Linux Foundation, Creative Commons and the Open Virtualization Alliance.
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It's tough to get more than a general sense of how much money gets contributed to which foundations by which companies suffice it to say, however, that the numbers aren't large by the standards of the big contributors. According to Pro Publica's non-profit records, the average annual revenue for the open-source organizations considered in our analysis was $4.36 million, and that number was skewed by the $27 million taken in by the Wikimedia Foundation (whose interests range far beyond open-source software development) and the $17 million posted by the Linux Foundation.
Split between, say, half a dozen companies, and even the Linux Foundation doesn't look too hard to fund. What's $2.83 million a year to Intel? The non-hypothetical, real-world price tag is actually lower, as it turns out the foundation said that it charges $500,000 per year for platinum membership, $100,000 a year for gold, and anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 for silver, depending on the size of the company.
It should be pointed out that this is still far from a complete picture we used the most recent numbers available, but those were frequently from as long ago as 2011, and this doesn't account for the many overseas groups and others not covered by the database but it does suggest that, to a company like Google, even relatively major donations barely make a dent in the bottom line.
Another thing keeping the picture incomplete was a reluctance by some of the bigger companies to speak to us on the subject of their activities within the open-source community. We got only boilerplate responses back from two companies, and from list-topping Google, no response at all.
So what do they get out of it?
In the main, companies that support open-source nonprofits get brownie points your developers can work on a project without the company joining an official foundation (and, importantly, vice versa), so the benefits of direct participation in a project aren't necessarily related to the non-profit angle.
But those brownie points are far from valueless. All those services provided by non-profits are important to lots of people in the open-source community. Tejun Heo, a prominent kernel developer and Red Hat employee, gave the example of a hobbyist developer attending one of the many conferences on open-source held every year.
"A sponsoring company ... would have a lot easier time getting acquainted with the person, and he or she would be a lot more likely to be familiar with and have a positive impression of the company," he said.
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A lot of that goodwill, Heo added, has to do with the job market sponsorship can make companies more attractive to potentially valuable developers, while keeping them in the loop on individual projects.
"Even if it doesn't directly result in hiring, the wider contact surface ensures that Red Hat at least can stay in contact with what's going on in terms of both technical and human resources aspects of the project," he said.
More even than that, companies like Red Hat employ a lot of people that are just big fans of open-source in the first place, according to Heo.
Of course, some see hints of whitewash in the movement of big tech companies toward the open-source world's nonprofits. It's important to note that support for those organizations doesn't necessarily translate into actual code contributions to open-source projects.
A look at the most recent edition of the Linux Foundation's "Who Writes Linux" publication, which covers 2013, found that Red Hat was the largest corporate contributor of code to the Linux kernel, at 10.2% of the total. Close behind is Intel, at 8.8%. So far, that tallies with the list of open-source organizations sponsored, but the similarities partially fall away from there the two next-biggest code contributors were Texas Instruments and Linaro, both of which are supporters of just one organization, the Linux Foundation.
Obviously, this doesn't prove much on its own it's tough to directly compare code contributions and sponsorship, and it doesn't account for work done on any other projects besides the kernel. But the discrepancy is noteworthy in several cases. Google, for example, contributed less than a quarter of the kernel code that Red Hat did.
Jay Lyman, an analyst with 451 Research, highlighted both positive and negative attributes to corporate sponsorship in open source.
"[Participation] is good in the sense that organizations are focused on real benefits and results, but it could make it easier for those seeking to leverage open-source communities without participating or contributing," he said.
What do foundations do?
So what do foundations do? In the case of major organizations like the Linux Foundation, it seems almost easier to ask what they don't do.
The group has a legal defense fund, patent commons, trademark management program, workgroups for several technical focus areas like SDN and accessibility and lots more not to mention the basic development and testing infrastructure that enables Linux development.
"And we'll throw in a subscription to Outside Magazine, and a wind-up radio," jokes Jim Zemlin, the group's executive director.
Not every non-profit's operations are so extensive, of course many provide not much more than training, advocacy and/or a basic organization and collaboration framework for smaller projects, or for geographically clustered groups of open-source developers. But the principle is the same.
One other unique facet to the Linux Foundation's activities is the group's direct employment of Linus Torvalds final arbiter over all things Linux kernel and probably the most powerful person in open-source helps avoid allegations of bias over the direction of the project which is an issue, though not as contentious as one might suppose, given the fact that many of the most active code contributors to Linux are employed by some of the same companies that underwrite the non-profit.
Tejun Heo said that there's "no tension at all" between his employer and the broader kernel community.
"If I think something is a technically better direction, that's the direction I follow. Even when that mismatches with what Red Hat internal engineering was expecting," he said.
"Somebody once told me that [Red Hat] is a company where a bunch of open-source engineers hired management and marketing people to run the boring, money side of things so that they can continue to do whatever they like, and while it's a bit of an exaggeration I think there's a certain amount of truth to that," he noted.
Network World blogger (and SUSE employee) Bryan Lunduke highlighted that there are genuinely altruistic motivations involved among other firms, as well.
"Companies like Google and SUSE are filled with open-source loving people. It's in their DNA," he said. "Supporting open-source projects and organizations is simply an extension of who they are."