There was a time when Microsoft meant the opposite of open source.
The question of whether that’s still true is the crux of the disagreement between open source believers who are excited by the tech giant’s recent $7.5 billion acquisition of GitHub and those who are dismayed by it.
On the one hand, it appeared that the acquisition sparked a wave of departures from GitHub to its competitor. GitLab, a competitor to GitHub, noted in the days leading up to the acquisition that it was seeing a sudden spike in GitHub users migrating their projects to GitLab. The trend only amplified after Microsoft officially announced the deal.
We're seeing 10x the normal daily amount of repositories #movingtogitlab https://t.co/7AWH7BmMvM We're scaling our fleet to try to stay up. Follow the progress on https://t.co/hN0ce379SC and @movingtogitlab— GitLab (@gitlab) June 3, 2018
But among the government technology and civic tech communities, the move appears to look more like a big statement in favor of open source than anything else.
And GitHub is a big deal in those communities. It has become the most popular place for developers and other technologists to host code online, to collaborate on it internally and externally, to iteratively improve it and to track how it’s changed.
The company’s website lists more than 150 federal agencies, 48 state agencies and 90 local agencies or governments that use the platform.
An easy example of how government uses GitHub is 18F’s Web analytics project, which involved a series of portals where citizens can watch Web traffic numbers for federal government websites roll in in real time. It didn’t take long for state and local governments to take the code off GitHub and make their own versions.
Rick Dietz, CIO for the city of Bloomington, Ind., said his office uses GitHub for a couple of reasons. One of them is a general desire to be transparent.
“We intend at the outset for the vast majority of our software to be open sourced, something that can be utilized by anyone. We’re creating it in the public, and it’s really part of our overall openness and transparency initiative. That includes code, that includes data, all of those things,” Dietz said.
It also allows the city to collaborate with third parties who want to help it improve its code, and to easily share its apps with other local governments. For example, Bloomington has created an app called uReport that acts as lightweight customer relationship management software for the city to handle 311 requests.
Dietz is ambivalent about the acquisition.
“It’s not clear to me exactly what will happen over the long term due to that,” he said. “I think one question that I have is, is Microsoft taking over GitHub or is some of the ethos that GitHub lives by, is that taking over Microsoft? It seems to me that in the last few years Microsoft has made a pretty significant transition in its orientation toward open source, and that’s certainly a positive thing. I really like the idea of GitHub being a neutral party in some respects, but to the extent that Microsoft has a more positive orientation toward open source [that’s] real, then I don’t see it being a problem.”
However, he pointed out, the company’s commitment to open source could change over time as its leadership changes.
Jez Humble, an agile product management lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who used to work at 18F and has used GitHub for many purposes, is a believer in the company’s move toward open source.
“I remember the days when Microsoft wanted to crush open source and saw public source as the enemy,” he said. “That hasn’t been the case for many years now. They’ve embraced open source and their actions have been consistent with that.”
In his time at 18F, Humble said the agency used GitHub to collaborate with citizens and leaned on it as a central repository for its many projects for other federal agencies.
One thing he hopes to see is Microsoft bringing GitHub through the FedRAMP certification process — an intensive security vetting that gives federal agencies clearance to use it.
“Microsoft has the resources to take … GitHub through FedRAMP for example, and that would be huge because then, if GitHub were FedRAMPed, that would mean all kinds of agencies could use GitHub and I think that would be a boon.”
GitHub is perhaps even more important to the nebulous group of civic hackers and companies that serve government. CivicScape, for example, used GitHub to release the code for its predictive policing platform — the first company to do so.
In that sense, GitHub was central to the fledgling company’s business model. Part of its pitch is transparency in the sensitive area of policing where law enforcement is struggling to engage citizens who distrust it.
“GitHub is the go-to place to store both private and public code. They’ve grown into this really smart platform which allows both internal collaboration on all of your different software products, [as is] the case with CivicScape where we’re able to both post code and documentation and take vigorous feedback from the community,” said Brett Goldstein, founder of CivicScape.
Nava, a government-serving startup founded by some of the Silicon Valley techies who came in to help fix HealthCare.gov in the days after its disastrous launch, has similarly put GitHub at the center of its work. With its work for the Department of Veterans Affairs, for instance, Nava has used GitHub as a sort of upgrade above how the agency might normally ask for code updates — through email.
“Before you would have to submit the code through email, and then zip it up, and then you’re not sure if they’re going to get it or be able to unzip it,” said Alicia Liu, Nava’s vice president of engineering.
Liu said Microsoft’s presence might be a benefit for GitHub, bringing in a mature management style. As part of the acquisition, Microsoft named Nat Friedman — who founded another company Microsoft acquired — as GitHub’s new CEO.
“I think Microsoft has been good at being an acquirer that hasn’t significantly downgraded … the companies that they’ve acquired,” she said. Instead they’ve been able to provide them with resources that allow them to grow.”
For its part, Microsoft’s leaders have pledged to keep GitHub operating mostly the same as it has been.
“Microsoft is all-in on open source,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote in a blog post. “We have been on a journey with open source, and today we are active in the open source ecosystem, we contribute to open source projects, and some of our most vibrant developer tools and frameworks are open source. When it comes to our commitment to open source, judge us by the actions we have taken in the recent past, our actions today, and in the future.”
Rather, the company sees the acquisition as an opportunity to channel its own users to GitHub, and to nudge GitHub users toward its products and services.
Though Dietz doesn’t think those users include a lot of local government employees, he does think the number is growing. And there’s evidence for that, too — in recent years more of those governments have hired chief data officers, chief innovation officers and other staff positioned explicitly to work in ways closer to how the tech sector does things.
And like Dietz, Liu thinks that open source is just a natural fit with government work that’s funded with public resources.
“At the end of the day, code that you can look at is better than code that is closed, and especially when it comes to government,” Liu said.
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.