Why the founder of Apache is all-in on blockchain

Brian Behlendorf talks about starting Apache, the tension between pragmatism and idealism, and why he’s excited about blockchain.
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Brian Behlendorf is perhaps best known for being a co-founder of the Apache Project, which became the Apache Software Foundation. Today, he's the executive director of the Hyperledger Foundation, an organization focused on enterprise-grade, open source, distributed ledgers (better known as blockchains). He also says he "put the first ad banner online and have been apologizing ever since."

In a recent conversation on my podcast, Behlendorf talks about the goals of the Apache Project, the role of foundations generally, and his hopes for blockchain.

Starting Apache

As Behlendorf tells the story, Apache came out of an environment when "we might have had a more beneficent view of technology companies. We still thought of them as leading the fight for individual empowerment."

At the same time, Behlendorf adds, "there was still a concern that, as the web grew, it would lose its character and its soul as this kind of funky domain, very flat space, supportive of freedoms of speech, freedoms of thought, freedoms of association that were completely novel to us at the time, but now we take for granted—or even we have found weaponized against us."

This led him to want Apache to address concerns that were both pragmatic in nature and more idealistic.

The pragmatic aspect stemmed from the fact that "iteratively improving upon the NCSA web server was just easier and certainly a lot cheaper than buying Netscape's commercial web server or thinking about IIS or any of the other commercial options at the time." Behlendorf also acknowledges, "it's nice to have other people out there who can review my code and [to] work together with."

There was also an "idealistic notion that tapped into that zeitgeist in the '90s," Behlendorf says. "This is a printing press. We can help people publish their own blogs, help people publish their own websites, and get as much content liberated as possible and digitized as possible. That was kind of the web movement. In particular, we felt it would be important to make sure that the printing presses remained in the hands of the people."

Founding the Apache Software Foundation

Once the Apache HTTPD web server project grew to the point that 70% of the web was running on top of Apache HTTPD, it was clear to the project's participants that more structure was needed.

As Behlendorf describes it: "It was still being built by a group of people whose only connection to each other was that they were all on an email mailing list. All had commit to a CVS repository. All had shell on a Unix box that I maintained off of Wired's internet connection. And otherwise [we] had no formalism between us. In a way, that was liberating; in a way, we were like, 'yeah, you know, we don't need overhead, we don't need stuffy bureaucrats.'"

Behlendorf and the others weren't interested in incorporating a for-profit company, given that they all had other projects and startups and weren't looking to make Apache HTTPD a full-time job. However, they recognized the legal risks of not having some sort of corporate shield, especially as the portfolio of Apache projects grew.

As Behlendorf puts it: "What happens if somebody who owned a patent decided to file a patent lawsuit against the developers of Apache and wanted something as simple and modest as a dollar per copy? If they won—and given patent laws, they certainly could win—they'd seek those tens or hundreds of millions of dollars from the Apache developers. For that crime of giving away free software, we could lose our homes."

In response, the Apache Software Foundation was incorporated in 1999 as a US 501(c)(3) charitable organization that was explicitly membership-based, in contrast to foundations like the Linux Foundation that are organized more along the lines of industry consortia. (The Linux Foundation is a US 501(c)(6) nonprofit mutual benefit corporation.)

Behlendorf observes that there are a lot of different models out there and he's happy "to see quite a few foundations out there and new ones showing up." Whatever the specific approach, however, he argues, "in general, if you're doing anything meaningful in open source software, your activities should be parked somewhere where there is a protective structure around it that helps answer the questions and the needs of the broader user community."

Joining blockchain

Today, Behlendorf is executive director of the Hyperledger Foundation, which he joined about three years ago, a few months after the first Hyperledger Fabric code drop in late 2015. He says, "with Hyperledger, one thing that pulled me in and got me excited was this notion that there are some really important problems we can solve with distributed systems, with distributed ledgers, and smart contract techniques. It wasn't programmable money, it wasn't regulatory arbitrage. It wasn't … the things people associate with cryptocurrencies that was the driver here. It was the sense that the digitalization of society had led to a future that looked a lot more like big, central systems. It was a very un-internet kind of worldview, but it seemed to be the trend line we were on."

As a result, "blockchain technology seemed urgent to get involved in [and] that lined up with these idealistic and pragmatic impulses that I've had—and I think other people in open source have had," he adds.

Specifically, it was the emergence of a set of use cases beyond programmable money that drew in Behlendorf. "I think the one that pulled me in was land titles and emerging markets," he recalls. It wasn't just about having a distributed database. It was about having a distributed ledger that "actually supported consensus, one that actually had the network enforcing rules about valid transactions versus invalid transactions. One that was programmable, with smart contracts on top. This started to make sense to me, and [it] was something that was appealing to me in a way that financial instruments and proof-of-work was not."

Behlendorf makes the point that for blockchain technology to have a purpose, the network has to be decentralized. For example, you probably want "nodes that are being run by different technology partners or … nodes being run by end-user organizations themselves because otherwise, why not just use a central database run by a single vendor or a single technology partner?" he argues.

Growing open source today

Behlendorf rounds out our interview by discussing how open source software has continued to grow in importance, often for totally pragmatic reasons. "I think there's an entirely rational, non-idealistic business argument for why we're seeing more and more companies, even the ones we traditionally associated with very proprietary business models, be it Microsoft, be it Uber, be it Facebook, actually recognizing open source is strategically interesting," Behlendorf says.

He feels as if this is a continuation of the thinking the Apache Software Foundation had 20 years ago. "We thought that, if we just involved some of these parties in our projects and kept to our core principles of how to build software, of how our licenses work, how our development processes work publicly, if we made them play by our rules—we may still end up in a much better place and move further faster. I think that's been the story of the last 20 years,'" Behlendorf concludes.

Listen to the original podcast audio [MP3, 28:42 minutes]. Download below.

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Gordon Haff is Red Hat technology evangelist, is a frequent and highly acclaimed speaker at customer and industry events, and is focused on areas including Red Hat Research, open source adoption, and emerging technology areas broadly.

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