Running a Successful Open Source Project

This post is based on a talk that Gunnar Wagenknecht and I delivered at the Open Source Leadership Summit 2017 and Devoxx US 2017. This content was recently published in the All Eyes on Open Source issue of JAX Magazine.

Running a Succesful Open Source Project - Slides

Running an open source project is easy. All you have to do is make your source code available and you’re open source, right? Well, maybe. Ultimately, whether or not an open source project is successful depends on your definition of success. Regardless of your definition, creating an open source project can be a lot of work. If you have goals regarding adoption, for example, then you need to be prepared to invest. While open source software is “free as in beer”, it’s not really free: time and energy are valuable resources and these valuable resources need to be invested in the project.

So, how do you invest those resources?

Define success. Before you can consider running a successful open source project, you need to have a clear definition of success. There are many factors to consider. Is it enough to just get some code into a publicly accessible repository or do you want more for your project? Is collaboration and adoption important to you? Are you just trying to build your reputation as as software developer? Does your definition of success long include long term viability? Do you want to grow a community around the project? Do you care about commercial adoption? Your answer to these questions can help you decide how many of the rest of our recommendations you’ll need to adopt.

Be transparent. Transparency is pretty simple to understand: make it so that the community can watch and understand what you’re doing: use a publicly accessible source code repository that’s easy to find, use public facing issue tracking software, post your release plans where the community can find them, and capture meeting minutes in public forums (e.g. mailing lists with archives).

Be open. For a lot of open source projects, “transparency” and “openness” mean the same thing, but the terms really are quite different. Being open is more than just being “open book” (which is essentially the same thing as transparency). For many, the “open” in open source means open to new ideas, or open to participation. The rules for participating in an open source project should be the same for everybody (“level playing field”): it’s not enough to just accept a few patches, you have to be open to new ideas. In short, you have to let others in and give up absolute control of the project.

Keep the “Playing Field Level”.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to let just anybody join the project, but rather that you ensure that the same set of rules apply to everybody (the playing field may be level, but you still have to earn your way onto the field). Meritocracy is about earning your way in.  Some projects implement meritocracy, for example, by requiring that developers make some number of contributions to demonstrate that they understand the code, rules, and culture of the project before inviting them to join the project team. Make sure that the process for adding new developers to your project are well known and that the process is operated transparently (e.g. a public vote).

Be vendor neutral. In order to be truly open, people need to feel welcome to contribute. This is easier if the project is vendor neutral. A vendor neutral project is not dominated by any organization or organizations; meritocracy should be based on the contributions of an individual, not the goals or hiring practices of any specific organization. Hosting at vendor neutral foundation is one way to achieve this.

Have well defined and documented standards. Be sure to document your project’s code formatting rules (make code formatter preferences easily accessible), expectations with regard to test coverage, development methodology, software and tools required, channels to connect with the project team, and other important information for potential contributors. Capture all of this information and make it as easy as possible to find. It’s a good practice to include a contribution guide in the root of your projects source code repositories (with DVCS, it’s entirely possible that potential contributors will find a copy of a copy of a copy of your repository; having the contribution guide in the repository will make it easy for potential contributors to find their way home).

Ensure that the project code is always buildable. Include build scripts and instructions with the project code. Make it as easy as possible to successfully build and test the project code.

Connect with your user community. The user community is that group of people who use the products of your open source project. The user community rarely contributes anything directly to the project code, but does tend to ask a lot of questions. Make sure that those questions get answered. A healthy user community feeds an adopter community.

Connect with your adopter community. An obvious sign of success for an open source project is that other groups start to use your open source project in their own products, or build extensions. This community is more willing to give back to the project and will be the project’s best source of contributions. Some number of those contributors will be great candidates to join your project’s team. Development of an eco-system of adopters and extenders is a great way to ensure the longevity of your project.

Connect with your development community. The development community is comprised of your project’s team members and contributors. Provide well-known channels for communication within this community. Having clear lines of communication will help developers collaborate.

Have a plan. It’s easy to lapse into a pattern of just letting software development happen, but like any process (especially a software development process), having  some method to the madness is critical. Make sure that your project employs a development methodology and make sure that somebody owns the process (e..g a project lead). Having a plan helps developers know where they can contribute the most value and makes it easier for adopters and extenders to implement their own plans (and thereby be successful). Treat your open source project like any other software development project.

Manage your brand. Your project will have a brand. The project’s name is its identity; as is the project logo, along with the names of any products (it’s typical that an the products of an open source project share the name of the project, but some projects produce more than one product). Claim the project’s brand as a trademark and consider registering that trademark. Establish trademark usage guidelines so that adopters know how to use your brand. This is an area where working with an open source software foundation can add value. A foundation can hold and defend the project’s trademarks on behalf of the community. This avoids letting any particular individual or organization hold the project’s name hostage (this happens).

Manage Intellectual property and copyright. The code, documentation, and other artifacts contributed to the project is intellectual property. Who owns that intellectual property? Do the authors retain their ownership, or do they assign it to another entity? Make sure that the rights and responsibilities of contributors are understood by all contributors. Consider having contributors sign a developer certificate of origin (DCO) or a contributor license agreement (CLA). Ensure that copyright notices are included with the source code and in notices.

Note that it is unlikely that the project itself is a legal entity that can hold copyrights. This is another way in which an open source foundation can provide a valuable service.

Pick an OSI-approved open source license. Don’t create your own custom license; that will just add legal hurdles for anybody who wants to use your code. Make sure that the license that you choose is compatible with the manner in which you intend for the code to be used. Further, ensure that the license is compatible with any third party content (e.g. libraries) that your project code needs. Include the SPDX code for your license in the headers for all source files.

Move your project to an open source foundation. We’ve mentioned foundations a few times already. A foundation can first and foremost help you to keep your project vendor neutral, which will help adoption: a bit part of the appeal of open source software is that adopters can avoid being beholden to a particular organization. A foundation can hold onto and defend the project’s trademarks, establish a governance model, help you manage your brand, provide intellectual property management services, and just generally provide assistance and advice for operating a successful open source project. Being a part of an open source foundation provides a value feedback loop. The foundation provides credibility for your open source project which in turn provides credibility to the foundation.

Running an open source project is a lot of work. But, as we’ve suggested, how much work it takes really depends on your definition of success. Fall back on the core principles of open source development: transparency, openness, and meritocracy. Everything else comes from that.

Posted in Community, Eclipse 101, Intellectual Property | Leave a comment

Automatic License Certification By The Numbers

In 2016, we introduced the notion of license certification intellectual property (IP) due diligence (“Type A”) into the Eclipse IP Policy with a goal in mind to automate the certification process. At that time, we started a process of evaluating tools that could be used for automatic validation and eventually discovered Scancode.

In our testing, we found that Scancode does a very good job of discovering licenses (and copyrights, which we may take better advantage of later), with the added bonus of having a very simple-to-use command-line interface (CLI) that produces reports in a handful of handy formats (including JSON and SPDX) that are easily machine readable.

The Eclipse Webmaster integrated Scancode into the Eclipse Genie process. Genie jumps into action when it notices a “Type A” third party content review request (“Contribution Questionnaire”) with attached source code, and PMC approval. If the licenses discovered in the attached content are compatible with the project license, Genie automatically license certifies the content.

After running for a few months, it looks like we’re getting about a 50% hit rate. That is, about half of all third party content license certification requests are being automatically approved without needing to engage the Eclipse IP Team.


Note that some of the older bumps in the graph come from requests that were retroactively designated as “Type A”, and that little bump in automatic approvals in March is from Webmaster testing.

I’ll admit that it’s a little suspect to me that the graphs line up so closely starting in July. I’m pretty confident in the query and have reviewed the data, so it’s accurate as far as I know.

It’ll be interesting to see how the pattern tracks over time.

Posted in Eclipse 101, EDP, Intellectual Property | Leave a comment

Legal Documentation Requirements for Eclipse Projects

Late last week, I pushed out an update to our documentation regarding the legal documentation requirements for Eclipse projects that Sharon Corbett and I have been working on over the past quarter. In the process, we moved the guidelines off of the main website and rolled them in to the Eclipse Project Handbook. Our primary goal in revising this documentation was to make it more generally applicable to all open source projects and bring us more in line with what the rest of the open source world does.

Update probably isn’t the right word. It’s more accurate to say that we’ve pushed out some general guidelines and that the old/existing documentation becomes instructions for how to apply those general guidelines in the case where your project builds Eclipse Platform Plug-ins and Features.  In this regard, the existing documentation was very much concerned with the technical aspects of how to provide legal documentation in a manner that they can be presented to the user via the “About Eclipse” dialog (there’s no particular value in changing how all that works).

That is, if you’re building Eclipse Platform Plug-ins and Features under the Eclipse Public License (EPL) 1.0, we’re not asking you to change anything. 

I’m going to repeat that. Don’t panic. If you’re building Eclipse Platform Plug-ins and Features, just keep doing what you’re doing. If you’re planning to update to the Eclipse Public License 2.0 (EPL-2.0), we’ll need to talk (more on this later).

The gist of it is that in the general case, project teams are required to include license and notices in both their project repositories and in the output form of their project code (generally the result of compiling/building, e.g. JAR files). For consistency across our own projects and the greater community, we’re recommending that these files be named LICENSE and NOTICE (with optional extensions). Variations based on technical limitations are acceptable. The license and notice files should be in plain text. The use of a favourite markup language is fine, but not required.

There’s a lot more information in the document, so I’ll avoid trying to repeat it here. One thing that you’ll notice is that we’ve tightened up the copyright header text a bit by removing the “All rights reserved”. There’s no need to change any headers that include this statement: it’s not necessarily wrong to include the statement, it just doesn’t really add any value.

You’ll notice that there’s an appendix in the document for projects that are building Eclipse Platform Plug-ins and Features under the EPL-2.0. There’s a few rough edges here that we still need to work out (there a link to an issue in Bugzilla if you want to contribute your thoughts). One thing that we discovered while working on these changes is that basically nobody in the open source community has anything like our Software User Agreement (SUA) which is effectively an End User License Agreement (EULA). Since a project that updates to the EPL-2.0 will have to update all of their legal documentation, we figured that we use the opportunity to drop the SUA and instead just use the license text in places that call for a license (AFAICT most third party plug-in providers do this).

To make getting the legal documentation right a little easier for project teams, I’ve started working on an experimental script that uses the information in the Eclipse Foundation database to generate at least some or all of the required documentation.

Take note that this script is experimental and may not be entirely correct (maybe consider using this as a template or a starting point; ultimately it’s up to the project teams to make sure that the notice file is correct). If you do notice something that seems wrong with the data (e.g. wrong license or trademark statement), send a quick note to; if it looks like the rendering is wrong or that there is some technical issue, please open a bug against Community/Process.

EclipseCon Europe 2017

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Running Eclipse IDE on Java 9

Update: Note that as of October 11/2017, Java 9 is 100% supported “out of the box” by Eclipse IDE, Oxygen Edition; Java 9 can be used to run your Eclipse IDE, Oxygen Edition, and can be used to build Java 9 applications without additional configuration. Download or update today.

Out of the box, Java 9 makes only a subset of the modules available to applications. If your application makes use of APIs from other modules, you need to configure the JVM to make those modules available. The Eclipse IDE its itself a Java application that uses APIs from modules outside of that default group, so a little extra configuration is needed to make it run on Java 9.

In your Eclipse IDE installation directory, you’ll find the eclipse.ini file that your Eclipse IDE uses for configuration information. Add --add-modules=ALL-SYSTEM after the -vmargs argument (basically anything that follows the -vmargs argument is passed to the VM at start up (note that most VMs will barf if you pass in arguments that they don’t know or expect; adding this option when running on a Java 8 JVM will result only in disappointment and frustration).


There’s more information in the Eclipse wiki.

Note that we’re pushing out some updates to make it so that the modification is not required. But that will only apply on future versions of Eclipse IDE (e.g. the Oxygen point releases, Photon, and later). For all older versions of Eclipse IDE, you’ll need to make this configuration change.

If you want to learn more about Java 9 support in the Eclipse IDE, including the Java development tools (JDT) and other great features like Eclipse Web Tools, Eclipse Code Recommenders and Eclipse Maven Integration, etc., consider attending EclipseCon Europe in Ludwigsburg, Germany from October 24 – 26, 2017.

There’s an entire Java and JDT track that includes the following:

There will also be BoFs, along with all sorts of opportunities to network and learn.

EclipseCon Europe 2017

If you want to learn more about the great features available in the Eclipse IDE, follow @EclipseJavaIDE on Twitter (follow me while you’re at it).

Posted in Community, Conferences, Eclipse 101, Java | 1 Comment

Java 9 Support for Eclipse IDE, Oxygen Edition

Update: Note that as of October 11/2017, Java 9 is 100% supported “out of the box” by Eclipse IDE, Oxygen Edition; Java 9 can be used to run your Eclipse IDE, Oxygen Edition, and can be used to build Java 9 applications without additional configuration. Download or update today.

Java 9 has been released into the world and support to make your Eclipse IDE ready to build, run, and debug Java 9 applications is available from the Eclipse Marketplace. You can install this either from within the Marketplace Client in the Eclipse IDE itself (Help > Eclipse Marketplace) or by dragging and dropping from the website.

Or, just drag and drop this install button onto your running Eclipse.

Drag to your running Eclipse* workspace. *Requires Eclipse Marketplace Client

Installing the Java 9 support will also add the JUnit 5 support as well!

The Java 9 support includes:

  • the ability to add JRE and JDK 9 as installed JRE;
  • support for JavaSE-9 execution environment;
  • the ability to create Java and Plug-in projects that use a JRE or JDK 9; and
  • the ability to compile modules that are part of a Java project

Checkout for some working examples of Java 9.

We’ll be including both Java 9 and JUnit 5 support in our package downloads and the installer soon!

Posted in Announcements, Java | Leave a comment

Eclipse Projects: Level Playing Field

For many open source organisations, open means the same thing as transparent: open as in open book. At the Eclipse Foundation, we regard being transparent as the practice of making sure that the community can see and understand what the project is doing; and being open as the act of giving up absolute control and welcoming the community to participate as an equal player on a level playing field (i.e. being open to participation by the others).

Screenshot from 2017-07-31 23-22-35

Not really a field, but this is the closest thing that I have to a picture of field-based sporting event. Ice is about as level as you can get.

At the Eclipse Foundation, we take the open part of open source very seriously. It’s codified in the Open Source Rules of Engagement found in the Eclipse Development Process.

Everybody needs to play by the same set of rules. A level playing field doesn’t necessarily mean that a project team needs to accept every single contribution that comes their way. Rather, it means that the project team needs to have a set of rules by which everybody participates; and these rules can’t include things like for whom the contributor works.

Contribution rules can require that contributions fall within the project’s scope and current release plan. The rules can require that all code contributions be accompanied by unit tests and documentation; or that contributions implement a solution for an issue that’s been discussed by the project team in their issue tracker. Some sort of quality bar is a reasonable part of any set of contribution rules.

For most open source projects, these contribution rules aren’t formally captured. However, most of the rules that I’ve listed so far collectively form a pretty reasonable default set of participation rules. A quality bar is (obviously) hard to quantify, but for many project teams it’s enough that any committer feels that the contribution should be accepted (some projects require that two committers sign off on a contribution before it can be accepted).

Note that it’s also perfectly reasonable for a project team to require that significant contributions come with a promise of continued investment in the form of the contributor becoming a member of the project team.

Regardless of the rules that define the level playing field for any particular project, any content destined for the project’s code base should have some public record of contribution. Otherwise, the project would be operating (at least in part) hidden from community involvement and so counter to the open source rules of engagement. That public record can take the form of a Gerrit review, GitHub pull request, or (if you’re in a pinch) an attachment on a Bugzilla or GitHub Issue record.

Regardless of how a contribution is presented, the contributor must be listed as the author in the Git commit record and must complete the Eclipse Contributor Agreement before any contribution can be accepted.

The best way to get involved with an open source project is connect with the project team. All Eclipse project repositories should have a contribution guide in the root of every Git repository with this contact information and more. You can also search for project information on the Eclipse Projects website.

Posted in Eclipse 101, EDP, Project Management | Leave a comment

Follow @EclipseJavaIDE

If you’re new to the Eclipse IDE you’re already a big fan, you’ll find something of value every day by following @EclipseJavaIDE.  Frankly, there’s so much good stuff coming out of this account, that it’s hard to pick any favourites. So, I’ve pulled out a couple of recent ones.

Menu entries exist to help you complete incomplete thoughts and—of course—CTRL+1 is always there for Quick Fix or Quick Assist; but sometimes you just don’t want to take your hands off the keyboard.

Automating tedious operations like generating fields, getters and setters, etc. is something that the Eclipse IDE does well. Converting anonymous classes into lambda expressions? Easy.

Follow @EclipseJavaIDE to get your daily Eclipse IDE tips and tricks.

Download the Eclipse IDE, Oxygen Edition today.

EclipseCon Europe 2017

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