David A. Wheeler's Blog

Tue, 18 Jul 2006

Ohloh, SLOCCount, and evaluating Free-libre / Open Source Software (FLOSS)

A new start-up company named Ohloh has recently appeared, and is mentioned in many articles such as those from Ars Technica, eWeek, and ZDNet. This start-up will do analysis of free-libre / open source software (FLOSS) projects for customers, as well as do analysis of in-house proprietary software. To do the analysis, they’ll use a suite of FLOSS tools. Some articles suggest that they’ll also help customers determine which FLOSS programs best fit their needs, by basing their recommendations on this analysis (at least in part). Exactly what this start-up will do is hard to figure out from the news reports. That’s understandable… this is a start-up, and no doubt the start-up itself will adjust what it does depending on who shows up as customers. But the general niche they’re trying to fill seems clear enough.

This seems like a very reasonable business idea. Indeed, companies like IBM, Sun, and HP have been helping customers select programs and develop systems for a long time, and they often recommend and help transition customers to FLOSS programs. IBM has said they invested over a billion dollars in Linux, and have already recouped it, so IBM shows that this can be a lucrative business model. Ohloh will have some stiff competition if they want to muscle into the job of giving recommendations, but I love to see competition; hooray! And I have stated for years that I’d love to see more analysis of FLOSS programs, so I’m happy that it’s happening.

I am amused, though. Some of the articles about this start-up seem to suggest that this kind of data was impossible to get before. Yet after a quick web search, you’ll discover that a lot of what they discuss is already here on my website, and has been for years. The article in Ars Technica says Ohloh intends to “analyze open-source software projects and provide customers with detailed information about them, including how much it would cost to duplicate the project given an average programmer salary of US$55,000 per year. The Linux kernel, for example, clocked in at nearly 4.7 million lines of code, has had 1,434 man-years of coding effort put in so far, and would have cost approximately US$79 million in salaries.” I’m all for analyzing code, but to do that kind of analysis, you can just run my program SLOCCount. You can even see my papers discussing the results of SLOCCount applied to the Linux kernel, or my More than a Gigabuck paper (which analyzed a whole Linux distribution). In fact, I’ll bet that they are using SLOCCount as one of their tools, even though it appears to be uncredited (shame on you!). After all, they state that they’re using FLOSS programs to do their analysis, and some of the reports they’re generating include exactly the kind of data that only SLOCCount provides. This is not a license problem - I’m glad they’ve found it useful! And to be fair, they’re not just using SLOCCount; they’re also gathering other data such as check-in rates, and they’re grouping the results as a nice prepackaged web page. There are other tools that do some similar analysis of project activity, of course, such as CIA. Still, I think making information like this more accessible is really valuable… so good show!

If they plan to go beyond number-generating, and move into the business of giving specific advice, you could do the same thing yourself. Just go read my paper, How to Evaluate Open Source Software / Free Software Programs. That paper outlines steps to take, and the kind of information to look for. Doing things well is much harder than just following some process, of course, but at least you’ll have an idea of what should be done.

So it turns out that the basic tools, and basic approaches, for doing this kind of analysis and making recommendations already exist. Is that a problem for this start-up? Not really. Not every company has the skills, knowledge, or time to do these kinds of analyses. It’s quite reasonable to hire someone who specializes in gathering a particular kind of knowledge or doing a particular kind of analysis… people who work in one area tend to get good at it. I don’t know how well they’ll do, and execution always matters, but their idea seems reasonable enough.

Frankly, what’s more interesting to me is who’s starting the company - it’s basically lots of former Microsoft folks! It’s headed by two former Microsoft executives: Scott Collison (former director of platform strategy at Microsoft) and Jason Allen (a former development manager for XML Web Services). Investors include Paul Maritz (who was a member of the Microsoft executive committee and manager of the overall Microsoft company from 1986 to 2000) and Pradeep Singh (who spent nine years at Microsoft in various management positions). Years ago, Microsoft’s Halloween documents revealed their deep concern about FLOSS, and how they were going to try to bury it. Hmm, it doesn’t seem to be very buried. I’ve no idea where this will end up, but it sure is interesting.

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