Sustainable Investment in Open Source

This is the prose version of a talk I gave today at OpenStack Day, France. The slides are available here.

Today, I want to speak about a somewhat subtle, meta-topic. I hope to share some insight on the question of how a company should think about its investment in any given open-source project. The reason I think the subject is important right now is that, as OpenStack follows its inevitable path through the “hype curve”, we are seeing some major players in the OpenStack ecosystem have recently re-shaped their investment in the project. I think there is plenty of opportunity for companies to take a much more realistic view on this subject, and my hope is that this will lead to a much more sustainable level of investment in the project.

My Story

My views on this question are so heavily influenced by an early personal experience, that I’m tempted to talk at length about my own story. But time is short. Very quickly, though, as I was finishing university, I realized I wanted to focus my career on open-source, and I was faced with the obvious question of who was going to pay me to work on open-source? What value would be open-source work bring to my employer? I spent a lot of time thinking about this, even after I found myself employed to work full time on open-source.

My Employer

An interesting thing happened. Because I had spent a good deal of time thinking about the value of my own open-source work, I was well-placed to help my employer think about how, where, and why to invest in open-source projects. It quickly became apparent to me then - and is still apparent to me now - that this fundamental question is fraught with difficulty, and most people struggle greatly to answer it.

Investment vs Business Needs

Over the years, I’ve boiled my answer to this simple-sounding question to something equally simple - your investment in a project should be directly related to what the business needs from the project. I think it’s important to frame it this way, because if the business doesn’t have a good have a good understanding in the value of an investment, the business is going to be quick to discontinue that investment when it is looking at how to make the best use of its resources.

Anti-Patterns

What do I mean about an investment that isn’t directly related to the needs of the business? Let me dig into that a little bit with some anti-patterns.

Focus on Features

First, features. Or, as Thierry Carrez puts it, “tactical contributions”. Companies often look at the “what do we need from this project” question through the lens of feature analysis - what are my requirements? What is missing?

The good thing about contributing features is that it is directly related to business needs. The thing about your primary focus being on new feature development is it misses the bigger picture. A community of developers that is focused only on their own new features is not going to get anywhere. Who is thinking about the long-term future of the project? Who is looking at feedback from users? Who is merging the code for these new features?

All of these types of activities are the basic necessities of any software project. They are the basis through which new features get added. You must invest in ensuring that this is happening in this project whose future you care about.

The Donation

This anti-pattern is about our choice of language, and how it affects our thinking. People often talk about “donating” code to a project. Calling it a donation suggests you have a feeling that the return on your investment is quite intangible. How long will you continue with these “donations”?

For Recognition

Related, it’s often quite clear that a major motivation for companies investing in open-source is the recognition they receive in doing so. Certainly, in OpenStack, with Stackalytics we have spawned an impressively pointless competition between companies for ranking in contributor statistics. If you give your employees the goal of achieving a particular ranking in the contributor statistics, you may achieve this, but what does that really achieve?

The type of business value that it delivers is essentially short-term marketing value. We don’t want investment in open-source projects to be made out marketing budgets, since that’s possibly the least reliable source of funding!

"100% Upstream"

Not so long ago, when companies were falling over themselves to demonstrate their commitment to OpenStack, we saw an interesting phenomenon - the “100% dedicated upstream resource”. These were individuals and teams at various companies who were employed to contribute to the project but - as far as I can tell - were self-directed and deliberately kept isolated from any “downstream” work.

This is an incredibly alluring opportunity for those involved! The company is saying that the project is critically important to the business and whatever you or your team does to help the project be successful, that’s valuable to the company! Unfortunately, we can see how these things go in cycles and, at some point, the company will take a harder look at what this person or team is doing. When that happens, the likelihood is that the company has very little visibility into - or understanding of - the work being done and, worse, the person or team has no experience articulating how the value of the work is meaningful to the business!

There are some exceptions to this, even within Red Hat. But as a systematic way of investing in a project … it’s unlikely to be sustainable.

Non-Profit Staff

Finally, the culmination of a number of these anti-patterns - the idea that companies should "donate" to a non-profit organization like the OpenStack Foundation, have that organization use the donations to employ staff who are "100% dedicated upstream resources", and the value to companies ...? The recognition it receives for being such generous benefactors?

Having some technical staff employed by the non-profit is fine. Some of my favorite people work for the OpenStack Foundation! My preference would be for Foundation staff to be in facilitation roles. But certainly, you would do well to avoid this pattern for the majority of the contributors on a project.

One example of this is the Linux Foundation's Core Infrastructure Initiative. In the wake of the OpenSSL Heartbleed vulnerability, the Linux Foundation brought together funding from a number of companies to invest resources for key projects like OpenSSL. It's fascinating because here is a project like OpenSSL that many, many businesses depended on, but few invested in. What the Linux Foundation has done is positive, but I can't help feel we have failed as a community if this is the only way to sustain these projects. You'll notice that Red Hat hasn't joined this initiative, despite us being supportive of it - we have always invested in these projects directly, and think that is actually a healthier model for the future.

Think Strategically

Ok, so that's a bunch of anti-patterns ... what you generally shouldn't do. What should you do? Well, you need to think strategically. You are choosing to have your business depend on something you don't control, but you should not allow yourself to feel powerless about how successful that choice will be.

The Future

Think about the future, the long-term. Given the business choice you are making, for how long will your business success depend on the success of the project? Indefinitely? What are you doing to ensure that success?

One way to think about that would be a worst-case scenario. The unimaginable happens, and the rest of our community disappears. You are left almost completely alone maintaining the project. What you focus on? Obviously, you wouldn't choose to depend on a project where there is a possibility of that happening, but the thought exercise does help you think about your priorities.

Influence

If you are determined to ensure the success of the project, you'll have your own view of what that success looks like. Are you happy to hope the community will find a direction that fits your needs, without any input from community leaders that understand the needs of your business?

At Red Hat, we talk about wearing "two hats". Given a particular problem, a particular question of direction, you should have the ability to understand what's good for the project overall and what's good for Red Hat. And crucially, you should have a way to reconcile those two views. This is not a zero sum game. Almost always, you can find a solution that is good for both the project and Red Hat. Why would Red Hat want a solution that is harmful to the project?

Expertise

In order to be successful with any technology, you need to have access to expertise that understands the technology. There is no better expertise than the authors or maintainers of the project. These are the people who understand not just how the technology works now, but how it evolved there, and how things are likely to change in the future. They understand the pitfalls, the know the cool new tricks.

You can have access to that expertise by having those experts join your team. They stop being experts pretty quickly if they stop having time to work on the project, so their upstream responsibilities should continue to be a significant proportion of their time. But you'd be amazed at how their presence on the team can help the whole team be successful.

Red Hat's Model

As somewhat of an aside, since this presentation is not a sales pitch, think about Red Hat's business model, and our proposition to our customers. Certainly part of the model is that, through our product subscriptions, the customer is investing in the projects involved and, by proxy, is safeguarding the future of the project, gaining a level of influence in the project, and has access to expertise relating to the project.

A Measurable Goal

Recently, on Red Hat's OpenStack team, and thanks to the influence of Alexis Monville, we've been using the "Objectives and Key Results" framework for using well-defined, measurable goals to guide our teams. We started brainstorming on these OKRs almost a year ago, and from those early discussions, I wondered “how do we frame an measurable goal around our investment in upstream?”. What indicator could we use to know whether we were on the right track, and to ensure we’d stay on the right track?

Our Vision

Our first thoughts on this was to look at data like our position in the contributor statistics, or the number of core contributors, PTLs, or TC members on our team. None of this sat well with us, though, because we have seen that these type of goals don’t drive the right behaviors. When we started drafting a vision statement for each goal, I wrote:

“Teams of engineers with the required motivation, an understanding of Red Hat's vision, and empowered with the necessary time, encouragement, and recognition, working upstream to drive and influence many diverse parts of OpenStack.”

And there it sat for a while, us all lacking ideas on how to measure this. Quite recently, Russell Bryant and Doug Hellmann hit on a promising solution. Survey the team with a small set of questions and use that sentiment of our measure of success with this goal.

The Questions

The questions that Russell and Doug developed are:

  1. Does your team have effective input into the features accepted and design decisions made upstream?
  2. Does your team have effective input into bug fixes and backports made upstream?
  3. Does your team have effective input into discussions related to processes, schedules, requirements, infrastructure management, and other decisions made by the upstream OpenStack community in general?
  4. What level of investment does your team make in upstream work?

The allowed answers are “not enough”, “just right”, “too much”, and “don’t know”. We also had a free-form comments section which is helping us gain insight into the results.

Notice one important aspect of this - we are asking individuals about the effectiveness of the investment their team is making upstream. That reflects the vision above.

The Results

We only recently started running this survey, and we will do one every release cycle. So far, we’ve had over 70 responses, so that’s a pretty good start.

Level of Invesment

The really interesting judgment call we need to make is what percentage of “just right” answers do we want to aim for? It would seem misguided to aim for 100% - do we really think that it’s important that every individual feels we’re striking the right balance? We’ve arbitrarily chosen 80% as our target, which means we feel pretty good about where we’re at, but there’s still opportunities for improvement.

Sustainability

One thing I’m loving about my job these days is the direct exposure I have to Red Hat customers who are choosing to invest in OpenStack. Deciding to build a significant cloud for production use is a huge decision, and no-one takes it lightly. It’s exciting, and companies doing this can look forward to a true transformation in how they think about IT resources. The truly daunting part is the sense of responsibility that comes with it.

These are long-term choices being made, and they’re being made because people believe in the future of this project. Red Hat takes the responsibility seriously by making choices that we hope will ensure the project has a long, sustainable future.

November 17th OpenStack Foundation Board Meeting

I had previously posted summaries of most board meetings, but had stopped doing this when I was appointed as Red Hat's representative on the board. Lately, I've sensed folks at Red Hat becoming more interested in the workings of the Foundation, so I figured it might be useful to start doing this again.

The OpenStack Foundation Board of Directors met for a two hour conference call last week. The usual disclaimer applies - this my informal recollection of the meeting. It’s not an official record.

Gold Member Applications

The first half of the meeting was given over to an Executive Session, after which the board voted to approve China Telecom, Inspur, and ZTE as Gold Members of the Foundation.

This completes the handling of the 7 Gold Member applications that were presented to the board at the October 24 meeting in Barcelona. 99Cloud, China Mobile, City Networks, and Deutsche Telecom were approved at that meeting.

For the first time, the Foundation now has reached the maximum of 24 Gold Members. We will only be able to consider applications for new Gold Members if an existing member departs, or if we go through a difficult process to change the limit in our bylaws.

User Committee Proposal

Next up, Edgar Magana updated the board on some proposed changes to the User Committee that was first discussed at the October meeting.

Currently the bylaws describe the User Committee is an "advisory committee" of three members appointed by the Board and TC, which prepares regular reports for the Board and TC. The idea with this proposal is to make the User Committee a parallel entity to the TC, with its members chosen through an election of Active User Contributors (AUC).

The bylaws changes outline how the User Committee has at least five members, that elections of Active User Contributors (AUCs) are held every six months, an affiliation limit for members of the UC, how AUC status is determined, and more.

The hope is that feedback will be collected as comments in the proposal document and that the Board will vote on the proposal during our December 6 meeting. A vote of the Board is sufficient to enact the changes.

One point of discussion was whether bylaws changes are necessary at all. The hope when the bylaws were originally drafted was that the User Committee would have plenty of lattitude to evolve via changes to the UC charter. Edgar made the point that the key change is for the UC to become a parallel entity to the TC rather than an advisory committee to the Board and TC.

"Futures" Discussion

Next, Toby Ford gave a presentation on a topic he had proposed along with Imad Sousou, Allison Randal, and Mark Baker. Toby introduced the topic by saying that as any project evolves and matures, it is important to reflect on competitive threats and the need to evolve the project.

Toby talked about a wide set of competitive threats to OpenStack from the container ecosystem (including Kubernetes and Mesos), to other storage implementations, to various projects in the Telco world (OpenVIM, E2, 3GPPP), and the obvious challenge of AWS, Azure, and Google with AWS revenue over $10B.

Toby moved on to talk about "the good and the bad of the Big Tent", describing the need for a balance between diversity and innovation versus consolidation and refactoring. Toby made the case that we're seeing a lot of expansion in the Big Tent, but not consolidation and refactoring. He expressed particular concern about how and whether core projects will be able to evolve, especially if the Big Tent does not allow for competitors to existing projects.

Toby then put on his "AT&T hat" and talked about the challenges for OpenStack from an AT&T perspective - the need to get to a control plane that scales to 10k servers, the problem of managing over 100 different production sites, the challenge of more and more happening "at the edge" with 5G, innovation happening in the networking space and how it relates to OpenStack, and the unsolved problem of keeping a production environment current with latest OpenStack releases.

To wrap up his presentation, Toby listed a few "possible recommendations" the Board could make to the technical community - (1) allow core projects to have competition within the Big Tent, (2) a mechanism to incubate new approaches, and (3) a mechanism to reationalize, clean up, or refactor.

What followed was a pretty lively discussion that covered much ground, over and beyond the concerns raised by Toby. While the success of OpenStack in bringing together such a diverse set of interests was acknowledged, there was a definite frustration that some form of necessary change is failing to emerge naturally, and whether it falls on the Board to try to at least try to clearly articulate the problem at a strategic level.

Jonathan tried to focus the conversation by giving his perspective that the Big Tent concerns had tied down until "recent comments in the media", and that is probably a distraction from the concerns people are expressing about core projects like Nova and Neutron. He was at pains to say that this isn't about project teams doing bad work - we continue to make huge progress in each release, and valuable work is being done. However, we're definitely seeing frustration from some quarters that it is difficult to influence the community with their ideas.

Jonathan warned that talking too much in the abstract creates the risk that the discussion will go around in circles. Despite this, the discussion never did go into any particular detail on where we've witnessed the problems we were discussing. From my own perspective, it was clear that much of frustration was as a result of how the Ciao and Gluon projects have been received, but we're failing to learn anything significant from those experiences by not talking about them in detail.

By the end of the discussion, we had agree to collaborate on a concrete description of specific problem areas, the questions they raise, and some possible solutions. The hope is that we would complete this before our December meeting, and we may then plan a longer meeting (possibly face-to-face, possibly with the TC) to dig into this.

RDO and Upstream Packaging

Derek mentioned "upstream packaging" on this week's packaging meeting and asked RDO packagers to participate in the upstream discussions. I thought some more context might be useful.

First, a little history ...

When I first started contributing to OpenStack, it briefly looked like I would need to make some Ubuntu packaging updates in order to get a Nova patch landed. At the Essex design summit a few weeks later, I raged at Monty Taylor how ridiculous it would be to require a Fedora packager to fix Ubuntu packaging in order to contribute a patch. I was making the point that upstream projects should leave packaging to the downstream packaging maintainers. Upstream CI quickly moved away from using packages after that summit, and I've heard Monty cite that conversation several times as why upstream should not get into packaging.

Meanwhile, Dan Prince was running the Smokestack CI system at the time, which effectively was being treated as OpenStack's first "third party CI". Interestingly, Smokestack was using packages to do its deployment, and for a long time Dan was successfully keeping packaging up to date such that Smokestack could build packages for patches proposed in gerrit.

And then there's been the persistent interest in "chasing trunk". Operators who want to practice Continuous Deployment of OpenStack from trunk. How does packaging fit in that world? Well, the DevOps mantra of doing development and CI in environments that model your production environment applies. You should be using packaging as early on in your pipeline as possible.

My conclusion from all of that is:

  1. A key part in building a Continuous Delivery pipeline for OpenStack is to practice continuous package maintenance. You can glibly say this is "applying a DevOps mindset to package maintenance".
  2. How awesome would it be if OpenStack had "upstream infrastructure for downstream package maintainers". In other words, if downstream package maintainer teams could do their work close to the upstream project, using upstream infrastructure, without disrupting upstream development.

I think the work that Derek, Alan, Dan, John, and everyone else has been doing on Delorean is really helping RDO maintainers figure out how to practice (1). I first started maintaining Fedora packages for Fedora Core 2, so IMO what RDO is doing here is really dramatic. It's a very different way of thinking about package maintenance.

As for (2), this where we get back on topic ...

At a Design Summit session in Vancouver, the idea of maintaining packaging using upstream infra really took hold. Thomas Goirand (aka zigo) proposed the creation of a "distribution packaging" team and this triggered a healthy debate on openstack-dev. Derek has since pushed a WIP patch showing how RDO packaging could be imported.

There's a clear desire on the part of the Debian and Ubuntu package maintainers to collaborate on shared packaging, and it sounds like this goal of further collaboration is one of the primary motivators for moving their packaging upstream. This makes a lot of sense, given the shared heritage of Debian and Ubuntu.

The RDO team is enthusiastic about adopting this sort of upstream workflow, but the Debian/Ubuntu collaboration has added an entirely new aspect to the conversation. Despite the fact that RDO and SUSE platforms have little in the way of shared heritage, shouldn't the RDO and SUSE packaging teams also collaborate, since they both use the RPM format? And perhaps deb and rpm maintainers should also collaborate to ensure consistency?

To my mind, the goal here should be to encourage downstream packaging teams to work closer to the upstream project, and have downstream packaging teams collaborate more with upstream developers. This is about upstream infrastructure for downstream teams, rather than a way to force collaboration between downstream teams, simply because forced collaboration rarely works.

For me, what's hugely exciting about all of this is the future prospect of the package maintainers for different platforms adopting a "continuous packaging" workflow and working closely with project developers, to the extent that packaging changes could even be coordinated with code changes. With its amazing infrastructure, OpenStack has broken new ground for how open-source projects can operate. This could be yet another breakthrough, this time demonstrating how a project's infrastructure can be used to enable an entirely new level of collaboration between package maintainers and project developers.

Network Function Virtualization - The Opportunity for OpenStack and Open Source

This week's launch of OPNFV is a good opportunity to think about a simmering debate in the OpenStack developer community for a while now - what exactly does NFV have to do with OpenStack, and is it a good thing?

My own “journey” on this started exactly one year ago today when I visited a local Red Hat partner to talk about OpenStack and, towards the end of our Q&A, I was asked something like “will OpenStack support NFV?”. I’d never heard of the term and, when the general idea was explained, I gave a less than coherent version of “OpenStack implements an elastic cloud for cattle; this sounds like pets. Sorry”. After the meeting, the person who asked the question forwarded me an NFV whitepaper from October 2012 and, glancing through it, most of it went right over my head and I didn’t see what it had to do with OpenStack.

Since then, Chris Wright has been patiently talking me through this space and gently trying to get me over my initial skepticism. Chris would say that our conversations has helped him refine how he explains the concepts to open-source developers, and I think he really nailed it in his keynote at the Linux Foundation’s Collaboration summit in April.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SAimeBttapA[/embed]

In his keynote, Chris talks about the benefits of collaboration in open-source and walks through all of the various aspects of how the networking industry is changing, and how open-source is playing a key part in all of those changes. He covers, and simplifies:

  • Taking the current architecture of proprietary, expensive, complex, difficult to manage forwarding devices (like routers) and how SDN (Software Defined Networking) aims to “put an API on it”. This is what’s meant by “disaggregation of the control plane and data plane” - that forwarding devices become devices which are controlled by open standards, and allows your distributed system of forwarding devices to be controlled and automated.
  • NFV (Network Function Virtualization) as a shift in the telco data-center world which embraces many of the lessons that the elastic infrastructure cloud has taught the IT industry. More on that below.
  • Changes in the “data plane” world, where we’re starting to see the network device market mimic the x86 server market such that these devices can be “white box” servers running open-source software. Again that disaggregation word, but this time it’s about “disaggregation of hardware and software” and how the software part can be open-source implementations of optimized packet-forwarding capabilities which we’re used to seeing implemented in expensive and proprietary hardware appliances.

But let’s focus here on NFV.

I real don’t know much about the telco industry, but what Chris has me imagining now is data-centers full of proprietary, black-box hardware appliances which are collectively know as “network functions” or “middle boxes”. These boxes are used for everything from firewalls, NAT, deep packet inspect (DPI), the mobile packet core, etc. These are software applications trapped in hardware. They’re expensive, proprietary, slow to roll-out, don’t always scale well and are hindering telco service providers as they attempt to react to a rapidly changing market.

NFV is about completely re-thinking the architecture of these data-centers. This is the telco industry re-imaging their data centers as elastic infrastructure clouds running their “network functions” as virtualized, horizontally scalable applications on these clouds. The exciting - simply stunning - aspect of all of this for me as an open-source advocate, is that the telco industry is settling on a consensus around an architecture involving open-source generally and OpenStack specifically.

Say that again? These huge telcos want to rebuild their entire data centers with OpenStack and open-source? Yes.

If, like me, you want to see open-source change the IT world into one where we all embrace the opportunity to collaborate in the open, while still successfully building building businesses that serve our users’ needs … then this sounds pretty cool, right?

If, like me, you want to see OpenStack as the standard platform from which many of the worlds’ elastic infrastructure clouds are built ... then this sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Well, the thing we need to bear in mind is that these applications (i.e. network functions) are pretty darn specialized. They need to have a high level of performance, determinism and reliability. But that does not necessarily mean they are “pets” and missing one of the key points of an elastic cloud.

Let’s take the reliability requirement - when these network functions are implemented as horizontal scale-out applications, they will look to achieve high levels of reliability in the same way that typical cloud applications do - with each tier of the application spread across multiple failure domains, and by spreading application load horizontally. Telcos will just want to take this further, with faster and more deterministic response to failures, while also avoiding any compromise to application's performance. For example, you’ll see a lot of interest in how instances are scheduled to take to into account affinity and anti-affinity within an instance group.

The performance requirement is largely about high-performance packet processing. How to get a packet off the network, into a VM, processed quickly and back out again on the network. One of the techniques being pursued is to give VMs direct physical access to the network via SR-IOV which, in turn, means the compute scheduler needs to know which physical networks the NICs on each compute node has access to.

The deterministic requirement is about predictable performance. How to avoid the vagaries of the hypervisor and host OS scheduler affecting these performance-sensitive applications? You’ll see work around allowing operators to define flavors, and application owners to define image properties, which between them control things like vCPU topology, vCPU to pCPU pinning, the placement of applications in relation to NUMA nodes and making huge pages available to the applications. Compare to Amazon’s memory-optimized and compute-optimized flavors, and imagine this being taken a step further.

Oh, and another requirement you’ll see come up in this space a lot is … IPv6 everywhere! I’m certainly down with that.

Want to learn more about the work involved? See the OpenStack NFV team's amazing wiki page which goes into excruciating detail.

The more you dig into the specifics of what we’re talking about here, start breaking this down into tangible concepts without all the acronyms and buzzwords, you start to realize that this really is the telco world embracing everything that OpenStack is all about, but just pushing the envelope a bit with some requirements which are a pretty natural evolution for us, but we might not otherwise have expected to come about for some time yet.

I guess the summary here is that if you're skeptical, that's cool ... you're not alone. But please do take the time to see through the complexity and confusion to the simple fact we're poised to be a key part in turning the telco data-center, and how this is just another exciting part of our goal to "to produce the ubiquitous Open Source Cloud Computing platform".

An Ideal OpenStack Developer

(This is a prose version of a talk I gave at OpenStack meetups in Israel and London recently. Apologies for the wordiness.)

In a recent update Jonathan gave to the Board of Directors, we described how OpenStack has had 2,130 contributors to date and 466 of those are active on a monthly basis. That’s an incredible statistic. There’s no doubt OpenStack has managed to attract an unusual number of contributors and, for such a complex project, made it relatively easy for them to contribute.

However, this isn’t just a numbers game. I often hear mutterings that a much smaller, focused group could achieve the same velocity that OpenStack is achieving. In some sense that’s true, but I think that the diversity of interests and priorities is the energy that a community like OpenStack thrives on.

The question then is how to improve the overall quality of our large number of contributors. In order to do that, we need to be able to set expectations. What do we expect and value from our contributors?

What I’m going to attempt to do here is define The Prototypical OpenStack Developer. The ideal that we should aspire to. The standard that all contributors should be held to.

(But … bear with me here. I’m being a little tongue-and-cheek.)

Ok. Where do we start? How do we begin to forge this hero from the raw resources we are presented with?

Let’s start with the basics. The breadth and depth of knowledge you need on a variety of computing topics.

On virtualization, you could start with KVM. You should know about CPU extensions such as Intel’s VT-x and I/O virtualization with VT-d and PCI SR-IOV. Some knowledge of the history of software based virtualization and paravirtualization would be nice context too. Now understand the responsibilities of the KVM kernel module versus the userspace component, qemu. How does qemu emulate various devices? How does live migration work? How does a hypervisor use page table flags to track dirty pages during a migration?

And there’s probably little point in understanding all of this without understanding the x86 architecture in some detail. Understanding how it compares to RISC architectures would be no harm. Memory segmentation, MMUs, page tables are all fun topics. You really can’t get into this without learning a bit of assembly, at least the basic idea. The history of x86, from real/protected mode to modern day PAE or x86-64 are all important to understand. Ignore Itanium, though. It’s not enough to just understand the CPU, though, you need to go beyond and think about how that CPU interacts with peripherals using DMA and buses like PCI.

And, honestly, if you go this far you may as well understand basic digital systems theory, like how you can construct a counter or register from a set of basic logic gates ...

Woah, I think I’ve digressed a little. That’s virtualization. Do the same for storage and networking. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

That’s just the concept behind the basic resources managed by OpenStack, though. It’s a pretty complicated distributed system, so it’s pretty essential you do some reading on that topic. What do terms like “quorum” and “consensus” mean? Why do people describe the Paxos algorithm as “quicksort of distributed systems”? What do people mean when they describe OpenStack as a “shared nothing” architecture, and are they crazy? How would you describe OpenStack’s approach to fault tolerance?

And obviously related to all of this is the need for deep knowledge of databases and messaging systems. We seem to have a large number of ex-MySQL consultants on this project, but don’t let that be an excuse. You know what foreign keys and cross-table joins are, right? And you really need to know the kind of operations which will simply lock individual rows rather than an entire table. For messaging, there’s a little research you can do there. We’re all about AMQP in OpenStack, but there’s been a few other messaging protocols in the past. My personal favorite is CORBA. What’s the difference between a broker, router and peer-to-peer based architecture? What’s this “fanout” and “topic” things we talk about in messaging? Incidentally, you know that we’re not actually using the standard AMQP protocol in OpenStack, right?

You needn’t have touched a line of code at this point. But, if you’re going to contribute to OpenStack, you need to code, right? Almost certainly in Python, but we like ourselves a little Bash too. With Python, it’s important to understand not just the syntax from the most basic to the more advanced topics like iterators, decorators, context managers and metaclasses. You also need to have a good knowledge of the huge number of python libraries out there, inside and outside the core Python distribution. We need true Pythonistas. Oh, and we’re in the process of porting to Python 3, so make sure you understand the differences between Python 2 and 3.

But wait, wait. That’s no good. You can’t just dive straight into Python. You need to start with C. Allocate and free your own memory, damnit. You can’t go through life without learning about pointers. Now learn how to use threads and the various synchronization primitives out there, and why it’s all just terrible. Now learn about asynchronous I/O techniques; what an event loop is, how you use select() and non-blocking sockets to write a single-threaded server which processes requests from multiple clients. Oh, Richard Stevens. My hero. Don’t be afraid to read a few RFCs.

Speaking of authors, we forgot algorithms. Yes, those. Just carefully study all three volumes of Knuth.

Now, before returning to Python, perhaps you should implement a REST API in Java using JAX-RS and a web UI using Ruby on Rails. Hang out with the cool kids and port your UI to Sinatra, before realizing that’s not cool anymore and switching to Node.js.

You might be ready to contribute some code to OpenStack at this point. But, I hate to think of anyone writing software without having a full appreciation of the user experience design we’re driving towards. We don’t want the inmates running the asylum, do we? Which “personas” are we designing for? “As a web developer, I want to launch a virtual machine to test my code in.”

Wait, we forgot tools. You can’t get anything done without knowing your tools. You’re going to do all of your work on Linux, whether that be in VMs or by running Linux on your main machine. If you’re a serious person, you need to learn emacs. You’re going to become very close friends with grep and sed, so learn yourself regular expressions. Lazy and greedy regexs, both. You know how to do a HTTP POST with curl, right?

Ah, git! Oh, the glorious git! You can never learn too much about git. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. If you think I’m joking, spend some time getting to know interactive rebasing. Reordering, editing, squashing and splitting commits! Re-writable history! Where have you been all my life? No git detail is too obscure to ignore. Learn how a tilde is different from a caret in revision parameters. How you can delete branches by leaving out the first part of a refspec in a git-push. Force override, exciting! Is your mind blown yet? No? Find out how git’s reflog is a history of history!

(Give me a second to calm down, here)

Now, you’ve got to realize something. Based on everything you’ve learned so far, you could probably write OpenStack on your own. But that’s not what’s going on here. You’re collaborating. You’re following a process. How we collaborate and why we follow certain processes is a more complex, involved and undocumented topic than anything you’ve learned so far.

To really understand how we get stuff done in OpenStack, you need to be steeped in open source culture. Understand what we mean when we say things like “rough consensus and running code” or “do-acry”.

Perhaps start by following the linux-kernel mailing list for a few months, watching how controversial discussions are worked through and the subtleties that determine who holds the balance of power and influence. Don’t worry if you’re shocked and appalled by how unfriendly it all seems, you’re not the first. If that’s your one take-away from the kernel, that was time well spent. Now seek out friendlier communities and understand how they get stuff done. Compare them to OpenStack and ask yourself questions like “how does our reliance on voting to make decisions compare to other communities?” or “why does there seem to be less flamewars in OpenStack than elsewhere?”.

The history of open source is important, will inform how you engage with OpenStack and that, in turn, will influence how OpenStack evolves. Learn about the “free software” versus “open source” camps, and how those philosophies relate to the choice of copyleft licenses like the GPL versus permissive licenses like Apache, MIT or BSD. Are you in this for the freedom of users of your code, or are you in it to build collaborative software development communities? That contributor agreement you were asked to sign before you contributed to OpenStack - how do you feel about that?

Think about the different governance models that open-source communities adopt. Learn about benevolent dictators, project management committees, “commit bit”, consensus based decision making and the pros and cons of our representative democracy model.

Learn about the release processes various projects use. Time based versus feature based. Rapid release cycles with merge windows. Planning periods, feature freezes, release candidates, stable branches. How do different distros do this when there are so many maintainers and packages involved? We use Python a lot, how do they coordinate their release cycles?

That’s all very well, but it’s important not to be blind to the world outside open source. Understand how extreme programming and agile software development evolved. Read the Agile Manifesto. Understand how this all relates to Continuous Integration, Continuous Delivery and DevOps. We’re operating in a much different context, but is code review our variant of XP’s pair programming? Is our gated master superior to traditional post-commit CI?

You can now consider educated to a basic level. But is that enough to be an effective contributor? Do you now have everything you need to make an impact? No, far from it. The hardest part is learning to be a good human. You need to have superb communication skills, in English of course, mostly written communication skills for mailing list, gerrit and IRC discussions. We do meet twice a year in design summits, so you need to be able to present and defend your ideas in person too. You need to work on that Irish mumble of yours.

More than that, though, you need to understand people. You need to know when to be empathetic, when to be pragmatic and when you be dogmatic. When is someone’s -1 on your patch likely to be an intractable veto and when is it simply a take-it-or-leave-it suggestion? What fights are worth fighting? How can you build up kudos points by assisting your fellow contributors and when is the right time to call in some favours and spend those kudos points?

Ok, we’re ready to go! How do we put all of this into practice?

Probably the best way to start contributing to the project is by doing code reviews. You should probably be spending at least a couple of hours on code review every day. Not just because the number of code reviewers on a project has the greatest influence on its velocity, but also because its the best way to start building trust with your fellow contributors. If you can show yourself as thoughtful, committed and diligent through your code reviews, then other code reviewers will be much more inclined to prioritize your patches and less carefully scrutinize your work.

A good code reviewer manages to simultaneously focus on the little details while also considering the big picture. Try not to just leave +1 on patches, but instead a little commentary that shows the kind of things you’ve taken into consideration. Why should anyone trust that your +1 was the result of 2 hours of careful analysis, research and testing rather than just 2 minutes of coding style checking?

Also, think about who you are building up trust with. As a new code reviewer it’s probably more fruitful to provide helpful input on some meaty patches from some of the lead developers on the project. Then again, patch triage can be hugely helpful too - catch obvious problems in patches before the core reviewers ever get to the patch. Don’t forget to mentor new contributors as a code reviewer, though. Code review is the face of the project to these contributors and its your opportunity to show how you can lead by example.

Now, you obviously want to contribute code. Find some gnarly bug to fix, perhaps some race condition only rarely seen during automated tests. With all the code reviewing you’ve been doing, you’ve acquired excellent taste in coding and your work will no doubt live up to those standards. Don’t forget to write a detailed, helpful commit message and include a unit test which would catch any regression of the issue. If this is a more substantial change, you must split your change into smaller chunks where each patch represents a logical step in your progression towards the final result.

If you’re making a substantial addition like a new feature or a re-architecture, you need to document your design in some detail in a blueprint. Make sure someone reading the spec can quickly understand the problem you’re trying to solve, why it’s important and the general idea behind your solution. Then make sure there’s enough background information included that a reviewers work is made easy. Include the use cases, any relevant history, related discussions or bugs, alternative approaches considered and rejected and any security, upgrade, performance or deployer impact. Describe how your work will be tested and what documentation changes will be required.

While we’re on the subject of blueprints, don’t forget that these too need reviewers. Most projects now review the specs associated with blueprints using gerrit and so this is a way for you to demonstrate your design skills and catch things which no-one else has yet considered.

Back to code, though. Yes, it’s important to contribute to the various integrated service projects like Nova, Neutron, Swift and whatnot. However, there are a bunch of other areas where code contributions are always needed. For a start, the client projects are always forgotten. Then there’s the cross-project technical debt that the Oslo program is hard at work cleaning up. We’re also gradually porting all of OpenStack to Python 3, and this is going to be a multi year effort requiring the help of many.

We also place a huge emphasis on automated testing in OpenStack, and the awesome CI system we have doesn’t come from nowhere. You should always be ready to jump in a contribute to the infrastructure itself, tools like devstack-gate, zuul, nodepool or elastic-recheck. And, last but not least, our functional test suite, Tempest, is always desperately in need of more contributions to increase our test coverage.

Security is critical in a public-facing service like OpenStack, and there are several ways you should contribute in this area. Firstly, there is a small vulnerability management team which collaborates with each project’s -coresec team to handle privately reported security bugs, ensuring a fix is prepared for each supported branch before a coordinated, responsible disclosure of the issue first to vendors and then the wider world. Important work is this. There’s also a security group which is trying to bring together the efforts of interested parties to prepare official notices on security issues that aren’t actual vulnerabilities, develop a threat analysis process for OpenStack and maintain the OpenStack Security Guide. They need your help! Most importantly, though, you need to be security conscious as you write and review code. There’s a good chance you’ll find and report an existing vulnerability during the course of your work if you keep your eyes open!

And then there’s docs, always the poor forgotten child of any open source project. Yet OpenStack has some relatively awesome docs and a great team developing them. They can never hope to cope with the workload themselves, though, so they need you to pitch in and help perfect those docs in your area of expertise.

I mentioned bugs. We must not forget the bugs! Bugs are one way users can provide valuable contributions to the project, and we must ensure these contributions are valued so that users will continue to file bugs. With over 700 configuration options in Nova alone, the project can’t possibly test all possible combinations by itself so we rely on our users to test their own use cases and report any issues as bugs. You should help out here by setting aside some time every day to triage new bugs, making sure enough information has been provided and the bug has been appropriately tagged, categorized and prioritized.

Along those same lines, users often struggle with issues with aren’t obviously or necessarily bugs. You should also pay attention to forums like ask.openstack.org or the openstack-operators mailing list. Any outreach you can do to help users be successful with OpenStack will pay massive dividends in the long run, even just in terms of your understanding which issues are most important to real users. This outreach should extend to your attending OpenStack meetups, giving presentations on your work and listening to what users have to say.

Speaking of mailing lists, we have a hugely active openstack-dev mailing list, with over 2500 emails in April alone. This is the center of all activity happening in OpenStack at any time. You really must track what’s happening there and engage where you can help move things forward positively. It’s a struggle to keep up, but it really isn’t an option.

However, one of the side effects of openstack-dev being overloaded is that many important conversations now happen IRC. You can’t expect to be around for all of those, so make sure to remain connected and log all channels so you can catch up later.

Because conversations can be spread around multiple places, it can be helpful to link all of these conversations with little breadcrumbs. A mailing list thread might reference a gerrit review, which might reference a log of an IRC conversation, which might reference a blog post, which might reference a bug, which might reference a previous commit message which referenced a previous mailing list thread.

Don’t be fooled into thinking IRC is all about the serious stuff, though. It’s also a place where you can get to know your fellow contributors on a personal level and build up yet more of that all important trust. You will make friends working on OpenStack and some of those friendships will last longer than your involvement in OpenStack itself. That’s a hugely positive sign in any community. Beware of forming cliques, however. We need this community to be open to the most diverse set of contributors, and not all of those will buy into US-centric young white male geek humour, for example.

Speaking of cliques, it’s popular to accuse OpenStack developers on being so self-absorbed that the needs of real operators and users are ignored. That OpenStack developers aren’t held responsible for the real world consequences of the decisions they make. “You write code differently when you carry a pager”. Lorin Hochstein proposed an “Adopt a Dev” program where operators could invite individual developers to shadow them for a few days and share their experience in the terms of a summary, bug reports and blueprints. Basically, you should take any opportunity you can to get your hands dirty and help operate a production OpenStack service.

Related to the needs of operators are the deployment, configuration and operational tools out there which desperately need contributions with people more familiar with the dirty details of how the software works. Many developers use devstack to deploy their development clouds, but there’s huge benefit in occasionally deploying something more production-like and contributing to whatever tool you used. TripleO is a great deployment effort to contribute to because it’s attempting to create a space where everyone interested in deployment can collaborate, but also because it closely tracks the development branch of OpenStack.

Once you have succeeded at making an impact as an individual contributor, you should look to extend your leadership efforts beyond simply leading by example. Naturally, you’ll tend towards volunteering for the responsibility of the PTL position on whichever program you contribute most to. To demonstrate your willingness and trustworthiness for the position, perhaps you’ll suggest the PTL delegate some of their responsibilities to you.

Your leadership interests should extend beyond a single project too. In some ways, the kind of cross-project issues considered by the Technical Committee are as important as the per-project responsibilities of PTLs. Do you have strong opinions on how, why and when should add new programs or Integrated projects. If not, why not?

The governance of OpenStack and the shared responsibility for the future direction of OpenStack extends beyond the TC and PTL’s governance of the project itself, to the role of the Foundation Board of Directors in protecting, empowering and promoting the project as well as ensuring there’s a healthy commercial and non-commercial ecosystem around the project. Do you care how the TC and board divide their responsibilities? Or how much explicit corporate influence is appropriate in the technical decision making of the project? Or how the board makes legal decisions which directly impact the project? Or how individual members elect their representatives on the board? You should.

Wait, wait, I’m forgetting a bunch of stuff. You should care deeply about bringing contributors on board and participate in the awesome OPW and GSoC programs. It’s important to keep track of how the project is perceived, so you should read any articles published about the project and follow even our worst detractors on twitter. Watch carefully how our major competitors like AWS and GCE are evolving. Make sure to keep on relevant new developments like NFV or Docker. Keep an eye on new projects on Stackforge to track how they develop.

Huh, wait. You’re probably employed to work full time on the project, right? Well, you really need to learn how to wear upstream and downstream “hats”. You need to understand how you can help your employer be successful with their objectives around the project. You need to be able to reconcile any apparent conflicts between your employers’ needs and the best interests of the project. This is not a zero sum game. Meet with your employer’s customers and partners, help deliver what OpenStack product or service your employer is providing, mentor colleagues on how to successfully engage with the project and be the bridge over the upstream and downstream gap.

Above all, through all of this, be nice to everyone you encounter and wear a smile.

BZZZT … BURNOUT ALERT

I’m obviously being facetious, right? There’s no way anyone can possibly live up to those expectations and live to tell the tale?

It’s pretty obvious when you put it all together like this that these are unreasonable expectations. The hero of this tale does not exist. Many of us have tried to be this person, but it’s just not possible. Read into this, if you like, a very personal tale of burnout caused by unreasonable self-imposed expectations.

But really, what I want to get across today is that you don’t need to be this hero in order to contribute. Far from being too many active monthly contributors, five hundred is just the tip of the iceberg. Why shouldn’t every attendee of every OpenStack meetup be able to contribute in some small way?

When mentoring new Red Hat engineers, my basic advice is always “find your niche”. Find something that takes your interest and that you can see an obvious path towards making a significant impact, and go deep! Ignore pretty much everything else and do your thing. Maybe after a while you’ll have got the ball rolling of its own accord and that there are other areas you can now make an equally big impact on. Or perhaps you’ll stick with this niche and continue to make an impact doing it over the longer term.

One of my favorite examples of a less likely niche is bug triage. Back in the summer of 2001 when I started seriously contributing the GNOME project and became a maintainer of its CORBA ORB, ORBit, another new contributor to the project called Luis Villa posted this email:

Hey, everybody. By way of introduction: I'm the new bugmaster at Ximian. As some of you may have noticed, I'm slowly moving towards cleaning out evo and RC bugs from bugzilla.gnome and into bugzilla.ximian.

Luis went on to breath new life into GNOME’s “bugsquad”, helped put in place a highly effective bug triage process and taught the GNOME community how to truly value and celebrate the contributions of both bug reporters and bug triagers. If you want to make fame and fortune in the open source world, how many people would pick bug triage as the place to start? Well, Luis did and made a huge impact, before moving on to engineering management and then giving it all up to go to law school. He is now Assistant General Counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation.

There’s a real “find your niche” lesson in that story, but also a lesson that we as a community need to learn to truly value and celebrate all of the myriad of different ways that contributors can help the project. Rather than judge others based on how they’re not contributing, rather than feel exasperated when so few others share your passion for a particular niche no matter how important it seems to you personally, we as a community need to acquire a greater level of empathy for our fellow contributors.

We also need to experiment with ways of running the project so that different roles and niches are appropriately recognized. Does the focus we put on PTLs detract from the valuable project management contributions others make? Are official programs the only way of recognizing the importance of particular areas? If programs are the only way, do we need to be more open to creating programs wherever a group of people have coalesced around some particular effort? Do we need to explicitly raise the profiles of those contributors doing hard behind-the-scenes work in areas that we don’t typically recognize? Are we building a culture that places too much emphasis on recognition and instead roll back some of the ways we recognize people now?

Lot’s of questions, few answers. But hopefully this can get the conversation started.