AWS News Blog

Amazon DevCon – Chris Hofmann

The presenter is Chris Hofmann,

The title of Chris’ talk is “Amazon Involvement with Mozilla and Open Source Projects.”

A few Amazon employees are already involved with Open Source and all of the conference attendees use Open Source software. (Apparently, FireFox has a 90% market share, well, at least in the conference room.)

Everyone’s use of Open Source software is important to break into the mainstream. Chris told a story of a pastor who said people should use FireFox to rid their browsers of the evils of popups. Talk about spreading the religion!

The Netscape decision to move Netscape to Open Source came about from the top levels of the Netscape Management, as another competitive response to Microsoft. This was announced in early Jan 98 and released on 3/31/98. This was first embraced with enthusiasm by the engineering staff, who dreamed of outsourcing the programming to some developer on the Web. but then they realized that they had to cleanse 3 million lines of code.

There were all sorts of profanity and rants about Bill Gates in the code.

It took about 3 months and 60 engineers to work through the code. Check out the PBS documentary, “Code Rush” for more details:[SUBID]&Operation=ItemLookup&ItemId=B00004T128

You will need an Amazon Web Services Subscription Id to use this URL. They are free and you can get one here.

There are some differences between the Mozilla Project and other open source efforts:

  • Cross-platform
  • Large scale effort
  • Highly visible
  • Commercial involvement

The differences drive changes in the approach and tactics for running the project. The Mozilla Public License (MPL) was created for the project. Here’s how it works: If you make changes to the code, you must contribute them back to the code base.  You can also make additions to the code and segregate those additions in separate files. This allows you to license your additions under different terms.

There are a lot of project issues related to Open Source projects. Joel Spolsky wrote about the things that can lead to great software. Eric Raymond wrote, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” Feedback loops are a key part of the development effort. With lots of peer review of the code, you find bugs early in the development cycle, attention is paid to details that help in maintaining the code, and it encourages reuse where it makes technical sense.

Here are some Open Source principles:

  • Release early
  • Release often
  • Listen to your customers
  • Treat your beta-testers as if they’re your most valuable resource–they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.
  • Keep the software at “near shipping quality” all of the time
  • Use a modular vs. monolithic architecture

Create a Meritocracy. You earn your voice and recognition on the project through good contributions. Open Source projects can enable an ability to resist commercial and business goals that can conflict with things users really want. For example, the pop-up blocking example.

Anecdote break: Netscape had been making money off of pop-up ads. The code for the pop-up blocker was accidentally integrated into the Netscape code base from the Mozilla code base. Needless to say, there were some meetings at Netscape about this. The pop-up feature won out.

FireFox attempts to avoid the features “arms” race like what was going on between Mozilla and Internet Explorer.

A security system is only as secure as its secrets. Open Source software stays away of pseudo-secrets and back doors. Publishing the code encourages review and security analysis.

There are some business cases for Open Source:

  • When the maintainer loses interest, the last duty is to hand it off to a competent successor.
  • Lower development costs. The cost is shared by others.
  • There is constant incremental revision and refinement, rather than develop, ship, or cancel.
  • There’s the ability to stand on the shoulders of others.

Who gets involved in Mozilla?

There are 12 engineers at the foundation. There are 60 full-time engineers from Sun, Oracle, IBM, Redhat, Novell, and others. Then there are 1,000 volunteers submitting patches. The project is translated into over 100 languages (all by volunteers). What about testers? There are 10,000 pre-alpha testers of daily builds who file 70-100 bugs a day. There are over 100,000 beta testers.

A question came up about Google and it’s involvement with the Mozilla project. Chris mentioned that Google has a strong interest in the technology and has been a big help in the past few months. Any announcements would come through Google, of course.

Another question was about the turnaround time for vulnerabilities. Chris mentioned that their track record is 24 hours, based on recent history. A vulnerability was found at 10:00 PM. They had a patch in an hour, but the remaining time was spent testing and creating the final package build.

Jeff Bezos mentioned in Wired magazine (January 13) that, “If today the successful recipe is to put 70 percent of your energy into shouting about your service and 30 percent into making it great, over the next 20 years, I think that’s going to invert.” FireFox and Open Source projects really have zero-based marketing budgets. The experiment with is an open-source style of marketing. The community of 60k users even came up with $250k raised for a two-page ad in the NY Times.

Here are some keys to replicating

  • A solid product focused on innovation and meeting user needs
  • A willingness not to be compromised by perceptions of business needs
  • A core online community with a passion for the product
  • A properly positioned product (FireFox was positioned against the IE security vulnerabilities, etc.)
  • Leaders in the community that can rally and organize the community

Donations from Amazon Associates links have been a significant source of revenue for the project.

Jeff Barr

Jeff Barr

Jeff Barr is Chief Evangelist for AWS. He started this blog in 2004 and has been writing posts just about non-stop ever since.