Source(Forge) of Strength or Weakness?

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Support is both a weakness and a strength of open source. A weakness because few projects are able to offer support directly; instead, the core coders naturally prefer to concentrate on refining and extending their creations. As a result, absent solutions from major players like Red Hat or Ubuntu, enterprises have often had to scrabble around to find a company that will offer support for some of the less well-known free software packages.

And yet this decentralised support structure is also (potentially) a great strength, because it decouples an application from its creator, and permits many third parties to offer support. This, in turn, allows a competitive market to develop, which – or so economics promises – should drive down the price paid. All fine in theory, but in practice that market has not been very evident. That may change with the launch of SourceForge.net Marketplace, which describes itself as “The best place to buy support for your open source software.”

To say that SourceForge is an important site for the open source community would be something of an understatement:

SourceForge.net is the world's largest Open Source software development web site. SourceForge.net provides free hosting to Open Source software development projects with a centralized resource for managing projects, issues, communications, and code. Registered Projects: 164,059 Registered Users: 1,743,404

Now, as well as searching for software projects on SourceForge.net, you can now search for people and organisations willing to support them and other open source applications, whether or not they are hosted on SourceForge. Provided there is more than one support option on offer, competition should start to kick in a way that was not really possible before. Moreover, SourceForge.net Marketplace offers useful extra features such as eBay-like ratings of the services provided.

Although I applaud this move, and think that it may well spur the growth of new outfits providing support for open source programs, I do have one concern. The importance of SourceForge is such that I do worry about this concentration of power. Suppose the site goes down for an extended period? Suppose the company behind it goes bankrupt, or were made an offer it couldn't refuse by Microsoft, say? What kind of backup systems does the open source world have for these eventualities?

The launch of SourceForge.net Marketplace looks likely to exacerbate these issues, since it extends the reach of the site beyond code creation to code support, which could make it even more central to the way the entire open source ecosystem functions. Now may be a good time for the open source community to consider its dependence on SourceForge, and to find ways to reduce the threat that this represents.

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