A Cautionary Tale from the Decline of SourceForge

Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2022-04-21
Keywords: Open Source

There are thousands of books in print today about starting a business, but only a handful about ending one and moving on. Tamburri2020 is a deep dive into one particular (and not yet complete) ending: the decline of SourceForge, which was the first (and for many years the largest) open source software forge. Over the course of 22 pages, the authors look at how organizational siloing, the lone wolf effect, and other factors within projects interacted with things like its ill-conceived DevShare program, frequent changes of ownership, and the steady accumulation of technical debt in the site itself. While the story doesn't have a happy ending, it should be required reading by anyone managing an open source project.

Tamburri2020 Damian Andrew Tamburri, Kelly Blincoe, Fabio Palomba, and Rick Kazman. "The canary in the coal mine…" a cautionary tale from the decline of SourceForge. Software: Practice and Experience, 2020, doi:10.1002/spe.2874.

Forges are online collaborative platforms to support the development of distributed open source software. While once mighty keepers of open source vitality, software forges are rapidly becoming less and less relevant. For example, of the top 10 forges in 2011, only one survives today—SourceForge—the biggest of them all, but its numbers are dropping and its community is tenuous at best. Through mixed-methods research, this article chronicles and analyze the software practice and experiences of the project's history—in particular its architectural and community/organizational decisions. We discovered a number of suboptimal social and architectural decisions and circumstances that, may have led to SourceForge's demise. In addition, we found evidence suggesting that the impact of such decisions could have been monitored, reduced, and possibly avoided altogether. The use of sociotechnical insights needs to become a basic set of design and software/organization monitoring principles that tell a cautionary tale on what to measure and what not to do in the context of large-scale software forge and community design and management.