How Apache *really* works

How much do you know about the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) and the many Apache projects we host? Did you know we’re holding our annual Members meeting to elect our board of directors and new Members in just a few days?

I’m often surprised by the variety of basic questions and misunderstandings I hear in the software world about how the ASF really works. We’ve written plenty of documentation about the Apache Way and our governance, but let’s try a different approach. I’d like to interview myself to try to explain some things.

So, Shane, what *is* Apache? I thought it was that web server?

The ASF is a non-profit, public charity, 501(c)3 membership corporation with the mission of producing software for the public good. The Apache HTTP Server project (to use it’s formal name) is a project community at the ASF that creates the httpd web server, which has powered more active websites than any other server since 2000.

The ASF is the corporation that provides legal, branding, press, fundraising, and infrastructure support, and proven community mentoring to the many Apache projects like the HTTP Server. Think of the ASF as a great big house, where we provide shelter for a lot of different families that write open source software.

Well how many Apache projects are there?

We have over 165 different projects, and about 40 podlings. These 200+ project communities create a wide variety of software products, including Apache Hadoop, Apache Lucene, Apache OpenOffice, Apache CloudStack, and many, many more.

You are almost certainly using multiple Apache products right now as you read this. You may not realize it, but much of the plumbing of the internet uses Apache software to keep servers organized and connected. Most browsers use various Apache products under the hood for a wide variety of utility functions. It is our project communities that actually create the software you’re using — the ASF just helps keep them organized.

How does the ASF organize all these projects?

The ASF provides all the infrastructure an open source project needs: websites, code repositories, mailing lists, bugtracking services, a crack infrastructure team. We also provide all the rest of the services that a project will want, like legal support, access to press releases or analyst contacts, and some fundraising support. The ASF also owns all Apache trademarks on behalf of our projects, to ensure they get the credit they deserve.

Most importantly, the Apache Membership and many of our 4,000+ Apache committers provide the community mentoring and support to keep our projects running smoothly, with an independent project governance. We have many passionate Members with amazing experience in making open souce projects work, and they volunteer to help keep our projects healthy and running strong.

But this is mentoring and guidance, not direction. The ASF does not direct the technical direction of our projects. We let the people doing the work — the project committers and Project Management Committees (PMCs) decide where the code should go.

So the projects direct themselves. But what is “independent project governance“? How do you enforce it?

A critical behavior for any Apache project is independent governance. That means that every project manages their code for the benefit of all users (the public good), and not just for some company or vendor. In particular, the ASF and Apache projects only recognize individuals as committers or Members — never companies.

We expect when committers are working within their Apache project, they are acting for the best interests of the project itself. But we also have checks and balances: all Apache projects report formally to the board of directors quarterly. The board reviews project health — are they acting indepenently, are they publishing software releases, are they voting in new committers. If the board sees behavior that does not show mature Apache project behavior, the board will work within that project community to help the project community correct itself. Many Apache Members also volunteer to mentor our projects in these cases. In extreme cases (very rare), where a project does not follow the Apache Way, the board will unilaterally make changes to correct their course.

Can you clarify who are the board, the Members, and how they relate to projects? Are Members part of all projects?

Imagine Apache as a condominium association with multiple condos together. The ASF as a corporation provides the building. Like some condo associations, we also define a few expected behaviors and appearances for all the condos we offer. We also offer bonus services, like help moving into your condo or fixing things up. Each Apache project lives in one of these condos. We’re happy for you, the project community, to live your own lifestyle within your condo and paint the inside whatever color you want, as long as your public behaviors when you’re here follow our community best practices.

Here, the Apache board is the board of the condo association. They set the core rules and guidelines for the building. The Membership are sort of the owners of the building — not that they can ever sell their shares or make a profit, but they are the only ones who can nominate and elect the board. The board appoints all the officers who set detailed policies and make all the operations of the building work, like trash pickup and elevator maintenance.

Every Apache project condo has at least one Apache Member involved with the community: the Incubator requires that every new project has a few Members interested in that community to help mentor it. But within each project condo, the code direction or decor choice is completely up to the whole project community to decide. Membership in Apache is not transitive to any project: Members need to be elected to your project to have a direct say in it.

The ASF offers a lot of services to projects. How does this all get paid for?

The ASF board approves an annual corporate budget of about one million dollars. Our primary income is from our formal Sponsorship program, where organizations can provide a regular annual donation. As a 501(c)3 charity, we also have many individual donors, and some authors donate royalties from their books about Apache software to the ASF.

Importantly, sponsorship of the ASF does not provide any influence over Apache operations nor the operations of any projects. The ASF’s mission is to serve the public good, and while we very much appreciate our generous sponsors, we do not serve them: we serve our project communities and software users.

Sponsors provide a variety of reasons why they sponsor the ASF, many of which relate to how we host so many different critical software product communities. As one sponsor said, “Apache builds the plumbing of the internet”. Some sponsors and donors simply want to give back to the ASF in appreciation for all the software we provide for free.

So the Sponsors can pay for Apache project development, interesting.

No! Sponsorship funds are purely undirected — we do not accept donations with ties or requirements. By policy, the ASF does not pay for core development on any Apache project. All our budget is used for the support services that allow our project communities to do their work — which is building Apache software.

Do any Apache committers get paid for their work?

Of course — but not by the ASF. Many committers are working on Apache projects on behalf of their employers, who may be software vendors providing support, hosting, or add on products for that Apache project. Some committers are independent consultants, trainers, authors, or the like, who make their own living from helping other people use Apache projects. And a lot of committer work is done simply because that person needs to fix a bug or add a feature that they need for themselves. With so many people using Apache software to run their businesses, most work is self-serving: building code that they need.

The ASF provides a vendor-neutral place where everyone who benefits from Apache software can collaborate to improve that software. The ASF does not have an agenda or direction — we rely on the people using our software to help improve it.

Well… how much do *you* get paid at Apache?

Nothing.

No, seriously — how much do you get paid for this?

Seriously: nothing. Zero. Zip. The ASF has never paid me for my work here, and my current dayjob is wholly unrelated to my Apache activities. I’m here purely as an unpaid volunteer.

How did you get to be at Apache? What drives you to do all this unpaid work?

I first started committing code to the newly formed Apache Xalan project shortly after the ASF was incorporated in November 1999. At that time, I was paid by Lotus/IBM, my employer, to contribute to the Xalan as part of my job. I also got to attend and speak at a few ApacheCons to try to promote our work on Xalan and Xerces.

Over time, my dayjob changed direction, and turned away from Apache, but I was still interested in how the ASF worked. At ApacheCon I had followed a friend into a conference planning meeting to see how it worked, and I walked out of the meeting with assigned tasks for the next ApacheCon. Once I started helping with events, I was hooked. In 2002 I was elected as a Member of the ASF, and got to see how the sausage was made from the inside. In 2004 my job changed to be wholly unrelated to any open source work, but I was already personally invested in the ASF and our many excellent communities.

I volunteer at Apache for several reasons:

  • This is how I give back to the world. I’m lucky enough to have a healthy family, nice home, and stable job. I volunteer my extra time to help make it easier for Apache project communities to build more free software for the public good.
  • I love the ASF and it’s people. I’ve met so many amazing people at ApacheCon and within our projects, and it feels like much of the Apache Membership is one big family. Sure, we fight plenty, but we also buy each other plenty of free beers and meals.
    Helping open source communities get organized and keep their volunteers motivated is something I’m good at, and something I’d love to do more of if I could. Volunteering at Apache is a huge impact to my personal brand and my future job prospects.

Wow, that’s been a great interview Shane! How should we wrap this up?
It’s been a pleasure. Thinking about what motivates me, this is one of the things I love doing: explaining technology and communities to interested audiences. This is also great timing for this interview, because the ASF is having it’s annual corporate meeting where the Membership elects a new board.

We have a truly stellar list of director nominees this year: looking at the candidates the Membership has nominated shows just how talented and friendly all our candidates are, and how any of them would be a help to ensuring the smooth operations of the ASF in the year ahead.

Since I do have the microphone, I will make one short plug to note that I’m also running for a seat on the board. I’ll be posting my director nomination statement — a note detailing why I hope Members will vote for me — soon here on my open source blog, Community Over Code.

Good luck with the election Shane — it sounds like Apache is in good hands no matter who gets on the board.

Yup. While we still have a way to go to make it simple to understand Apache for newcomers, the ASF and our project communities are doing amazing work, and often having a lot of fun doing it. Apache plans to be around for the next 50 years providing a stable home for like-minded project communities of all sorts.

Thanks for the interview — this was great to talk to someone about this!

Shane volunteers as the Vice President of Brand Management for the ASF, although all content here is his own personal opinion. He is not normally an interviewer, but does sometimes play a trademark lawyer on the internet. He hopes you liked this article, which also appears on Medium, and will ask him any questions about Apache that you might have. He promises to stop writing in the third person now.

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Shane

Briefly, Shane is: a father and husband, a friend, a geek, a Member of the ASF, a baker, an ex-Loti, a BMW driver, a punny guy, a gamer, and lifelong resident within the 495 belt. Oh, and we have cats.

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