Definition of OSS Sustainability

What is Open Source Sustainability exactly? Is anyone up for the definition?

I define open source community health as the potential to continue developing quality software in the future.

Sustainability looks at the long-term perspective and whether the momentum can be sustained, which in open source requires that software is maintained and updated. It is often easier to look at examples of how sustainability was not achieved or failed, which often results in inactive projects, disharmony in community, major security flaws, etc…

PS: I think open source community health and sustainability are very closely related and are often used synonymous.

PPS: One effort where we kind of tried a definition for the Sustain OSS community was the work kicked-off by @jdorfman here:

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@RichardLitt had a good idea to turn this into an episode for the podcast. While you, @downey and I think the manifesto is ready for prime time, he has some issues with it. I think hashing it out on the podcast would be interesting, to say the least.

If this sounds like a good episode please LMK or we can just discuss it here. =)

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With the definition (not the manifesto) that puts stress on continuity of software itself, it sounds like caring about people who wrote the software in the past is not important. Caring about someone who is no more active is not important.

The manifesto talks more about the needs of people. Although it talks about maintainers, it is hard to understand if people who approach code as an art do fit there. The people who keep their code in head and polish it when they have time, but who are not really good at maintenance, at taking responsibility, at handling communication. project coordination, reviews or seeking funding. Are they included?

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To be transparent in my own intention, I plan to start a new “Definitions Working Group” in the coming weeks once I wrap up with Principles of Authentic Participation. In that new working group, I want to make topics like “what is OSS sustainability?” a key focus.

If I could make a humble request for a podcast episode for June or July, we could try to put together a panel of a few folks for this topic?


Great idea. We just recorded a “Defining Open Source Community Health” episode for CHAOSSCast yesterday. I think it’s important that we define what we are talking about so that others can join the conversation.


This is a theme I keep coming back to in my personal work. Stay tuned for more info. I hope to get a new Working Group launched in early June.


Love it. I look forward to contributing. Great initiative @jwf

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I think of sustainability being about an answer to pretty much a single question: If I start to depend on this software, will I regret it in the future? Follow-on questions might be: will the software be maintained in 2 to 3 years? Is there a group of people who are motivated and incentivised to develop new features over time? If I need help (including professional support), is there somewhere I can get it?

There are a few ways, inside that framework, that open source projects can be sustainable:

  • A vendor who is long-term committed to developing the software (like Puppet, Android, etc)
  • A consortium of users who pool resources for maintenance, and who identify services vendors to provide commercial support (Sakai, Kuali)
  • Software that is developed as a reference implementation of a standard (OpenWall, CPython, Apache httpd, Jakarta EE)
  • Consortia that serve as a vendor for the project they develop, and use membership fees for “premium” services contracts (SQLite, Bind & ISC, ONF)
  • Projects that are integrated in product solutions of multiple vendors, that serve as shared undifferentiated heavy-lifting (Linux, OpenStack, Kubernetes, etc)

The sustainability argument is related to, but independent of, open source and business models. The main sustainability questions for me are: is there a long-term sustainable market for the software (users and vendors) - if there is, then it is likely that the project will continue to be sustainable over time.

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