Dana Lawson Explains Netlify’s Approach to Open Source Sustainability

By Pro Web Design

2022-05-11 20:59:27

Dana Lawson, NetlifyDana Lawson, Netlify

How do you make open-source software, a technology that by its very nature is maintained by volunteers, a sustainable undertaking? That is the question that Netlify, a provider of web hosting infrastructure and automation technology, focusing on JAMstack, is trying to answer. In recent months, Netlify has announced its intention to develop a Framework that will allow it and other like-minded organizations to sustainably support the open source community in an attempt to ensure that the critical open-source technologies that underpin the Internet will continue to be supported. I recently spoke with Netlify’s VP of Developer Experience Jason Lengstorf and Senior Vice President of Engineering Dana Lawson in an effort to understand the company’s approach.

It’s an understatement to say that open-source software is a cornerstone upon which much of the world runs. Linux, Python, and MySQL are among the many foundational pieces of technology that have come from open source. It is a huge market, estimated at $21.7 billion, and expected to grow to $50 billion by 2026. This growth will be driven by increases in cloud computing adoption, Digital Transformation initiatives by businesses of all sizes, and even government mandates. In 2021, President Biden released an executive order pushing government agencies to invest in open source security. According to Lawson, this will “put more pressure than ever for developers…to think about how it’s going to be applied in a way that doesn’t introduce exploits, that doesn’t allow bad actors, and is consistently being maintained. When you’re doing this from a free volunteer perspective, you could feel like you’re on an endless path to nowhere and the incentive stops.” Netlify hopes that its efforts will lead the way to give these volunteers the support they need.

Learn from leading providers how to engage with your developers

How Netlify Will Support Sustainability

Netlify, just like many other companies, has a history of supporting open source. In the past that has often happened via sponsorship of a developer in the community. According to Lawson, Netlify wants to take that support to the next level, hitting it from a number of angles including sponsorships “but also hiring full-time people on our engineering team to contribute to open source. To show that we’re committed to making it better and not just relying on the community to build and innovate, but also putting our money, resources, and strategy for it in a place where everybody can continue to contribute and you know that it’s not going to just be left [alone].” To that end, Netlify recently hired 11ty founder Zach Leatherman to move into its engineering team to work full-time on the project. 

The final form of Netlify’s efforts are still to be determined, for now, the company is in an exploratory mode as it figures out what the framework should look like. Lawson describes how Netlify is putting some money towards the effort and then evaluating what works as it starts to define a strategy and model that can be used by other companies. Lawson did emphasize that Netlify and others have to be careful not to move too far in any one direction during these early days, “because this is about democratization and not trying to take these projects and make them your own thing. You have to continue to be aware of how much participation you have, how much investment, then figuring out where the community needs your support, and focusing on it like you would any kind of product roadmap.”

As Lengstorf put it, the end goal is to move away from a pure sponsorship model and come up with “strategies that are repeatable by more companies, where it’s a framework that you can pick up and it will tell you ‘Here’s how to dedicate some money, here’s how to dedicate some time and really show your open source commitment by doing open source work.’ Instead of just saying, ‘Hey, [open source] volunteer, here’s $1,000 a month, please maintain the most critical piece of our infrastructure.” Lawson was quick to point out that Netlify would like to continue sponsorships of projects where it is appropriate. While larger projects may have a greater need for developers to maintain them, smaller projects can certainly use the sponsorship. When asked how to determine which projects to sponsor, Lawson said, “we try to sponsor the technologies that we are using, and we want to show the smaller projects some love. We want to be able to enable devs that haven’t been enabled in the past. It’s a holistic approach when determining what to support and we have to build a relationship with the owners and maintainers.”

What Does Sustainability Look Like and Why Is It Needed?

If Netlify aims to build a repeatable framework for open source sustainability, it’s fair to wonder what exactly is meant by the term. Lawson offered her thoughts saying, “when you think about sustainability, you have to look at how to ensure that these projects, especially the large ones, are utilized long term in a way that grows and that we continue to allow places for developers to innovate…and it’s a full-time job. When we talk about having an open source strategy for sustainability, it’s recognizing it’s a full-time job and it’s not going to be one company that solves it.”

The trick will be to hit the sweet spot of supporting projects but not doing so much that the company takes unofficial ownership. As Lawson puts it, there has to be a feeling of democratization around any project and a company trying to offer sustainable support needs to, “continue to be aware of how much participation you have, how much investment, and then really where does the community need your support.”

Netlify isn’t undertaking this effort simply to be a good custodian in the open source space, it has recognized a number of pain points that traditional sponsorship alone isn’t addressing. Through numerous conversations with developers, Lengstorf has heard that the issue, at least for larger projects, isn’t money but is instead one of time and resources. A framework author told Lengstorf, “look, we don’t really need money, we’re okay with sponsorships. What we really need is a way to convert that sponsorship money into pull requests, because we don’t have time to contribute at the level that we’re sponsored to contribute at.” Applying a sustainability rubric won’t be appropriate for every project however, open-source software is a place where developers can innovate and experiment and should remain so. In Lawson’s mind, “we want to apply it to the things that matter most. If we’re using a widely popular JavaScript framework that’s open source, I think all of us users that want to see web properties and components be better have some ownership in ensuring that we continue to build it in a way that ensures quality of code and the things that we build around it.” 

The idea is to support the technologies that are used by wide swaths of the Internet in a way that allows for projects to continually innovate but also keeps the code safe, stable, and maintained. If done right the hope is that the model can work at different scales. Lengstorf told us that the final model ought to be usable by “startups above a certain size up to the IBMs, Microsofts, and Googles of the world. We’re hoping that it can be a model that is repeatable and offers a framework for how to build an open source team and how to structure it in a way that’s mutually beneficial.”

#Dana #Lawson #Explains #Netlifys #Approach #Open #Source #Sustainability

Recent Posts