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The SourceForge Story, through good times and bad, has established itself as the core outpost of open source development on the Web.
October 17, 2007

James Maguire

James Maguire

(Page 1 of 4)

It was the fall of 1999 and there was a fever in the air. The dotcom frenzy was in full bonanza, it was gonzo, and it was going to last forever.

VA Linux was riding the wave. Founded in 1993, the company earned a modest profit selling computers with Linux pre-installed, replacing aging (and costly) Unix boxes. Big boy vendors like Dell and IBM hadn’t yet flexed their muscles in this market, so a small-fry like VA Linux could still make a few bucks.

Consequently, hopes ran high for VA Linux’s initial public offering. When the company went public in December (symbol: LNUX), its stock rocketed from $30 to almost $240 in one day – a delirious 700 percent return. Around this same time period, just months before these dizzying champagne fortunes, the company had an idea. A wildly optimistic idea.

It decided to launch a Web site to host the work of open source software developers. The site would offer a full box of tools, from a Concurrent Versioning System (CVS) to a bug tracker to mailing lists. And the site would be – in the spirit of 1999 – totally free of charge.

How, exactly, the site would pay for itself was presumably not fully figured out. At first glance, offering a free service to people who were themselves working for free didn’t sound like a goldmine. But no worries. If it involved technology, it had to profitable, right?

(In fact the company would not eke out a profit until 2006, but that sour news was still in the future.)

The management of VA Linux tossed around a few possible names. At one point, “Cold Storage” was considered – the site would be an archive for OSS projects. The name finally chosen was SourceForge.

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Ross Turk, SourceForge’s community manager, remembers: “Basically, they put seven guys in a room, and they said, “All right, write us SourceForge – we’ll provide you with Mountain Dew and pizza.” Guzzling soda, the developers crafted code for several weeks, not sure how big or small the finished project would need be.

When the site opened in November 1999, growth was respectable, if modest. At the time, the term “open source” was known only by those with a deep techie background. Though the site offered myriad free tools, only a small crowd of projects registered by the end of the year.

That soon changed. By the end of 2000, SourceForge had thousands of projects registered; by the end of 2001, almost 30,000 were coding away. And the following year, the flood commenced. Since 2002, “we’ve been adding a hundred projects a day,” Turk says.

Fast forward to 2007 and SourceForge is now home to a sprawling universe of open source developers. It’s an intense hive of software creators. Some 150,000 projects – and growing – reside there, covering every conceivable computing function.

Just as important, SourceForge is the place to “see and be seen” if you’re an up and coming open source project. It’s developers chatting with developers, sharing, rubbing elbows, strutting their stuff, watching each other build. It’s a global community of coder geeks, just jonesing to give birth to that next line of Java or PHP or Perl.

There are, to be sure, other repositories for developers, like GNU Savannah, hosted by the Free Software Foundation, or Novell Forge, or BerliOS, funded by the German government. But none has reached the critical mass of SourceForge, which boasts1.6 million registered users.

Remarkably, it’s a community comprised largely of volunteers. The developers are there primarily for the joy and pleasure of coding. (Or, alternately, because they want to make themselves more marketable; developing a high profile project boosts your job offers.) Yet this free software is used a vast amount of times daily for many highly commercial uses.

SourceForge is home to, for example, rising star OpenBravo, a Web-based ERP app written primarily by Spanish developers; Inkscape, a Linux, Windows and OSX vector graphics editor, coded by a 7-man team from the U.S. and Europe; and FreeCol, a game like Civilization, the objective of which is to start an independent nation.

Some of the projects are lesser known, like Tabslider, which allows you to slide thru tabfiles (on a guitar) synchronized to a MP3 file. Others are household names, like the immensely successful Gallery, which helps you post photos on your family Web page.

And some projects incubated at SourceForge have broken through to the big league. Zimbra, recently acquired by Yahoo for a heart-stopping $350 million, began life as a SourceForge project. So, too, JBoss, now owned by Red Hat. SugarCRM, launched as a SourceForge project in April 2004, raised $26 million in venture capital; its customer list includes Starbucks and NASA.

Despite nurturing some runaway successes, SourceForge continues to be an open door for newbies. Or just about anyone who wants to learn about software development. Like, for example, this recent Forum guest:

“Hello, Just Joined the site. I came to the forums looking for some help…I want to Get started Programming. I think [it] might be good for my job…” Several veterans chimed in to help – no one is shy at SourceForge – suggesting books and programming languages to start with: “Never ever start with PHP, PHP was written wrong…” and “Don't do VB, it is useless for you…”

Next Page: Troubled Times: SourceForge’s Blue Period

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