Open Source Software: Are maintainers the only ones responsible for software sustainability?

5 min read

Last week, a Californian Computer Scientist disclosed a malicious package ‘flatmap-stream’ in the popular npm package, ‘event-stream’. The reason for this breach is, the ownership of the event-stream package was transferred by Dominic Tarr (original author) to a malicious user, right9ctrl. Following this, many Twitter and GitHub users have supported him whereas the others think he should have been more careful while transferring package ownership.

Andre Staltz, an open source hacker mentions in a support to Dominic, “The fact that he gave ownership meant that he *cared* at least to do a tiny action that seemed ok. Not caring would be doing absolutely nothing at all, and that’s the case quite often, and OSS maintainers get criticized also for *that*”

Who’s responsible for maintaining the open source software?

At the NDC Sydney 2018 conference held in September, two open source maintainers Nick Randolph, Technical Lead at Built To Roam and Geoffrey Huntley, an open source software engineer talked on why should companies and people should contribute back to open source and how they can do it. However, if something goes wrong with the project, who is responsible for it? Most users blame the maintainers of the project, but the license does not say so. In fact users, contributors, and maintainers together are equally responsible.

Open source is a fantastic avenue for personal development as it does not require the supply, material, planning, and approval like other software

Some reasons to contribute to Open Source Software:

  • Other people will help you for free
  • You will save a lot on training and documentation
  • You will not be criticized by open source advocates
  • Ability to hire best engineers
  • You will be able to influence the direction of the projects to which you contribute

Companies have embraced open source software as it allows them to get solutions to the market faster for their customers. It has allowed companies to focus on delivering business value instead of low-level technical tasks.

The problem with Open Source

The majority of open-source software that the world depends on is built by volunteers. When a business chooses to use open-source software this volunteer labor is essentially an unpaid vendor with no contractual obligations.

However the speakers say, “Historically, we have defined open-source software in terms of freedom for the consumer, in the future now that open-source has ‘won’ this dialogue needs to change. Did we get it right? Did we ever stop to think about how software is maintained, the rights of maintainers and the cost of maintenance?”

The maintainers said, as per the Open Source Software license, once the software is released to the world their responsibility ends. They need not respond to GitHub issues, no need to create documentation, no need to answer questions on stack overflow, and so on.

The popular example where a security damage was caused by the popular Heartbleed Bug where the security issue was found in the OpenSSL cryptographic software library, which caused a huge loss of revenue.

However, when an OSS breaks or users need new features, they log an issue on GitHub and then sit back awaiting a response. If the comments are not addressed by the maintainer, users start complaining about how badly the project is run. The thing about OSS that’s too often forgotten, it’s AS-IS, no exceptions.

How should Businesses secure their supply chain?

Different projects may operate differently, with more or fewer people, with work being prioritized differently, on differing release schedules but in all cases the software delivered is as-is, meaning that there is absolutely no SLA.

The speakers say that it businesses should analyze the level of contribution they need to make towards the open source community. They have highlighted that in order to secure their supply chain, users should contribute with money or time.

The truth is that free software is not really free. How much is this going to cost in man hours? If not with money, they can contribute with time. For instance, there is an initiative called as and as an engineering leader you or your employees can pull request and learn how the open source they depend upon works. This means you are having a positive influence in the community and also contributing back to open source. And if your company faces any critical issue, the maintainer is likely to help you as you have actively contributed to the community.

OSS development diagram

Source: YouTube

How do you know how much to contribute?

In order to shift the goal of the software, you have to be the maintainer or a core contributor to influence the direction. If you just want to protect the supply chain, you can simply fix what’s broken. If you wish to contribute at a consistent velocity, contribute at a rate that you can maintain for as long as you want.

Contribution Decision tree

Source: YouTube

According to Nick and Geoffrey what users and businesses should do is:

Protect their software chain and see that from a business perspective what are the components I am making use of and make sure that these components are going to exist, going forward. We also need to think about the sustainability of the project and let it not wither away soon. If the project is good for the community, how can we make it sustainable by making more and more people joining the project?

Companies should also keep a track of what they are contributing back to these projects. People should share their experiences and their best practices. This contribution will help analyze the risk factors. Share so that the industry matures beyond simple security concerns.

Watch the complete talk by Nick and Geoffrey on YouTube

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