January 10, 2014

What Makes an Open Source Project Successful?

How can you predict if an open source project is going to be successful? This is a question I’ve thought a lot about. I’ll be honest I’ve made the mistake of underestimating the potential of an open source project a few times in my career. I certainly remember a number of conversations while at VMware when the group all came to the conclusion that OpenStack would never get any traction. How silly do I feel now? But that begs the question: how could I have known? Is it all a crapshoot or are there signs you can point to?

Before we dive into this question it may be useful to first answer why it matters. Matt Asay of MongoDB recently said it well: “Ten years ago, a new open source company or project was news. Not anymore. Open source dominates mobile, with Android displacing the seemingly unbeatable iOS in both smartphones and tablets. Open source also dominates cloud, with every significant cloud platform except Azure built using open source. And even Azure treats open-source technologies as first-class citizens on its platform. And open source dominates Big Data, with Hadoop and NoSQL technologies the major forces used for managing the world's data explosion.”

So we come back to the question of how can you tell a priori whether a given project is going to fail or succeed. This is not an academic question! Whether you’re a user of IT or a vendor the ability to “read the tea leaves” is an important one. Every day you have to make a choice--do I go proprietary or open source and, if the latter, which one?

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