5 benefits of contributing to open source projects

Learn how one company's contributions to OpenStack helped drive their own innovation, growth, and revenue.
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Open source was once seen as a risky bet for the enterprise. If open source software was used at all it was by small companies, or by larger firms in stealthy pockets by IT and development professionals who saw the value of the model but couldn't "sell" it upstream.

To be fair, it was a different time with a different pace of business, and the open source model was a little too loose for most companies. Today? Open source is wearing figurative pinstripes while enabling companies of all sizes and industries to innovate at the pace of digital. And savvy companies are not only using it, but also contributing to open source projects to drive innovation, growth, and revenue.

In fact, not using open source can put companies at a distinct disadvantage. In the 2016 report "Open Source Powers Enterprise Digital Transformation," Forrester puts it rather bluntly: "Today, failure to fully consider open source options is unwise. Within a few short years, it will be unforgivably negligent."

And many would say that full consideration of open source includes not just using the software, but also actively participating in open source communities.

At Workday, for example, we are using the OpenStack platform for creating private clouds in every data center, encompassing virtual machines (VMs) and bare metal. We also have been deeply involved in the OpenStack community. In fact, we're a major contributor to the OpenStack open source community, with more than 1,000 reviews and commits. We have an internal team entirely dedicated to OpenStack deployment, and the team has been working to fulfill rigorous requirements to harden the platform for the enterprise. Today, a number of Workday Services are deployed on OpenStack.

Workday's contributions to the OpenStack project include upstream code in projects such as Neutron, Rally, Glance, Keystone, and Cookbooks. We are also involved with the project at the board and user committee level, and we have done a number of technical session presentations at OpenStack Summits. Most recently, Workday sessions on performance and containerizing the control plane in WPC have been accepted for the OpenStack Summit in Sydney in November.

If that sounds like a lot of work and a lot of commitment, it is. So what's in it for Workday? And, more importantly, what's in it for you?

Here are five benefits to being an active contributor to an open source project.

1. Companies that contribute to an open source project get to know the technology at a much deeper level than they would by "simply" using the technology.

Contributing to an open source project deepens understanding of the project and the ways in which it can be leveraged for the business. At Workday, for example, we have gained many operational improvements by shifting to OpenStack, in areas including development, deployment, scalability, usability, onboarding, network isolation, security and automated continuous improvement. And, through our deep involvement with the project, we can easily identify and implement changes to the OpenStack infrastructure that will be of benefit moving forward, including a shift to hybrid cloud, virtualization of all workloads, and the adoption of OpenStack projects such as Orchestration (Heat) and Metering & Data Collection Service (Ceilometer). All of this helps us fortify our infrastructure and continuously develop and implement new features and capabilities for our customers.

2. Companies can focus efforts on adding—and leveraging—features that will benefit businesses based on experience with what works and doesn't work in the real world.

How many times have you wished (or explicitly asked) for features from big tech vendors that seemed like no-brainers but were conspicuous by their absence from hardware or software? How many times have you "worked around" a product, knowing full well that there had to be an easier way? By participating in an open source project you can contribute code based on what has and hasn't worked for your company, and reap the benefits of other companies doing the same.

3. Providing opportunities for internal development teams to contribute to open source projects builds morale and reputation, and helps retain developers.

Developers rule the tech world these days, and getting and keeping good people can be the difference between a company's success and failure. You want to keep your existing developers happy and challenged, and you want to be the kind of place that rising development stars want to work at. Key to both of these issues is the use of open source technology and, more importantly, active participation in stimulating open source communities.

The best projects attract the best and brightest developers and make use of the most cutting-edge technology and tools. Committing to these projects (in more ways than one) will help you retain and attract the kind of developers who can continuously move your company forward. As a hiring manager, a job candidate who has a real understanding of open source and demonstrates active and positive participation in open source projects is worth far more than a candidate who has the right certifications and credentials but no open source experience.

4. Companies that contribute to open source projects have access to the insight and experience of other members of the community.

Being part of an active open source community means being part of a group of people who have "been there, done that" and can share their experience, advice, best practices, and ideas. OpenStack, for example, has user groups across the globe, and every six months the development community holds a summit to gather requirements and write specifications for upcoming releases. This kind of ongoing quality assurance and peer review is invaluable.

5. Contributing to open source provides a clear view into the future of a project, helping companies more strategically plan for—and drive—the future.

Traditional technology vendors provide roadmaps and updates, but to what extent do you know what's coming a year down the line, or even tomorrow? And to what extent are you driving what's coming? By contributing to key open source projects—the ones that are serving as a foundation for your business, your users and your customers—you know what to expect and when to expect it, and you can help to drive those expectations by contributing code that is relevant not just to your business but to the industry.

More and more companies are reaping the rewards of open source software, but far fewer are getting the biggest bang for their "buck." Why? They're not actively contributing to open source communities and/or seeking out providers that are. The return on investment can be significant, and ongoing, so take a page from our book and start contributing today.

To learn more about Workday's contributions to OpenStack, you can view the case study here.

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Edgar Magana is a Senior Principal Engineer for Cloud Operations at Workday. He’s responsible for driving Cloud Operations initiatives that maximize the pace of innovation with Development and Operations at Workday.

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