The year was 1999. My father had just built me a computer with a 500MHz AMD Athlon processor, a 2GB HDD, 32MB of RAM and Windows 98. I was in heaven. Then, a friend of mine wanted to introduce me to Linux and asked if he could partition my hard drive in half so he could install Debian 2.1 (Slink). I told him, "Why not?" and while it was installing I asked how much he paid for it. He chuckled and said, "It's Linux, man. It's free!"
I figured it was bootlegged and left it at that.
When it finished installing he explained that I could log into one of the following desktop environments: KDE or Gnome. I tried both out and was blown away. It blew Win98's UI out of the water. I asked him, "Wait, how can this be free? Who pays people to make this?" He said, "Foundations, like the FSF or the Apache Software Foundation." I took him at his word and didn't think further about how open source software was funded. I always assumed foundations were paying for it, regardless of the open source software I was using.
It wasn't until 12 years later that I realized my assumption was wrong. Really wrong.
When I was at MaxCDN, now StackPath, one of my first open source contributions was setting up a mirror for CentOS on our network. The traffic was decent—if they were a customer they would have easily paid us a couple hundred dollars a year. At the time, CentOS had a very large mirror network (I'm sure it is the same, if not bigger, today). I realized then that open source isn't free, someone else is just paying for everyone who is not.
That is about the time I became an open source sustainer.
Become an open source sustainer
The way I see it, with open source there are three big categories:
While most of us know what a maintainer and contributor are, many of us might not know much about being a sustainer. In short, a sustainer is someone who evangelizes and passionately advocates for needs of open source contributors, including maintainers.
Sustainers educate the public through blog posts, talks, and social media about the digital infrastructure that they use every day and for the most part, take for granted. They convince the companies that they work for to donate money, infrastructure, developer time, and source code to the community at large. They also reach out to companies they don't work for and evangelize about the benefits of helping open source projects live and grow. They don't give up until they have a solution.
As a sustainer, I feel the general consensus among many is that open source is too big to fail. We have faith that all package managers will work, all popular libraries that millions depend on will be maintained, and all the other behind-the-curtains magic will continue no matter what. I strongly believe that consensus is false. Anything can fail if it is not sustained properly.
The challenge we face at the moment is making it super simple for companies (and individuals) to help sustain the projects they depend on and from which they profit.
So, on June 19, 2017, a group of us will be discussing this necessity at $ustain, a one-day conversation for open source software sustainers hosted by the fine folks at GitHub. Get early bird pricing while it lasts. Hope to see you there.