Freenode and OFTC IRC networks buddy up


Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Two Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks that are used heavily by free and open source software projects, freenode and the Open and Free Technology Community (OFTC), are building bridges by swapping staff and observing each other’s operations. The rapprochement brings together two organizations that sprang from a single project, and may be a precursor for more intimate ties.

Both networks got their start with Founded by Rob ‘lilo” Levin, OpenProjects.netwas the precursor to the Peer-Directed Projects Center (PDPC) and freenode. (The domain is no longer affiliated with PDPC or freenode.) OFTC separated from, at least in part, due to philosophical differences about management and fundraising.

The split, which OFTC network operations committee chair David Graham calls “a very acrimonious and unpleasant separation,” started in 2001. Graham says that all of OFTC’s original staff members were former staffers.

OFTC formed a network specifically for free software and open source projects. “The two networks have evolved separately over the half-decade since, with very few staff remaining on either side from that split.”

Last year, Levin was hit by a car while riding a bicycle and died due to the injuries he sustained.

Christel Dahlskjaer, head of staff for freenode and a board member for PDPC, says that, since Levin’s death, freenode has moved to a “more inclusive approach, where both users and staff are involved in decisions and changes pertaining to the future direction of the network.” In addition, Dahlskjaer says that freenode is moving to a “more transparent system” that’s more in line with the community nature of freenode. She says Levin would be “very pleased and proud of what we have achieved with both freenode and its parent organization PDPC in the months since his passing.”

Freenode has grown by about 8,000 users since last October, according to Dahlskjaer. For reference, the Search IRC site pegs OFTC at an average of 3,751 users over the last week, while it estimates that freenode averaged about 33,300 users over the same period. Adding 8,000 users in just six months is substantial growth.

Dahlskjaer also says that the PDPC is “embraced more by the community” despite losing Levin as a fundraiser. “We are seeing a trend in donations from organizations such as the Wikimedia Foundation as well as individual donors, enabling us to focus on other projects such as arranging FOSSCON.”

Working together

After growing apart for six years, freenode and OFTC are now working together, and seeing where cooperation might take them.

Graham says that the two networks would probably not be cooperating as they are now if Levin were still in charge. However, he also says Levin was a “charismatic leader” who “always had the best interests of the free software and open source communities at heart, and it is within that spirit that we are all working.”

Graham says “there is no specific roadmap for further integration,” but “both sides want it.” The next logical step, according to Graham, would be for freenode to deploy the IRC daemon (ircd) used by OFTC. “Freenode currently uses hyperion, a highly customized ircd that is difficult to maintain. The logical next step would be for freenode to implement and roll out OFTC’s ircd, which is a slightly patched version of the very robust Hybrid ircd.”

This looks like a strong possibility, as Dahlskjaer acknowledges that “our current IRC daemon is difficult to maintain and was not designed to cope with a network experiencing the sort of growth we are currently seeing.” To that end, Dahlskjaer says that freenode is “researching several options for an ircd and services” and “paying particular attention to OFTC’s Hybrid-based ircd and Charybdis, an IRC daemon based on the ircd-ratbox core.”

To merge, or not to merge

If all this activity sounds like the precursor to moving the two networks together again, you might be right. Or not. According to Graham, the idea of a merger “has been floated” but “nothing is set in stone as far as a merger goes.”

What would it take to execute a merger of the networks? Dahlskjaer says that “there are a lot of technical and operational differences that would need to be worked out.

“While we offer a similar service, it is no secret that freenode looks to expand beyond ‘just IRC.’ We work with a strong sense of community involvement in our efforts to provide infrastructure for open source projects, and to help them create vibrant communities in an environment which fosters collaboration, inclusion, and empowerment. OFTC, on the other hand, has a less hands-on approach, providing the infrastructure and letting the projects work on the community side.”

Both networks are part of larger organizations. Freenode is part of the PDPC, which is a non-profit (501(c)3) organization. Dahlskjaer says that PDPC is “focused on providing community services” for the FOSS community, including the FOSSCON conference scheduled for September in San Diego, Calif.

In addition to FOSSCON, Dahlskjaer says that PDPC is “researching and laying the foundations for some future program ideas including, but not limited to, a code grant program, educational programs, and exploring collaboration with the peer2peer foundation.”

OFTC is part of Software in the Public Interest (SPI), a nonprofit organization (also a 501(c)3) that helps provide a legal umbrella for FOSS-related organizations and takes a hands-off approach with respect to members’ operations.

In addition to technical and organizational differences, the two networks have cultural differences to consider as well. Graham says that OFTC has a “far more hands-off” culture than freenode. “OFTC’s staff do not intervene in matters with its channels unless the integrity or usability of the network itself is at risk, or if requested by the channel’s staff.

“Freenode, on the other hand, has an extensive system of network involvement in channel administration. Projects using freenode are able to get namespace blocks for their channels, rather than just a name. For example, were NewsForge to want an IRC channel on freenode, it would either be ##NewsForge — note the extra hash — or a group contact form would need to be filed to get #newsforge, with only one hash signifying it’s an official channel, and #newsforge-* would be reserved for it.”

The way that user support is handled also differs drastically. Graham says that OFTC generally handles support via the public #oftc channel, while freenode encourages users to contact staff privately. Both work well, he says, but “are completely different approaches.

“OFTC’s is based on the simple premise that whoever is around can help, even if they are not a staff member, while freenode’s support is handled one-on-one with staff signing in and signing out of the on-duty list.”

The reason for the difference, says Dahlskjaer, is that the two networks differ drastically in size. Since OFTC is smaller and more hands-off in its approach, “this is an approach that works well for them.”

Ultimately, the two networks may not officially merge, but Graham says that the cooperation will be beneficial either way. “There is an increasingly strong belief within both projects and in feedback that we have received that it is ultimately in the best interest of the open source and free software communities for our two projects, whose goals are shared, to work together instead of competing.”

Editor’s note: David Graham is an editorial contractor at OSTG,’s parent organization.