Community-led development "The Apache Way"
This page provides an overview of everything you always wanted to know about the Apache Software Foundation but were afraid to ask: the difference between membership and committership, who decides what, how elections take place, how our infrastructure us set up, what the board is and does, what a PMC is, what's the philosophy behind the incubator, and how the ASF deals with the incredible growth in new projects and contributors over the years. Come and see behind the scenes of the ASF.
The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) is a 501(c)3 non-profit public charity organization incorporated in the United States of America. It was formed in 1999 primarily to:
provide a foundation for open, collaborative software development projects by supplying hardware, communication, and business infrastructure
create an independent legal entity to which companies and individuals can donate resources and be assured that those resources will be used for the public benefit
provide a means for individual volunteers to be sheltered from legal suits directed at the Foundation's projects
protect the 'Apache' brand, as applied to its software products, from being abused by other organizations
That's the dry facts, but how did all this come to be and what does it really mean? We need to step back a little in history.
A group of people calling themselves the “Apache Group” created the foundation in 1999. They had come together several years earlier, to continue to support and maintain the HTTPD web server written by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois.
That server was freely available, came with its source code, its license allowed very open modification and redistribution, but the original developers lost interest in that project and moved onto something else, leaving users with no support for the application.
Some of those users started to exchange fixes (called "patches") and information on how to prevent problems and improve the existing software. Brian Behlendorf created a mailing list on which those users could collaborate to fix, maintain and improve that software.
The group chose the name 'Apache' out of respect for the Native American Apache Nation, well-known for their superior skills in warfare strategy and their inexhaustible endurance. It also makes a cute pun on "a patchy web server" -- a server made from a series of patches -- but this was not its origin. The group soon started to call themselves the "Apache Group".
Between 1995 and 1999, the Apache HTTPD Web Server that the Apache Group created and supported became the leader of the market (and currently still is, with more than 65% of the web sites in the world powered by it).
But as the web grew bigger, economic interests started to grow, and the Apache web site hosted new sister projects (such as the mod_ perl project, the PHP project, the Java Apache project). The need for a more coherent and structured organization that would shield individuals from potential legal attacks became more and more clear.
Read more about ASF History.
Unlike other software development efforts under an open source license, like the Linux Kernel or the Perl/Python languages, no single developer initiated the Apache Web Server. A diverse group of people who shared common interests developed the project as they exchanged information, software fixes and suggestions.
As the group started to develop their own version of the software, moving away from the NCSA version, more people were attracted and started to help out, first by sending little patches, or suggestions, or replying to email on the mail list, later with more important contributions.
When the group felt that a person had "earned" the merit to be part of the development community, they granted direct access to the code repository, thus growing the group and increasing its ability to develop the program, and to maintain and develop the software more effectively.
We call this basic principle "meritocracy": government by merit.
The process scaled very well without creating friction because, unlike in other situations where power is a scarce and conservative resource, in the Apache group newcomers were seen as volunteers who wanted to help rather than people who wanted to steal a position.
With no limited and therefore valuable resource (money, energy, time) at stake, the group was happy to have new people come in and help. They only filtered those who expressed interest to find and include those whom they believed were committed enough for the task and matched the human attitudes required to work well with others, especially when there were disagreements.
After explaining the structure of the ASF, we will see how the meritocracy relates to the various roles.
As the Apache Web Server started to grow in market share and popularity, due to synergy of its technical merit and to the openness of the community behind the project, people started to create satellite projects. Influenced by the spirit of the community they were used to, they adopted the same traditions of community management.
By the time the ASF came into existence, there were several separate communities, each focused on a different side of the "web serving" problem, but all united by a common set of goals and a respected set of cultural traditions of both etiquette and process.
These separate communities were referred to as "projects" and, while similar, each of them exhibited little differences that made them special.
To reduce friction and allow diversity to emerge, rather than forcing a monoculture from the top, the ASF designates the projects as the central decision-making organizations of the Apache world. Each project ahs authority over development of its software, and has a great deal of latitude in designing its own technical charter and its own governing rules.
At the same time, the cultural influence of the original Apache group is strong and the similarities between the various communities are evident, as we'll see later.
The following entities govern the foundation:
Board of Directors (board) governs the foundation and is composed of members.
Project Management Committees (PMCs) govern the projects, and they are composed of committers. (Note that every PMC member is, by definition, also a committer.)
Various Officers of the corporation, appointed by the board, who set Foundation-wide policies in specific areas (legal, brand, fundraising, etc.)
For all the details, read our Governance overview.
The board is responsible for management and oversight of the business and affairs of the corporation in accordance with the foundation Bylaws. This includes management of the corporate assets (funds, intellectual property, trademarks, and support equipment) and allocation of corporate resources to projects.
However, each Apache project's PMC has technical decision-making authority regarding the content and direction of the project.
The board is currently composed of nine individuals, elected by and from the members of the foundation. The bylaws don't specify the number of board members that the foundation should have, but this was the number of the first board and it has never changed. The board is elected every year.
The board website has more information, the list of the current directors, a schedule of meetings, and minutes of past meetings.
The Board establishes Project Management Committees (PMCs) to be responsible for the active management of one or more specific communities.
Each PMC includes least one officer of the ASF, who shall be designated its chair, and may include one or more other members of the ASF.
The Board appoints the chair of the PMC, who also becomes an officer (Vice President) of the ASF. The chair has primary responsibility to the Board, and has the power to establish rules and procedures for the day to day management of the communities for which the PMC is responsible, including the composition of the PMC itself. See further discussion about the role of the PMC chair and why chairs are officers.
The role of the PMC from a Foundation perspective is oversight. The main role of the PMC is not code and not coding, but to ensure that its community addresses all legal issues and follows stated procedures, and that each and every release is the product of the community as a whole. That is key to our litigation-protection mechanisms.
The second role of the PMC is to further the long-term development and health of the community as a whole, and to ensure that balanced and wide scale peer review and collaboration takes place. Within the ASF we worry about any community which centers around a few individuals who are working virtually without review. We believe that this is detrimental to quality, stability, and robustness of both code and long-term social structures.
We firmly believe in hats. Your role at the ASF is one assigned to you personally, and is bestowed on you by your peers. It is not tied to your job or current employer or company.
However those on the PMC are held to a higher standard. The PMC, and the chair in particular, are eyes and ears of the ASF Board, so we rely on and need to trust you to provide legal oversight.
The board can to terminate a PMC at any time by resolution.
The meritocracy typically has various roles within each individual Apache project community:
A user is someone who uses our software. They contribute to Apache projects by providing feedback to developers in the form of bug reports and feature suggestions. Users participate in the Apache community by helping other users on mailing lists and user support forums.
A developer is a user who contributes to a project in the form of code or documentation. They take extra steps to participate in a project, are active on the developer mailing list, participate in discussions, and provide patches, documentation, suggestions, and criticism. Developers are also known as contributors.
A committer is a developer who has write access to the code repository and has a signed Contributor License Agreement (CLA) on file. They have an apache.org mail address. Not needing to depend on other people to make patches to the code or documentation, they are actually making short-term decisions for the project. The PMC can (even tacitly) agree and approve the changes into permanency, or they can reject them. Remember that the PMC makes the decisions, not the individual committers.
A PMC member is a committer who was elected due to merit for the evolution of the project. They have write access to the code repository, an apache.org mail address, the right to vote on community-related decisions and the right to propose other active contributors for committership. The PMC as a whole is the entity that controls the project, nobody else. In particular, the PMC must vote to approve any formal release of their project's software products.
The Board appoints the Chair of a PMC from the PMC members. The PMC as a whole is the entity that controls and leads the project. The Chair is the interface between the Board and the Project. PMC Chairs have specific duties.
An ASF member is a person who was nominated by current members and elected due to merit for the evolution and progress of the foundation. Members care for the ASF itself, usually through project-related and cross-project activities. Legally, a member is a "shareholder" of the foundation, one of the owners. They have the right to elect the board, to stand as a candidate for board election and to propose a committer for membership. They also have the right to propose a new project for incubation (we'll see later what this means). The members coordinate their activities through their mailing list and through their annual meeting. We have a full listing of Apache Members.
Apache projects are managed using a collaborative, consensus-based process. We do not have a hierarchical structure; rather, different groups of contributors have different rights and responsibilities in the organization.
Since the appointed PMCs have the power to create their own self-governing rules, there is no single vision on how PMCs should run their projects and nurture the communities they lead.
At the same time, while there are some differences, there are a number of similarities all ASF projects share:
Communication is via mailing lists. These are "virtual meeting rooms" where conversations happen asynchronously, which is a general requirement for groups that are distributed across many time zones (as is normally the case for Apache communities).
Some projects additionally use more synchronous messaging (for example, IRC or instant messaging). Voice communication is extremely rare, normally because of costs and the language barrier (speech is harder to understand than written text).
In general, asynchronous communication is important because it allows archives to be created and it's more tolerant on the volunteer nature of the various communities.
Projects are normally auto governing and driven by the people who volunteer for the job. This is sometimes referred to as "do-ocracy" -- power of those who do. This functions well in most cases.
When coordination is required, projects make decisions with a lazy consensus approach: a few positive votes with no negative vote is enough to get going.
Voting is by numbers:
+1 -- a positive vote
0 -- abstain, have no opinion
-1 -- a negative vote
The rules require that a PMC member registering a negative vote must include an alternative proposal or a detailed explanation of the reasons for the negative vote.
The community then tries to gather consensus on an alternative proposal that can resolve the issue. In the great majority of cases, the concerns leading to the negative vote can be addressed.
This process is called "consensus gathering" and we consider it a very important indication of a healthy community.
Specific cases have some more detailed voting rules.
While there is not an official list, people often cite these six principles, often referred to as "The Apache Way", as the core beliefs behind the foundation:
collaborative software development
commercial-friendly standard license
consistently high-quality software
respectful, honest, technical-based interaction
faithful implementation of standards
security as a mandatory feature
All ASF projects share these principles. Similarly, Apache projects must govern themselves independently of undue commercial influence.
All participants in ASF projects are volunteers and nobody (not even members or officers) is paid directly by the foundation to do their job. There are many examples of committers who are paid to work on projects, but never by the foundation itself. Rather, companies or institutions that use the software and want to enhance it or maintain it provide the salary.
The ASF does contract out various services, including accounting, Press and Media relations, and infrastructure system administration.
All of the ASF including the board, the officers, the committers, and the members, are participating as individuals. That is one strength of the ASF: personal affiliations do not cloud the person's contributions.
Unless they specifically state otherwise, whatever an ASF participant posts on any mailing list is done as themselves. It is the individual point-of-view, wearing their personal hat and not as a mouthpiece for whatever company happens to be signing their paychecks right now, and not even as a director of the ASF.
All ASF participants implicitly have multiple hats, especially the Board, the officers, and the PMC chairs. They sometimes need to talk about a matter of policy, so to avoid appearing to be expressing a personal opinion, they will state that they are talking in their special capacity. However, most of the time this is not necessary: personal opinions work well.
Some people declare their hats by using a special footer to their email, others enclose their statements in special quotation marks, others use their apache.org email address when otherwise they would use their personal one. This last method is not reliable, as many people use their apache.org address all of the time.
We endeavour to conduct as much discussion in public as possible. This encourages openness, provides a public record, and stimulates the broader community.
However sometimes internal private mail lists are necessary. You must never divulge information from such a list in public without the express permission of the list. Also never copy an email between private and public lists (no Cc). Such an event would go beyond the normal need for email etiquette and would be a serious breach of confidence. It could have serious ramifications, causing unnecessary confusion and ill-informed discussion.
Private lists are typically only used for matters pertaining to people as individuals (like voting in new committers), and legal matters that require confidentiality.
To support and encourage new projects, the ASF created the Incubator to help new efforts join the foundation.
Since the meritocratic rules operate across the ASF from bottom to top, it is vital for the long-term stability of this form of government that a project's initial set of committers has to understand very well the dynamics of such a system, and to share the same philosophical attitude toward collaboration and openness that the ASF expects from its projects.
The incubator is responsible for:
filtering proposals about the creation of a new project or sub-project
helping create the new project and the infrastructure that it needs to operate
supervising and mentoring the incubated community to help it create an open, meritocratic environment
evaluating the maturity of the incubated project, and deciding whether to promote it to official project / sub-project status or, in case of failure, to retire it.
The incubator (like the board) does not perform filtering on the basis of technical issues. The foundation respects and supports a variety of technical approaches. It doesn't fear innovation or even internal confrontation between projects which overlap in functionality.
The incubator filters projects on the basis of the likelihood of projects becoming successful meritocratic communities. The basic requirements for incubation are:
a working codebase -- over the years and after several failures, the foundation came to understand that without an initial working codebase, it is generally hard to bootstrap a community. This is because merit is not well-recognized by developers without a working codebase. Also, the friction that can develop during the initial design stage is likely to fragment the community.
the intention to assign sufficient intellectual property rights to the software to the ASF -- this allows the foundation to obtain an irrevocable and permanent right to redistribute and work on the code, without fearing lock-in for itself or for its users, while still allowing the original author to maintain their copyright.
a sponsoring ASF member or officer -- this person acts as the main mentor, giving directions to the project, helping out in the day-to-day details and keeping contact with the incubator PMC.
The incubation period normally serves to estimate whether the project is able to increase the diversity of its committer base and play within the meritocratic rules of the foundation.
It might seem rather easy to achieve, but, in a volunteer and highly selective environment, attracting new committers is not automatic.
Diversity of committership is important for two main reasons:
it gives long term stability to the project's development. In fact, with all the developers affiliated to the same entity, the chance of seeing all of them moving away from the project at the same time is much greater than with a community of individuals affiliated to unrelated entities.
it gives a greater variety of technical visions, This guarantees a better adherence to the environment and users' needs, thus a higher chance of finding real-life use of the software.
Along with the Incubator, the foundation has several other cross-foundation projects. For example, the ASF does not have offices or buildings. It's a virtual entity that exists only on the internet, and the Infrastructure team manages the technical infrastructure that enables it to operate.
Read more about these and other cross-foundation projects on the Foundation Projects page.
The ASF also hosts some foundation-wide mailing lists, which you can learn about on the Mailing Lists page.
The ASF represents one of the best examples of an open organization that has found balance between structure and flexibility. We have grown from 200 committers to around 3000, and that number continues to grow on a daily basis. We have been able to create software products that are leaders in their markets. We have also been able to find balance between openness and economical feasibility. This has earned us respect from individual users of Apache software and multinational corporations. We hope to continue to provide inspiration for businesses, governments, education programs, and other software foundations.