Introducing the Commons Conservancy: a sustainable solution for NREN open-source software development

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The Commons Conservancy is a not-for-profit foundation established in The Netherlands for co-developing large scale software and systems for the global research and education community – and beyond.

Many large-scale software systems are built collectively these days because the cost of innovation has become too high for any one company to manage. In the commercial sector, foundations are established with pooled funding and rules and regulations to play by and companies meet within those defined boundaries to work together on a particular project. The Linux Foundation and Open Stack Foundation are examples of this kind of setup. Some, such as the Apache Foundation, are incubators and aggregators, with multiple projects operating under the umbrella of one foundation.

A sustainable solution

The foundation environment is proving to be an effective way of maturing (or abandoning) software projects quickly. For the collegiate global NREN (national research and education network) community, it made sense to look at establishing a foundation as a way to support the collaborative approach to developing products and services already underway. At the same time, the Netherlands-based public benefit organisation NLnet was looking to improve the long-term governance of its open source efforts. The objectives of the NRENs and NLnet aligned and hence The Commons Conservancy was born.

Guido Aben from AARNet’s eResearch team, Rogier Spoor from SURFnet and Michiel Leenaars from NLnet were the driving force behind bringing the Commons Conservancy idea to life. Aben says that adopting the foundation model will help NRENs develop sustainable products and services more efficiently for the benefit of the global research and education community.

“The overall goal is to provide a vehicle for creating more opportunities to develop more products and services sustainably so that the eScience landscape is better tooled for the future,” he said.

Aben has first-hand experience in developing a product for the research and education community. He is one of the original members of the global collaborative team behind the development of FileSender, the file transfer system for very large files, which now clocks over a million users a day worldwide. In Australia, the FileSender software operates as the file sending component of CloudStor, AARNet’s large file sharing and storage service for researchers.

The benefits for FileSender

FileSender was the first product to be selected for future development within The Commons Conservancy foundation.

“We realized that we needed a more structured environment to continue to evolve FileSender to meet the expectations and needs of the community. The volunteer and ad hoc approach that we started out with in 2009 absolutely no longer works.”

The foundation addresses the challenge of continuing to develop FileSender to meet the rapidly changing needs of the research and education community.

“If the FileSender code base needs an overhaul, we now have the support structure in place that makes it possible to rewrite it from scratch. Collective buy in enables us to also create the documentation to make it all work.”

FileSender has since been joined by several other software projects that have reached the required level of maturity for onboarding to The Commons Conservancy, including eduVPN, Redwax and Internet of Coins.

Michiel Leenaars, Chairman of The Commons Conservancy and Director of Strategy at NLnet Foundation, says a guiding principle is to minimise bureaucracy and organisational overhead for projects so they can focus on delivering better results.

“A lot of useful projects become in a way a victim of their own success, once they arrive at the stage where they need to scale up in terms of governance and funding. This forces them into a legal trajectory which can be expensive and consumes time and scarce resources in a critical phase. Why should every project start and manage its own foundation, only to make the same investments and beginners’ mistakes over again? The Commons Conservancy aims to provide a scalable and reusable infrastructure that delivers what most projects need without delay or investment – built on best practices and experience.”

To assist The Commons Conservancy, GÉANT (the pan-European collaboration on e-infrastructure and services for research and education) has set up a special interest group, SIG-Greenhouse, for software builders, which will also help selected projects develop to the point of maturity required for Commons Conservancy candidature. This SIG provides best practice documentation and advice.

More information

For more information, please visit the The Commons Conservancy website or contact one of the representatives from the NREN community on the Board of The Commons Conservancy for more information: Guido Aben (AARNet) and Rogier Spoor (SURFnet).

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