Open Source Funding Streams

Will Schroeder | Kitware Blog | December 27, 2011

During the holiday season it's natural to consider giving back and reflecting on what we've accomplished. According to the open source community has done an amazing job on both counts. For example, a partial tabulation of some open source projects related to medical image analysis yields a total of over $350 million and over 12 million lines of code, the result of years of hard work. WOW!

Do I believe these numbers? Absolutely not. There are many obvious problems: COCOMO cost estimation is notoriously inaccurate; many of our OS developers are way more productive than the model assumes; line counts are off; and the cost of a developer ($100K/year assumed) varies widely (probably factors of 0.5 to 3 depending on the organization). On the other hand, many software tools are not included, for example ParaView is often used in medical applications, so this is far from a complete accounting. It would be really fun to do a financial roll up of open source tools being used, in say medical research, and compare them to investments made by funding agencies, research organizations and other customers. I have a pretty strong suspicion that a dollar invested pays off very handsomely.

Whatever the real numbers, I do believe they are impressively large, hence implicit in these figures is that many of these projects represent mammoth combinations of money, vision and concerted effort over decades (the first line of VTK code was written in late 1993) to create ongoing funding streams. I attribute much of this success story to the Unsung Heroes of Open Source, those champions with a clear Collaborative Vision of the future who are willing to support projects over the long haul. However, while having Champions and articulating Vision are essential to success of an open source project, to manifest portfolios of this size it's important to understand the creative energy that goes into supporting them over the long term. Thus in this blog post I'd like to describe a few of the many approaches our communities have used to create successful funding streams, as well as reflecting on the challenges that the various approaches present. Hopefully in the coming years we can do more of the same and approach the billion dollar mark...