8 key open source software foundations (and what makes them key)

Behind many of the most successful open source projects lies a software foundation, though their work is often overlooked. Here are eight that you need to know about.

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It's an open source world

Open source software foundations are proliferating: Every month it seems that a new one is announced -- Open Contain Initiative (OCI) and Cloud Native Container Foundation (CNCF) are just two of the more recent launches.

The reason for this is because the open source software movement is becoming increasingly commercialized, and commercial hardware and software vendors are increasingly likely to be involved in open source projects.

"Companies feel they can collaborate on an open source project through an independent, not-for-profit entity that they trust - this is incredibly important to them," says Allison Randal, board president of the Open Source Initiative.

"Competing companies normally have massive hurdles to collaboration," she adds. "Being able to go through a foundation which is neutral and non-competing is enormously useful."

Software foundations provide many services to open source projects including owning hardware, making contracts with suppliers and even employing staff. They can also act as firewalls, protecting contributors against liability for contracts or legal claims such as negligence.

They also provide project participants with a legal framework for licensing, and for copyright, patent and other intellectual property management. Entities like the Apache Software Foundation and the Free Software Foundation have even developed their own free software licenses (the Apache License and the GPL respectively) for projects that they oversee, and for more general usage.

Most foundations also provide technical services such as software repositories and code signing certificates, as well as more mundane business services such as providing bank accounts, managing project membership, and issuing statements and press releases.

But not all software foundations are alike: some are dedicated to a single open source project, some act as hosts for multiple projects, and some are less focused on projects and more on promoting open software in general.

Here are some of the most important ones.

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1. The Apache Software Foundation

The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) provides organizational, legal and financial support and oversees more than 350 open source projects including Apache HTTP Server, the world's most widely used web server software, the Apache Hadoop big data analysis platform, and Apache Tomcat, a Java application server. These are distributed under the Apache License.

Its Incubator project also provides an entry path for projects (and codebases) looking to join the foundation.

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2. The Software Freedom Conservancy

Though smaller than the ASF and undeniably less well-known, the Software Freedom Conservancy is another foundation that provides a home and services to open source projects. It is currently home for 33, including a few instantly recognizable ones such as BusyBox, Git, Samba and Wine.

The Conservancy also runs a GPL Compliance Project that aims to enforce the GPL. It is currently helping to fund a lawsuit against VMware for alleged GPL noncompliance.

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3. The Linux Foundation

The Linux Foundation sponsors the Linux kernel. This is important in itself as the Linux kernel underpins Linux, and Linux underpins much, though not all, open source software.

But in recent years the Linux Foundation has branched out into supporting other software projects such as ones involved with software defined networking, the Internet of Things, mobile and embedded software, the Cloud and containers.

The Foundation also hosts large collaborative projects including the Xen Project, the Kinetic Open Storage Project and the Core infrastructure Initiative, with contributors from large commercial organizations including Google, IBM, Intel, Cisco and HP.

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4. The Eclipse Foundation

The Eclipse Foundation was formed in 2004 to support an open source community developing software for building, deploying and managing software.

The best-known project is the Eclipse development environment, but the foundation also supports around 200 other projects at various stages of maturity, including business intelligence and reporting tools, and Internet of Things projects.

The Eclipse Foundation board has representatives from large technology companies including Google, IBM, Oracle and SAP.

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5. The Cloud Foundry Foundation

The cloud has become immensely important over the last few years, and cloud infrastructure is rapidly seen as something that needs to be what economists term a public good. The Cloud Foundry Foundation is a group of leading vendors including EMC, HP, IBM, Intel and SAP who have come together to work on this cloud infrastructure project.

Each of these companies are competitors in various fields, and each owns large and valuable intellectual property portfolios. None the less the Cloud Foundry Foundation is allowing them to collaborate without worrying about jeopardizing their competitive position with respect to one another.

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6. The OpenStack Foundation

Unlike the foundations above, the OpenStack Foundation is dedicated to a single project: it works towards the development, distribution and adoption of the OpenStack cloud operating system.

The goal of the OpenStack Foundation is to serve developers, users, and the entire ecosystem by providing a set of shared resources to grow the footprint of public and private OpenStack clouds, enable technology vendors targeting the platform and assist developers in producing cloud software.

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7. The Free Software Foundation

The Free Software Foundation is an important open source software foundation but one with a difference: it's more concerned with software freedom than any particular project.

It was founded in 1985 by legendary open source figure Richard Stallman, and its objective is achieve the following:

"To secure freedom for computer users by promoting the development and use of free (as in freedom) software and documentation — particularly the GNU operating system — and by campaigning against threats to computer user freedom like Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and software patents."

The FSF is involved in one important software project, however: the foundation is the sponsor of the GNU project which aims to provide a complete free operating system. It also publishes the GNU GPL, the most popular free software license.

8 open source initiative
8. The Open Source Initiative

The Open Source Initiative operates in the same space as the Free Software Foundation in that it exists to support a software movement as a whole rather than any particular project.

But while the focus of the FSF is on software "freedom," the OSI talks about open source software, in order to achieve the following:

"Dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with 'free software'" and instead promote open source ideas on "pragmatic, business-case grounds," in the words of OSI founding member Michael Tiemann.

Today the OSI educates about and advocates for the benefits of open source, and is the steward of the Open Source Definition, reviewing and approving licenses as OSI conformant.