GET/SET methods for open source projects

Or – how to connect with open source

I’m aware that many of the folks who read my blog already know lots about open source, but I’m also aware that there are many who know little if anything about it. I’m a big, big proponent or open source software (and beyond, such as open hardware), and there are lots of great resources you can find to learn more about it: a very good starting point is Opensource.com. It’s run by a bunch of brilliant people for the broader community by my current employer, Red Hat (I should add a disclaimer that I’m not only employed by Red Hat, but also a “Correspondent” at Opensource.com – a kind of frequent contributor/Elder Thing), and has articles on pretty much every aspect of open source that you can imagine.

I was thinking about APIs today (they’re in the news this week after a US Supreme Court Judgment on an argument between Google and Oracle), and it occurred to me that if I were interested in understanding how to interacting with open source at the project level, but didn’t know much about it, then a quick guide might be useful. The same goes if I were involved in an open source project (such as Enarx) which was interested in attracting contributors (particularly techie contributors) who aren’t already knowledgeable about open source. Given that most programmers will understand what GET and SET methods do (one reads data, the other writes data), I thought this might be useful way to consider engagement[1]. I’ll start with GET, as that’s how you’re likely to be starting off, as well – finding out more about the project – and then move to SET. This is far from an exhaustive list, but I hope that I’ve hit most of the key ways you’re most likely to start getting involved/encourage others to get involved. The order I’ve chosen reflects what I suspect is a fairly typical approach to finding out more about a project, particularly for those who aren’t open source savvy already, but, as they say, YMMV[2].

I’ve managed to stop myself using Enarx as the sole source of examples, but have tried to find a variety of projects to give you a taster. Disclaimer: their inclusion here does not mean that I am a user or contributor to the project, nor is it any guarantee of their open source credentials, code quality, up-to-date-ness, project maturity or community health[4].

GET methods

  • Landing page – the first encounter that you may have with a project will probably be its landing page. Some projects go for something basic, others apply more design, but you should be able to use this as the starting point for your adventures around the project. You’d generally hope to find a link various of the other resources listed below from this page. Sigstore
  • Wiki – in many cases, the project will have a wiki. This could be simple, it could be complex. It may allow editing by anyone, or only by a select band of contributors to the project, and its relevance as source-of-truth may be impacted by how up to date it is, but the wiki is usually an excellent place to start. Fedora Project
  • Videos – some projects maintain a set of videos about their project. These may include introductions to the concepts, talking head interviews with team members, conference sessions, demos, HOW-TOs and more. It’s also worth looking for videos put up my contributors to the project, but which aren’t necessarily officially owned by the project. Rust Language
  • Code of Conduct – many projects insist that their project members follow a code of conduct, to reduce harassment, reduce friction and generally make the project a friendly, more inclusive and more diverse place to be. Linux kernel
  • Binary downloads – as projects get more mature, they may choose to provide pre-compiled binary downloads for users. More technically-inclined users may choose to compile their own from the code base (see below) even before this, but binary downloads can be a quick way to try out a project and see whether it does what you want. Chocolate Doom (a Doom port)
  • Design documentation – without design documentation, it can be very difficult to get really into a project (I’ve written about the importance of architecture diagrams on this blog before). This documentation is likely to include everything from an API definition up to complex use cases and threat models. Kubernetes
  • Code base – you’ve found out all you need to get going: it’s time to look at the code! This may vary from a few lines to many thousands, may include documentation in comments, may include test cases: but if it’s not there, then the project can’t legitimately call itself open source. Rocket Rust web framework[5]
  • Email/chat – most projects like to have a way for contributors to discuss matters asynchronously. The preferred medium varies between projects, but most will choose an email list, a chat server or both. Here’s where to go to get to know other users and contributors, ask questions, celebrate successful compiles, and just hang out. Enarx chat
  • Meet-ups, video conferences, calls, etc. – though physically meetings are tricky for many at the moment (I’m writing as Covid-19 still reduces travel opportunities for many), having ways for community members and contributors to get together synchronously can be really helpful for everybody. Sometimes these are scheduled on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, sometimes they coincide with other, larger meet-ups, sometimes a project gets big enough to have its own meet-ups, and sometimes so big that there are meet-ups of sub-projects or internal interest groups. Linux Security Summit Europe

SET methods

  • Bug reports – for many of us, the first time we contribute anything substantive back to an open source project is when we file a bug report. These types of bug reports – from new users – can be really helpful for projects, as they not only expose bugs which may not already be known to the project, but they also give clues as to how actual users of the project are trying to use the code. If the project already publishes binary downloads (see above), then you don’t even need to have compiled the code to try it and submit a bug report, but bug reports related to compilation and build can also be extremely useful to the project. Sometimes, the mechanism for bug reporting also provides a way to ask more general questions about the project, or to ask for new features. exa (replacement for the ls command)
  • Tests – once you’ve starting using the project, another way to get involved (particularly once you start contributing code) can be to design and submit tests for how the project ought to work. This can be a great way to unearth both your assumptions (and lack of knowledge!) about the project, but also the project’s design assumptions (some of which may well be flawed). Tests are often part of the code repository, but not always. Gnome Shell
  • Wiki – the wiki can be a great way to contribute to the project whether you’re coding or not. Many projects don’t have as much information available as they should do, and that information may often not be aimed at people coming to the project “fresh”. If this is what you’ve done, then you’re in a great position to write material which will help other “newbs” to get into the project faster, as you’ll know what would have helped you if it had been there. Wine (Windows Emulator for Linux)
  • Code – last, but not least, you can write code. You may take hours, months or years to get to this stage – or may never reach it – but open source software is nothing without its code. If you’ve paid enough attention to the other steps, got involved in the community, understood what the project aims to do, and have the technical expertise (which you may well develop as you go!), then writing code may be way to you want to do. Enarx (again)

1 – I did consider standard RESTful verbs – GET, PUT, POST and DELETE, but that felt rather contrived[2].

2 – And I don’t like the idea of DELETE in this context!

3 – “Your Mileage May Vary”, meaning, basically, that your experience may be different, and that’s to be expected.

4 – that said, I do use lots of them!

5 – I included this one because I’ve spent far too much of my time look at this over the past few months…

3 vital traits for an open source leader

The world is not all about you.

I’ve written a few articles on how to be do something badly, or how not to do things, as I think they’re a great way of adding a little humour to the process of presenting something. Some examples include:

The last, in particular, was very popular, and ended up causing so much furore on a mailing list that the mailing list had to be deleted. Not my fault, arguably (I wasn’t the one who posted it to the list), but some measure of fame (infamy?) anyway. I considered writing this article in a similar vein, but decided that although humour can work as a great mechanism to get engaged, it can also sometimes confuse the message, or muddy the waters of what I’m trying to say. I don’t want that: this is too important.

I’m writing this in the midst of a continuing storm around the re-appointment to the board of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) of Richard Stallman. We’re also only a couple of years on from Linus Torvalds deciding to make some changes to his leadership style, and apologising for his past behaviour. Beyond noting those events, I’m not going to relate them to any specific points in this article, though I will note that they have both informed parts of it.

The first thing I should say about these tips is that they’re not specific to open source, but are maybe particularly important to it. Open source, though much more “professional” than it used to be, with more people paid to work on it, is still about voluntary involvement. If people don’t like how a project is being run, they can leave, fork it, or the organisation for which they work may decide to withdraw funding (and/or its employees’ time). This is different to most other modes of engagement in projects. Many open source projects also require maintenance, and lots of it: you don’t just finish it, and then hand it over. In order for it to continue to grow, or even to continue to be safe and relevant to use, it needs to keep running, preferably with a core group of long-term contributors and maintainers. This isn’t unique to open source, but it is key to the model.

What all of the above means is that for an open source project to thrive in the long-term, it needs a community. The broader open source world (community in the larger sense) is moving to models of engagement and representation which more closely model broader society, acknowledging the importance of women, neuro-diverse members, older, younger, disabled members and other under-represented groups (in particular some ethnic groups). It has become clear to most, I believe, that individual projects need to embrace this shift if they are to thrive. What, then, does it mean to be a leader in this environment?

1. Empathise

The world is not all about you. The project (however much it’s “your baby”) isn’t all about you. If you want your project to succeed, you need other people, and if you want them to contribute, and to continue to contribute to your project, you need to think about why they might want to do so, and what actions might cause them to stop. When you do something, say something or write something, think not just about how you feel about it, but about how other people may feel about it.

This is hard. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes can be really, really difficult, the more so when you don’t have much in common with them, or feel that your differences (ethnicity, gender, political outlook, sexuality, nationality, etc.) define your relationship more than your commonalities. Remember, however, that you do share something, in fact, the most important thing in this context, which is a desire to work on this project. Ask others for their viewpoints on tricky problems – no, strike that – just ask others for the viewpoints, as often as possible, particularly when you assume that there’s no need to do so. If you can see things at least slightly from other people’s point of view, you can empathise with them, and even the attempt to do so shows that you’re making an effort, and that helps other people make an effort to empathise, too, and you’re already partway to meeting in the middle.

2. Apologise

You will get things wrong. Others will get things wrong. Apologise. Even if you’re not quite sure what you’ve done wrong. Even if you think you’re in the right. If you’ve hurt someone, whether you meant to or not, apologise. This can be even harder than empathising, because once two (or more) parties have entrenched themselves in positions on a particular topic, if they’re upset or angry, then the impulse to empathise will be significantly reduced. If you can empathise, it will become easier to apologise, because you will be able to see others’ points of view. But even if you can’t see their point of view, at least realise that they have another point of view, even if you don’t agree with it, or think it’s rational. Apologising for upsetting someone is only a start, but it’s an important one.

3. Don’t rely on technical brilliance and vision

You may be the acknowledged expert in the field. You may have written the core of the project. It may be that no-one will ever understand what you have done, and its brilliance, quite like you. Your vision may be a guiding star, bringing onlookers from near and far to gaze on your project.

Tough.

That’s not enough. People may come to your project to bask in the glory of your technical brilliance, or to wrap themselves in the vision you have outlined. Some may even stay. But if you can’t empathise, if you can’t apologise when you upset them, those people will represent only a fraction of the possible community that you could have had. The people who stay may be brilliant and visionary, too, but your project is the weaker for not encouraging (not to mention possibly actually discouraging) broader, more inclusive involvement of those who are not like you, in that they don’t value brilliance and genius sufficiently to overlook the deficits in your leadership. It’s not just that you won’t get people who aren’t like you: you will even lose people who are like you, but are unwilling to accept a leadership style which excludes and alienates.

Conclusion

It’s important, I think, to note that the two first points above require active work. Fostering a friendly environment, encouraging involvement, removing barriers: these are all important. They’re also (at least in theory) fairly simple, and don’t require hard choices and emotional investment. Arguably, the third point also requires work, in that, for many, there is an assumption that if your project is technically exciting enough (and, by extension, so is your leadership), then that’s enough: casting away this fallacy can be difficult to do.

Also, I’m aware that there’s something of an irony that I, a white, fairly neuro-typical, educated, middle-aged, Anglo adult male in a long-term heterosexual relationship, is writing about this, because many – too many! – of the leaders in this (as with many other spaces) are very much like me in many of their attributes. And I need to do a better job of following my own advice above. But I can try to model it, and I can shout about how important it is, and I can be an ally to those who want to change, and to those worst affected when that change does not come. I cannot pretend that inertia, a lack of change and a resistance to it, affects me as much as it does others, due to my position of privilege within society (and the communities about which I’ve been writing), but I can (and must) stand up when I can.

There are also times to be quiet and leave space for other voices (despite the fact that even the ability to grant that space is another example of privilege). I invite others to point me at other voices, and if I get enough feedback to do so, I’ll compile an article in the next few weeks designed to point at them from this blog.

In the meantime, one final piece of advice for leaders: be kind.

The importance of hardware End of Life

Security considerations are important when considering End of Life.

Linus Torvald’s announcement this week that Itanium support is “orphaned” in the Linux kernel means that we shouldn’t expect further support for it in the future, and possibly that support will be dropped in the future. In 2019, floppy disk support was dropped from the Linux kernel. In this article, I want to make the case that security considerations are important when considering End of Life for hardware platforms and components.

Dropping support for hardware which customers aren’t using is understandable if you’re a proprietary company and can decide what platforms and components to concentrate on, but why do so in open source software? Open source enthusiasts are likely to be running old hardware for years – sometimes decades after anybody is still producing it. There’s a vibrant community, in fact, of enthusiasts who enjoying resurrecting old hardware and getting it running (and I mean really old: EDSAC (1947) old), some of whom enjoy getting Linux running on it, and some of whom enjoy running it on Linux – by which I mean emulating the old hardware by running it on Linux hardware. It’s a fascinating set of communities, and if it’s your sort of thing, I encourage you to have a look.

But what about dropping open source software support (which tends to centre around Linux kernel support) for hardware which isn’t ancient, but is no longer manufactured and/or has a small or dwindling user base? One reason you might give would be that the size of the kernel for “normal” users (users of more recent hardware) is impacted by support for old hardware. This would be true if you had to compile the kernel with all options in it, but Linux distributions like Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian and RHEL already pare down the number of supported systems to something which they deem sensible, and it’s not that difficult to compile a kernel which cuts that down even further – my main home system is an AMD box (with AMD graphics card) running a kernel which I’ve compiled without most Intel-specific drivers, for instance.

There are other reasons, though, for dropping support for old hardware, and considering that it has met its End of Life. Here are three of the most important.

Resources

My first point isn’t specifically security related, but is an important consideration: while there are many volunteers (and paid folks!) working on the Linux kernel, we (the community) don’t have an unlimited number of skilled engineers. Many older hardware components and architectures are maintained by teams of dedicated people, and the option exists for communities who rely on older hardware to fund resources to ensure that they keep running, are patched against security holes, etc.. Once there ceases to be sufficient funding to keep these types of resources available, however, hardware is likely to become “orphaned”, as in the case of Itanium.

There is also a secondary impact, in that however modularised the kernel is, there is likely to be some requirement for resources and time to coordinate testing, patching, documentation and other tasks associated with kernel modules, which needs to be performed by people who aren’t associated with that particular hardware. The community is generally very generous with its time and understanding around such issues, but once the resources and time required to keep such components “current” reaches a certain level in relation to the amount of use being made of the hardware, it may not make sense to continue.

Security risk to named hardware

People expect the software they run to maintain certain levels of security, and the Linux kernel is no exception. Over the past 5-10 years or so, there’s been a surge in work to improve security for all hardware and platforms which Linux supports. A good example of a feature which is applicable across multiple platforms is Address Space Layout Randomisation (ASLR), for instance. The problem here is not only that there may be some such changes which are not applicable to older hardware platforms – meaning that Linux is less secure when running on older hardware – but also that, even when it is possible, the resources required to port the changes, or just to test that they work, may be unavailable. This relates to the point about resources above: even when there’s a core team dedicated to the hardware, they may not include security experts able to port and verify security features.

The problem goes beyond this, however, in that it is not just new security features which are an issue. Over the past week, issues were discovered in the popular sudo tool which ships with most Linux systems, and libgcrypt, a cryptographic library used by some Linux components. The sudo problem was years old, and the libgcrypt so new that few distributions had taken the updated version, and neither of them is directly related to the Linux kernel, but we know that bugs – security bugs – exist in the Linux kernel for many years before being discovered and patched. The ability to create and test these patches across the range of supported hardware depends, yet again, not just on availability of the hardware to test it on, or enthusiastic volunteers with general expertise in the platform, but on security experts willing, able and with the time to do the work.

Security risks to other hardware – and beyond

There is a final – and possibly surprising – point, which is that there may sometimes be occasions when continuing support for old hardware has a negative impact on security for other hardware, and that is even if resources are available to test and implement changes. In order to be able to make improvements to certain features and functionality to the kernel, sometimes there is a need for significant architectural changes. The best-known example (though not necessarily directly security-related) is the Big Kernel Lock, or BLK, an architectural feature of the Linux kernel until 2.6.39 in 2011, which had been introduced to aid concurrency management, but ended up having significant negative impacts on performance.

In some cases, older hardware may be unable to accept such changes, or, even worse, maintaining support for older hardware may impose such constraints on architectural changes – or require such baroque and complex work-arounds – that it is in the best interests of the broader security of the kernel to drop support. Luckily, the Linux kernel’s modular design means that such cases should be few and far between, but they do need to be taken into consideration.

Conclusion

Some of the arguments I’ve made above apply not only to hardware, but to software as well: people often keep wanting to run software well past its expected support life. The difference with software is that it is often possible to emulate the hardware or software environment on which it is expected to run, often via virtual machines (VMs). Maintaining these environments is a challenge in itself, but may actually offer a via alternative to trying to keep old hardware running.

End of Life is an important consideration for hardware and software, and, much as we may enjoy nursing old hardware along, it doesn’t makes sense to delay the inevitable – End of Life – beyond a certain point. When that point is will depend on many things, but security considerations should be included.

8 tips on how to do open source (badly)

Generally, a “build successful” or “build failed” message should be sufficient.

A while ago, I published my wildly popular[1] article How not to make a cup of tea. Casting around for something to write this week, it occurred to me that I might write about something that I believe is almost as important as to world peace, the forward march of progress and brotherly/sisterly love: open source projects. There are so many guides out there around how to create an open source project that it’s become almost too easy to start a new, successful, community-supported one. I think it’s time to redress the balance, and give you some clues about how not to do it.

Throw it over the wall

You know how it is: you’re a large corporation, you’ve had a team of developers working on a project for several years now, and you’re very happy with it. It’s quite expensive to maintain and improve the code, but luckily, it’s occurred to you that other people might want to use it – or bits of it. And recently, some of your customers have complained that it’s difficult to get improvements and new features, and partners complain that your APIs are obscure, ill-defined and subject to undocumented change.

Then you hit on a brilliant idea: why not open source it and tell them their worries are over? All you need to do is take the existing code, create a GitHub or GitLab[2] project (preferably under a Game of Thrones-themed username that happens to belong to one of your developers), make a public repository, upload all of the code, and put out a press release announcing: a) the availability of your project; and b) what a great open source citizen you are.

People will be falling over themselves to contribute to your project, and you’ll suddenly have hundreds of developers basically working for you for free, providing new features and bug fixes!

Keep a tight grip on the project

There’s a danger, however, when you make your project open source, that other people will think that they have a right to make changes to it. The way it’s supposed to work is that your product manager comes up with a bunch of new features that need implementing, and posts them as issues on the repository. Your lucky new contributors then get to write code to satisfy the new features, you get to test them, and then, if they’re OK, you can accept them into the project! Free development! Sometimes, if you’re lucky, customers or partners (the only two parties of any importance in this process, apart from you) will raise issues on the project repository, which, when appropriately subjected to your standard waterfall development process and vetted by the appropriate product managers, can be accepted as “approved” issues and earmarked for inclusion into the project.

There’s a danger that, as you’ve made the project code open source, some people might see this as an excuse to write irrelevant features and fixes for bugs that none of your customers have noticed (and therefore, you can safely assume, don’t care about). Clearly, in this case, you should reject close any issues related to such features or fixes, and reject (or just ignore) any related patched.

Worse yet, you’ll sometimes find developers[2] complaining about how you run the project. They may “fork” the project, making their own version. If they do this, beware setting your legal department on them. There’s a possibility that as your project is open source, they might be able to argue that they have a right to create a new version. Much better is to set your PR department on them, rubbishing the new project, launching ad hominem[4] attacks on them and showing everybody that you hold the moral high ground.

Embrace diversity (in licensing)

There may be some in your organisation who say that an open source project doesn’t need a licence[5]. Do not listen to their siren song: they are wrong. What your open source project needs is lots of licences! Let your developers choose their favourite for each file they touch, or, even better, let the project manager choose. The OSI maintains a useful list, but consider this just a starting point: why not liberally sprinkle different licences through your project? Diversity, we keep hearing, is good, so why not apply it to your open source project code?

Avoid documentation

Some people suggest that documentation can be useful for open source projects, and they are right. What few of them seem to understand is that their expectations for the type of documentation are likely to be skewed by their previous experience. You, on the other hand, have a wealth of internal project documentation and external product marketing material that you accrued before deciding to make your project open source: this is great news. All you need to do is to create a “docs” folder and copy all of the PDF files there. Don’t forget to update them whenever you do a new product version!

Avoid tooling

All you need is code (and docs – see above). Your internal developers have carefully constructed and maintained build environments, and they should therefore have no problems building and testing any parts of the project. Much of this tooling, being internal, could be considered proprietary, and the details must therefore be kept confidential. Any truly useful contributors will be able to work out everything they need for themselves, and shouldn’t need any help, so providing any information about how actually to build the code in the repository is basically redundant: don’t bother.

An alternative, for more “expert” organisations, is to provide build environments which allow contributors to batch builds to see if they compile or not (whilst avoiding giving them access to the tooling themselves, obviously). While this can work, beware providing too much in the way of output for the developer/tester, as this might expose confidential information. Generally, a “build successful” or “build failed” message should be sufficient.

Avoid diagrams

Despite what some people think, diagrams are dangerous. They can give away too much information about your underlying assumptions for the project (and, therefore, the product you’re selling which is based on it), and serious developers should be able to divine all they need from the 1,500 source files that you’ve deposited in the repository anyway.

A few “marketiture” diagrams from earlier iterations of the project may be acceptable, but only if they are somewhat outdated and don’t provide any real insight into the existing structure of the code.

Keep quiet

Sometimes, contributors – or those hoping to become contributors, should you smile upon their requests – will ask questions. In the old days, these questions tended to be sent to email lists[6], where they could be safely ignored (unless they were from an important customer). More recently, there are other channels that developers expect to use to contact members of the project team, such as issues or chat.

It’s important that you remember that you have no responsibility or duty to these external contributors: they are supposed to be helping you. What’s more, your internal developers will be too busy writing code to answer the sort of uninformed queries that are likely to be raised (and as for so-called “vulnerability disclosures“, you can just fix those in your internal version of the product, or at least reassure your customers that you have). Given that most open source projects will come with an issue database, and possibly even a chat channel, what should you do?

The answer is simple: fall back to email. Insist that the only channel which is guaranteed attention[7] is email. Don’t make the mistake of failing to create an email address to which people can send queries: contributors are much more likely to forget that they’re expecting an answer to an email if they get generic auto-response (“Thanks for your email: a member of the team should get back to you shortly”) than if they receive a bounce message. Oh, and close any issues that people create without your permission for “failing to follow project process”[8].

Post huge commits

Nobody[9] wants to have to keep track of lots of tiny changes to code (or, worse, documentation – see above), or have contributors picking holes in it. There’s a useful way to avoid much of this, however, which is to train your developers only to post large commits to the open source project. You need to ensure that your internal developers understand that code should only be posted to the external repository when the project team (or, more specifically, the product team) deems it ready. Don’t be tempted to use the open source repository as your version control system: you should have perfectly good processes internally, and, with a bit of automation, you can set them up to copy batches of updates to the external repository on a regular basis[10].


1 – well, lots of you read it, so I’m assuming you like it.

2 – other public repositories may be available, but you won’t have heard of them, so why should you care?

3 – the canonical term for such people is “whingers”: they are invariably “experts”. According to them (and their 20 years of security experience, etc., etc.).

4 – or ad mulierem – please don’t be sexist in your attacks.

5 – or license, depending on your spelling choice.

6 – where they existed – a wise organisation could carefully avoid creating them.

7 – “attention” can include a “delete all” filter.

8 – you don’t actually need to define what the process is anywhere, obviously.

9 – in your product organisation, at least.

10 – note that “regular” does not equate to “frequent”. Aim for a cadence of once every month or two.

Open source projects, embargoes and NDAs

Vendors may only disclose to project members under an NDA.

This article is a companion piece to one that I wrote soon after the advent of Meltdown and Spectre, Meltdown and Spectre: thinking about embargoes and disclosures, and another which I wrote more recently, Security disclosure or vulnerability management?. I urge you to read those first, as they provide background and context to this article which I don’t plan to reiterate in full. The focus of this article is to encourage open source projects to consider a specific aspect of the security disclosure/vulnerability management process: people.

A note about me and the background for this article. I’m employed by Red Hat – a commercial vendor of open source software – and I should make the standard disclosure that the views expressed in this article don’t necessarily reflect those of Red Hat (though they may!). The genesis of this article was a conversation I had as part of my membership of the Confidential Computing Consortium, of which Enarx (a project of which I’m a co-founder) is a member. During a conversation with other members of the Technical Advisory Board, we were discussing the importance of having a vulnerability management process (or whatever you wish to call it!), and a colleague from another organisation raised a really interesting point: what about NDAs?

What’s an NDA?

Let’s start with the question: “what’s an NDA”? “NDA” stands for Non-Disclosure Agreement, and it’s a legal document signed by one or more individuals or organisations agreeing not to disclose confidential material[1]. NDAs have a bad reputation in the wider world, as they’re sometimes used as “gagging orders” within legal settlements by powerful people or organisations in cases of, for instance, harassment. They are, however, not all bad! In fact, within the technology world, at least, they’re a very important tool for business.

Let’s say that company A is a software vendor, and creates software that works with hardware (a video card, let’s say) from company B. Company B wants to ensure that when its new product is released, there is software ready to make use of it, so that consumers will want to use it. In order to do that, Company A will need to know the technical specifications of the video card, but Company B wants to ensure that these aren’t leaked to the press – or competitors – before release. NDAs to the rescue! Company A can sign an NDA with Company B, agreeing not to disclose technical details about Company B’s upcoming products and plans to anyone outside Company A until the plans are public. If it’s a “two-way NDA”, and Company B signs it as well, then Company A can tell Company B about their plans for selling and marketing their new software, for instance, to help provide business partnership opportunities. If either of parties breaks the terms of the agreement, then it’s time for expensive legal proceedings (which nobody wants) and the likelihood that any trust from one to the other will break down, leading to repercussions later.

NDAs are common in this sort of context, and employees of the companies bound by NDAs are expected to abide by them, and also not to “carry over” confidential information to a new employer if they get a new job.

What about open source?

One of the things about open source is that it’s, well, “open”. So you’d think that NDAs would be a bad thing for open source. I’d argue, however, that they have actually served a very useful purpose in the development and rise of the open source ecosystem. The reason for this is that companies are often reluctant to have individuals sign NDAs with them, and individuals are often reluctant to sign NDAs. From the company’s point of view, NDAs are more difficult to enforce against individuals, and from the individual’s point of view, the legal encumbrance of signing an NDA – or multiple NDAs – may seem daunting.

Companies, however, are used to NDAs, and have legal departments to manage them. Back in the 1990s, I remember there being a long lag time between new hardware becoming available, and the open source support for it emerging. What did emerge was typically buggy, often reverse-engineered, and rarely took advantages of the newest features offered by the hardware. From around 2000, this has changed significantly: you can expect the latest hardware capabilities to emerge into, say, the Linux kernel, pretty much as soon as the supporting hardware is available. This is to some extent because there are now a large number of companies who employ engineers to work on open source. The hardware vendors have NDAs with these companies, which means that the engineers can find out ahead of time about new features, and have support ready for them when they launch.

There’s a balancing act here, of course, because sometimes providing code implementations and making them open can give away details of hardware features before the hardware vendors are ready to disclose them. This means that some of the engineering needs to take place “behind closed doors” and only be merged into projects once the hardware vendor is ready to announce their specifications to the world. This isn’t as open as one might like. On balance, though, I’d argue that this approach has provided a net benefit to the open source community, allowing hardware vendors to keep competitive information confidential, whilst allowing the open source community access to the latest and greatest hardware features at, or soon after, release.

NDAs and security

So far, we’ve not mentioned security: where does it come in? Well, say that you’re a hardware vendor, and you discover (or someone discloses to you) that there’s a vulnerability in one of your products. What do you do? Well, you don’t want to announce it to the world until a fix is ready (remember the discussion of embargoes in my previous article), but if there are open source projects which need to be involved in getting a fix out, then you need to be able to talk to them.

The key word in that last sentence is “them”. Most – one could say all – successful open source projects have members employed by a variety of different companies and organisations, as well as some who are not employed by any – or work on the project outside of any employer-related time or agreement. The hardware vendor is extremely keen to ensure that any embargo that is created around the work on this vulnerability is adhered to, and the standard way to enforce (or at least legally encourage) such adherence is through NDAs. This concern is understandable, and justified: there have been some high profile examples of information about vulnerabilities being leaked to the press before fixes were fully ready to be rolled out.

The chances, however, of the vendor having an NDA with all of the organisations and companies represented by engineers on a particular project is likely to be low, and there may also be individuals who are not associated with any organisation or company in the context of this project. Setting up NDAs can be slow and costly – and sometimes impossible – and the very fact of setting up an NDA might point to a vulnerability’s existence! Vendors, then, may make the choice only to disclose to open source project members who are governed by an NDA – whether through their employer or an NDA with them as an individual.

Process and NDAs

What does that mean to open source projects? Well, it means that if you’re working with specific hardware vendors – or even dependent on specific software vendors – then you may need to think very carefully about who is on your security/vulnerability response/management team (let’s refer to this as the “VMT” – “Vulnerability Management Team” – for simplicity). You may need to ensure that you have competent security engineers both with relevant expertise and who are also under an NDA (corporate or individual) with the hardware vendors with whom you work. Beyond that, you need to ensure that they are on your VMT, or can be tasked to your VMT if required.

This may be a tough ask, particularly for small projects. However, the world of enterprise software is currently going through a process of realising quite how important certain projects are to the underpinnings of their operation, and this is a time to consider whether core open source projects with security implications need more support from large organisations. Encouraging more involvement from organisations should not only help deal with this issue – that vendors may not talk to individuals on your project who are not under NDA with them. Of course, getting more contributors can have positive and negative effects in terms of governance and velocity, but you really do need to think about what would happen if your project were affected by a hardware (or upstream software) vulnerability, and were unable to react as you had nobody able to be involved in discussions.

The other thing you need to do is ensure that the process you have in place for reporting of vulnerabilities is flexible enough to manage this issue. There should be at least one person on the VMT to whom reports can be made who is under the relevant NDA(s): remember that for a vendor, even the act of getting in touch with a project may be enough to give away information about possible vulnerabilities. Although having anonymous VMT may seem attractive – so that you are not giving away too much information about your project’s governance – there can be times when a vendor (or individual) wishes to contact a named individual. If that individual is not part of the VMT, or has no way to trigger the process to deploy an appropriate member of the project to the VMT, then you are in trouble.

I hope that more open source projects will put VMTs and associated processes in place, as I wrote in my previous article. I believe that it’s also important that we consider the commercial and competitive needs of the ecosystem in which we operate, and that means being ready to react within the context of NDAs, embargoes and vulnerabilities. If you are part of an open source project, I urge you to discuss this issue – both internally and also with any vendors whose hardware or software you use.

Note: I would like to thank the members of the Technical Advisory Board of the CCC for prompting the writing of this article, and in particular the member who brought up the issue, which (to my shame) I had not considered in detail before. I hope this treatment of questions arising meets with their approval!


1 – Another standard disclosure: I am not a lawyer! This is my personal description, and should be used as the basis for any legal advice, etc., etc..

Security disclosure or vulnerability management?

Which do I need for an open source project?

This article is a companion piece to one I wrote soon after the advent of Meltdown and Spectre, Meltdown and Spectre: thinking about embargoes and disclosures, and I urge you to read that first, as it provides background and context to this article which I don’t plan to reiterate in full.

In that previous article, I mentioned that many open source projects have a security disclosure process, and most of the rest of the article was basically a list of decisions and steps that you might find in such a process. There’s another term that you might hear, however, which is a Vulnerability Management Process, or “VMP”. While a security disclosure process can be defined as a type of VMP, there are subtle differences to what these two processes might look like, and what they might mean, or be seen to mean, so I think it’s worth spending a little time examining possible differences before we continue.

I just did a “Google fight”[1] for “security disclosure” vs “vulnerability management”, and the former “won” by a ratio of around 5:3. I suspect that this is largely because security disclosures tend to sound exciting and are more “sexy” for headlines than are articles about managing things – even if those things are vulnerabilities.

I’m torn between the two, because both terms highlight important aspects – or reflect different viewpoints – of the same important basic idea: if a bad thing is discovered that involves your product or project, then you need to fix it. I’m going to come at this, as usual for me, from the point of view of open source, so let me give my personal feelings about each.

Security disclosure process

First off, I like the fact that the word “security” is front and centre here. Saying security focusses the mind in ways which “vulnerability” may not, and while a vulnerability may be the thing that we’re addressing, the impact that we’re trying to mitigate is on the security associated with the project or product. The second thing that I like about this phrase is the implication that disclosure is what we are aiming for. Now, this fits well with an open source mindset, but I wonder whether the accent is somewhat different for those who come from a more proprietary background. Where I read “a process to manage telling people about a security problem”, I suspect that others may read “a process to manage the fact that someone has told people about a security problem.” I urge everyone to move to the first point of view, for two reasons:

  1. I believe that security is best done in the open – though we need to find ways to protect people while fixes are being put in place and disseminated;
  2. if we don’t encourage people to come to us – project maintainers, product managers, architects, technical leads – first, in the belief that fixes will be managed as per point 1 above, and also that credit will be given where it’s due, then those who discover vulnerabilities will have little incentive to follow the processes we put in place. If this happens, they are more likely to disclose to the wider world before us, making providing and propagating fixes in a timely fashion much more difficult.

Vulnerability management process

This phrase shares the word “process” with the previous one, and, combined with the world “management”, conveys the importance of working through the issue at hand. It also implies to me, at least, that there is other work to be done around the vulnerability rather than just letting everybody know about it (“disclosure”). This may seem like a bad thing (see above), but on the other hand, acknowledging that vulnerabilities do need managing seems to be a worthwhile thing to signal. What worries me, however, is that managing can be seen to imply “sweeping under the carpet” – in other words, making the problem go away.

Tied with this is something about the word “vulnerability” in this context which is holds both negative and positive connotations. The negative is that one would say “it’s just another vulnerability”, underplaying the security aspect of what it represents. The positive is that sometimes, vulnerabilities are not all of the same severity – some aren’t that serious, compared to others – and it’s important to recognise this, and to have a process which allows you to address all severities of problem, part of which process is to rank and probably prioritise them – often known as “triaging”, a term borrowed from the medical world.

A third option?

There’s at least one alternative. Though it scores lower than either “vulnerability management” or “security disclosure” in a Google fight (which, as I mentioned in the footnotes, isn’t exactly a scientific measure), a “vulnerability disclosure” process is another option. Although it doesn’t capture the “security” aspect, it does at least imply disclosure, which I like.

Which do I need?

My main focus for this article – and my passion and background – is open source, so the next question is: “which do I need for an open source project?” The answer, to some degree, is “either” – or “any of them”, if you include the third option. Arguably, as noted above, a “security disclosure process” is a type of vulnerability management process anyway, but I think that in the open source world particularly, the implication of working towards disclosure – towards openness – is important. The open source community is very sensitive to words, and any suggestion of cover-up is unlikely to be welcomed, even if such an implication was entirely unintentional.

One point that I think it’s worth making is that I believe that pretty much any component or library that you are working on may have security implications down the road[2]. This means that there should be some process in place to deal with vulnerabilities or security issues. To be clear: many of these will be discovered by contributors to the project themselves, rather than external researchers or bug-hunters, but that doesn’t mean that such vulnerabilities are a) less important than externally found ones; OR b) less in need of a process for dealing with them.

A good place to look at what questions to start asking is my previous article, but I strongly recommend that every open source project should have some sort of process in place to deal with vulnerabilities or other issues which may have a security impact. I’ve also written a follow-up article with some options about how to deal with different types of disclosure, vulnerability and process, which you can find here: Open source projects, embargoes and NDAs.


1 – try it: Googlefight.com – it’s a fun (if unscientific) method to gauge the relative popularity of two words or terms on the web.

2 – who would ever have thought that font rendering software could lead to critical security issue?

More Rusty thoughts

I do feel that I’m now actually programming in Rust. And I like it.

I wrote an article a couple of weeks ago – 5 Rust reflections (from Java) – about learning Rust, and specifically, about moving to Rust from Java. I talked about five particular points:

  1. Rust feels familiar
  2. References make sense
  3. Ownership will make sense
  4. Cargo is helpful
  5. The compiler is amazing

I absolutely stand by all of these, but I’ve got a little more to say, because I now feel like a Rustacean[1], in that:

  • I don’t feel like programming in anything else ever again;
  • I’ve moved away from simple incantations.

What do I mean by these two statemetents? Well, the first is pretty simple: Rust feels like the place to be. It’s well-structured, it’s expressive, it helps you do the right thing[2], it’s got great documentation and tools, and there’s a fantastic community. And, of course, it’s all open source, which is something that I care about deeply.

And the second thing? Well, I decided that in order to learn Rust properly, I should take an existing project that I had originally written in Java and reimplement it in hopefully fairly idiomatic Rust. Sometime in the middle of last week, I started fixing mistakes – and making mistakes – around implementation, rather than around syntax. And I wasn’t just copying text from tutorials or making minor, seemingly random changes to my code based on the compiler output. In other words, I was getting things to compile, understanding why they compiled, and then just making programming mistakes[3].

This is a big step forward. When you start learning a language, it’s easy just to copy and paste text that you’ve seen elsewhere, or fiddle with unfamiliar constructs until they – sort of – work. Using code – or producing code -that you don’t really understand, but seems to work, is sometimes referred to as “using incantations” (from the idea that most magicians in fiction, film and gaming reciti collections of magic words which “just work” without really understanding what they’re doing or what the combination of words actually means). Some languages[4] are particularly prone to this sort of approach, but many – most? – people learning a new language will be prone to doing this when they start out, just because they want things to work.

And last night, I was up till 1am implementing a new feature – accepting command-line input – which I really couldn’t get my head round. I’d spent quite a lot of time on it (including looking for, and failing to find, some appropriate incantations), and then asked for some help on a rust-lang channel inhabited by some people I know. A number of people had made some suggestions about what had been going wrong, and one person in particular was enormously helpful in picking apart some of the suggestions so that I understood them better. He explained quite a lot, but finished with “I don’t know the return type of the hash function you’re calling – I think this is a good spot for you to figure this piece out on your own.”

This was just what I needed – and any learner of anything, including programming languages, needs. So when I had to go downstairs at midnight to let the dog out, I decided to stay down and see if I could work things out for myself. And I did. I took the suggestions that people had made, understood out what they were doing, tried to divine what they should be doing, worked out how they should be doing it, and then found the right way of making it happen.

I’ve still got lots to learn, and I’ll make lots of mistakes still, but I now feel that I’m in a place to find my way through those mistakes (with a little help along the way, probably – thanks to everyone who’s already pointed me in the right direction). But I do feel that I’m now actually programming in Rust. And I like it.


1 – this is what Rust programmers call themselves.

2 – it’s almost impossible to stop people doing the wrong thing entirely, but encouraging people do to the right thing is great. In fact, Rust goes further, and actually makes it difficult to do the wrong thing in many situations. You really have to try quite hard to do bad things in Rust.

3 – I found a particularly egregious off-by-one error in my code, for instance, which had nothing to do with Rust, and everything to do with my not paying enough attention to the program flow.

4 – *cough* Perl *cough*

3 open/closed Covid-19 contact tracing questions

All projects are not created equal.

One of the cheering things about the pandemic crisis in which we find ourselves is the vast up-swell of volunteering that we are seeing across the world. We are seeing this equally across the IT sector, and one of the areas where work is being done is in apps to help track Covid-19. Specifically, there is an interest in Covid-19 contact tracing, or tracking, apps for our mobile[0] phones. These aren’t apps which keep an eye on whether you’ve observed lock-down procedures, but which attempt to work out who has been in contact with whom, and work out from that, once we know that one person is infected with Covid-19, what the likely spread of the virus will be.

There are lots of contact tracing initiatives out there, from Pep-Pt from the European Union to Singapore’s TraceTogether, from the University of Washington’s PACT to MIT’s PACT[1]. Google and Apple are – unprecedentedly – working on an app together. There are lots of ways of comparing these apps and projects, but in today’s article, I want to suggest three measures which can help you consider them from the point of view of “openness”. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of open source – not just for software, but for data, management and the rest – and I believe that there’s also a strong correlation here with civil or human rights. There are lots of ways to compare these apps, but these three measures are not too technical, and can help us get a grip on the likelihood that some of the apps (and associated projects) may impinge on privacy and other issues about which we care. I don’t want the data generated from apps that I download onto my phone to be used now or in the future to curtail my, or other people’s civil or human rights, for blackmail or even for unapproved commercial gain.

1. Open source

Our first question must be: “is the app open source?” If the answer is “no”, then we have no way to know what is being captured, and therefore how it is being used. If the app is closed source, it could be collecting any data from pretty much any measuring device on our phones, including photo, video, audio, Bluetooth, wifi, temperature, GPS or accelerometer. We can try restricting access to these measurements, but such controls have not always been effective, understanding the impact of turning them off is rarely simple, and people frankly rarely bother to check them anyway. Equally bad is the fact that with closed source, you can’t have any idea of how good the security is, nor any chance to criticise and improve it. This is something about which I’ve written many times, including in my articles Disbelieving the many eyes hypothesis and Trust & choosing open source. Luckily, it seems that the majority of contact tracing apps are open source, but please be careful, and reject any which are not.

2 Centralised or distributed

In order to make sense of all the data that these apps collect, there needs to be a centralised[2] store where it can be processed, right? It’s common sense.

Actually, no. Although managing and processing data in one place can be much easier, there are ways to store data in a distributed manner, and allow the sorts of processing needed for contact tracing to take place. It may be more complex, but it also makes it much, much more difficult for governments, corporations or malicious actors to misuse this information. And we should be clear that this will be what happens if the data is made available. Maybe the best governments and the best corporations will be well-behaved by their standards, but a) those are not necessarily the standards that I or others will endorse and b) what about malicious actors and governments and corporations which are not “the best”?

3 Location or proximity tracking

This might seem like another obvious choice: if you want to be finding out who was in contact with whom, then the way to do it is see who was where, and when. GPS tracking – and associated technologies like wifi access point location tracking – combined with easily available time data, would give the ability to work out who was in a particular place at the same time as other people. This is true, but it also provides enormous opportunities for misuse, particularly when the data is held centrally (see above). An alternative is to use sensors like Bluetooth or NFC[3], to allow phones to collect information about other phones (or devices) with which they have been in contact and when. This is more easily anonymised – or pseudonymised – allowing information to be passed to the owners of those phones, but at the same time more difficult to misuse by governments, corporations and malicious actors.

There are other issues to consider, one of which is that these sensors were not designed for this type of use, and we may be sacrificing accuracy if we choose this option. On the other hand, many interactions between people occur indoors, where GPS is much less effective anyway, and these types of technologies may help.

You could argue that this measurement is not about “openness” in itself, but it is a key indicator to whether the information collected can be used in ways which are far from open.

Conclusion

There are many other questions we can ask about Covid-19 contact tracing apps, some of which are related to openness, and some of which are not. These include:

  • Coverage
    • not all demographics have – or use – phones as much as the rest of the population, including the poor, the elderly, and certain religious groups. How effective will such projects be if they have reduced access to these groups?
    • older devices may have less accurate sensors, or not have some of the capabilities required by the apps. What is more, there may be a correlation between use of these older devices with some of the demographics noted above.
    • some people rarely update the apps on their phones, so even if they load an initial version of an app, newer versions, with functionality or security improvements, are likely to be unequally distributed across the set of devices.
  • Removal – how easy will it be to remove the application fully, what are the consequences of not doing so, and how likely are people to do so anyway[4]?
  • Will use of these apps by mandatory or voluntary? If the former, there are serious concerns about civil or human rights, not to mention the problems noted above about coverage.

All of these questions are important, but not directly related to the question of the “openness” of the apps and projects. However, we have, right now, some great opportunities to work with and influence some really important projects for public health and well-being, and I believe that it is important that we consider the questions I’ve raised about openness before endorsing, installing or using any of the apps that are being created.


0 – or “cell”, if you’re in North America.

1 – yes, they chose the same acronym. Yes, it is confusing.

2 – or, I supposed, “centralized”, depending on your geography.

3 – “Near Field Communication” – the same capability used when you do contactless payment with your phone or credit/debit card.

4 – how many apps do you still have on your phone that you’ve not even opened for 3 months? Yup, me too.

Post-Covid, post-open?

We are inventive, we are used to turning technologies to good.

The world of lockdown to which we’re becoming habituated at the moment has produced some amazing upsides. The number of people volunteering, the resurgence of local community initiatives, the selfless dedication of key workers across the world and the recognition of their sacrifice by the general public are among the most visible. As many regular readers of this blog are likely to be aware, there has also been an outpouring of interest and engagement in software- and hardware-related projects to help, from infection-tracking apps to 3D-printing of PPE[0]. Companies have made training and educational materials available for free, and there are attempts around the world to engage and contribute to the public commonwealth.

Sadly, not all of the news is good. There has been a rise in phishing attacks, and the lack of appropriate or sufficient security in commonly-used apps such as Zoom has become frightenly evident[1]. There’s an article to write here about the balance between security, usability and cost, but I’m going to save that for another day.

Somewhere in the middle, between the obvious positives and obvious negatives, there are some developments which most of us probably accept at necessary, but which aren’t things that we’d normally welcome. Beyond the obvious restrictions on movement and public gatherings, there are a number of actions which governments, in particular, a retaking which have generally negative impacts on human rights and civil liberties, as outlined in this piece by The Guardian. The article lists numerous examples of governments imposing, or considering the imposition of, measures which would normally be quickly attacked by human rights groups, and resisted by most citizens. Despite the headline, which suggests that the article will deal with how difficult these measures will be to remove after the end of the crisis, there is actually little discussion, beyond a note that “[w]hether that surveillance is eventually rolled back will depend on public oversight.”

I think that we need to go beyond just “oversight” and start planning now for public action. In the communities in which I live and work, there is a general expectation that the world – software, management, government, data – is becoming more, not less open. We are in grave danger of losing that openness even once the need for these government measures diminish. Governments – who will see the wider intelligence-gathering and control opportunities of these changes – will espouse the view that “we need these measures in place in order to be able to react quickly if the same thing happens again”, and, if we’re not careful, public sentiment, bruised and bloodied by the pandemic, will quietly acquiesce, and we will see improvements in human and civil rights rolled back decades, and damaged further by the availability of cheap, mobile, networked technology.

If we believe that openness is a public good, then we need to think how to counter the arguments which we will hear from governments, and be ready to be vocal – not just with counter-arguments, but with counter-proposals. This pandemic is unlike either of the World Wars of the 20th Century, when a clear ending was marked, and there was the opportunity (sadly denied to many citizens of the former USSR) to regain civil liberties and roll back the restrictions of the war years. Nor is it even like the aftermath of the 9/11, that event which has impacted the intelligence and security landscape of the past two decades, where there is (was?) at least a set of (posited) human foes to target. In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, the “enemy” is amorphous and will be around for decades to come. The measures to combat it – and its successors – will only be slowly reduced, and some will not be.

We need to fight against those measures which are unnecessary, and we need to find alternatives – transparent, public alternatives – to measures which may have some positive effects, but whose overall impact on society and human rights is clearly negative. In a era where big data is becoming pervasive, and the tools to mine it tractable, we need to provide international mechanisms to share and use that data in ways which do not benefit any single government, bloc, or section of society. We are inventive, we are used to turning technologies to good. This is the time we need to do it, and do it quickly. We can make a difference by being open, but we need to start now.


0 – Personal Protection Equipment.

1 – although note that the company is reported to be making improvements to at least one area of concern to some – routing of traffic through China.

7 tips for kicking off an open source project

It’s not really about project mechanics at all

オープンソースプロジェクトを始める7つのアドバイス

I’m currently involved – heavily involved – in Enarx, an open source (of course!) project to allow you run sensitive workloads on untrusted hosts.  I’ve had involvement in various open source projects over the years, but this is the first for which I’m one of the founders.  We’re at the stage now where we’ve got a fair amount of code, quite a lot of documentation, a logo and (important!) stickers.  The project should hopefully be included in a Linux Foundation group – the Confidential Computing Consortium – so things are going very well indeed.  We’re at the stage where I thought it might be useful to reflect on some of the things we did to get things going.  To be clear, Enarx is a particular type of project: one that we believe has commercial and enterprise applications.  It’s also not mature yet, and we’ll have hurdles and challenges along the way.  What’s more, the route we’ve taken won’t be right for all projects, but hopefully there’s enough here to give a few pointers to other projects, or people considering starting one up.

The first thing I’d say is that there’s lots of help to be had out there.  I’d start with Opensource.com, where you’ll find lots of guidance.  I’d then follow up by saying that however much of it you follow, you’ll still get things wrong.  Anyway, here’s my list of things to consider.

1. Aim for critical mass

I’m very lucky to work at the amazing Red Hat, where everything we do is open source, and where we take open source and community very seriously.  I’ve heard it called a “critical mass” company: in order to get something taken seriously, you need to get enough people interested in it that it’s difficult to ignore. The two co-founders – Nathaniel McCallum and I – are both very enthusiastic about the project, and have spent a lot of time gaining sponsors within the organisation (you know who you are, and we thank you – we also know we haven’t done a good enough job with you on all occasions!), and “selling” it to engineers to get them interested enough that it was difficult to stop.  Some projects just bobble along with one or two contributors, but if you want to attract people and attention, getting a good set of people together who can get momentum going is a must.

2. Create a demo

If you want to get people involved, then a demo is great.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be polished, but it does need to show that what you’re doing it possible, and that you know what you’re doing.  For early demos, you may be talking to command line output: that’s fine, if what you’re providing isn’t a UI product.  Being able to talk to what you’re doing, and convey both your passion and the importance of the project, is a great boon.  People like to be able to see or experience something, and it’s much easier to communicate your enthusiasm if they have something that’s real which expresses that.

3. Choose a licence

Once you have code, and it’s open source, you want other people to be able to contribute.  This may seem like an unimportant step, but selecting an appropriate open source licence[1] will allow other people to contribute on well-understood and defined terms, making it easier for them, and easier for the organisations for which they work to allow them to be involved.

4. Get documentation

You might think that developer documentation is the most important to get out there – otherwise, how will other people get involved and coding?  I’d disagree, at least to start with.  For a small project, you can probably scale to a few more people just by explaining what the code does, what it should do, and what’s missing.  However, if there’s no documentation available to explain what it’s for, and how it’s going to help people, then why would anyone bother even looking at it?  This doesn’t need to be polished marketing copy, and it doesn’t need to be serious, but it does need to convey to people why they should care.  It’s also going to help you with the first point I mentioned, attaining critical mass, as being able to point to documentation, use cases and the rest will help convince people that you’ve thought through the point of your project.  We’ve used a github wiki as our main documentation hub, and we try to update that with new information as we generate it.  This is an area, to be clear, where we could do better.  But at least we know that.

5. Be visible

People aren’t going to find out about you unless you’re visible.  We were incredibly lucky in that just as we were beginning to get to a level of critical mass, the Confidential Computing Consortium was formed, and we immediately had a platform to increase our exposure.  We have Twitter account, I publish articles on my blog and at Opensource.com, we’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to publish on Red Hat’s now + Next blog, I’ve done interviews the the press and we speak at conferences wherever and whenever we can.  We’re very lucky to have these opportunities, and it’s clear that not all these approaches are appropriate for all projects, but make use of what you can: the more people that know about you, the more people can contribute.

6. Be welcoming

Let’s assume that people have found out about you: what next?  Well, they’re hopefully going to want to get involved.  If they don’t feel welcome, then any involvement they have will taper off soon.  Yes, you need documentation (and, after a while, technical documentation, no matter what I said above), but you need ways for them to talk to you, and for them to feel that they are valued.  We have Gitter channels (https://gitter.im/enarx/), and our daily stand-ups are open to anyone who wants to join.  Recently, someone opened an issue on our issues database, and during the conversation on that thread, it transpired that our daily stand-up time doesn’t work for them given their timezone, so we’re going to ensure that at least one a week does, and we’ve assured that we’ll accommodate them.

7. Work with people you like

I really, really enjoy meeting and working with the members of Enarx project team.  We get on well, we joke, we laugh and we share a common aim: to make Enarx successful.  I’m a firm believer in doing things you enjoy, where possible.  Particularly for the early stages of a project, you need people who are enthusiastic and enjoy working closely together – even if they’re separated by thousands of kilometres[2] geographically.  If they don’t get on, there’s a decent chance that your and their enthusiasm for the project will falter, that the momentum will be lost, and that the project will end up failing.  You won’t always get the chance to choose those with whom you work, but if you can, then choose people you like and get on with.

Conclusion – “people”

I didn’t realise it when I started writing this article, but it’s not really about project mechanics at all: it’s about people.  If you read back, you’ll find the importance of people visible in every tip, even including the one about choosing a licence.  Open source projects aren’t really about code: they’re about people, how they share, how they work together, and how they interact.

I’m certain that your experience of open source projects will vary, and I’d be very surprised if everyone agrees about the top seven things you should do for project success.  Arguably, Enarx isn’t a success yet, and I shouldn’t be giving advice at this stage of our maturity.  But when I think back to all of the open source projects that I can think of which are successful, people feature strongly, and I don’t think that’s a surprise at all.


1 – or “license”, if you’re from the US.

2 – or, in fact, miles.