The state of Open Source in the .NET ecosystem: A five year summary

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I have been forcibly reminded lately that I have been doing this for quite some time. In fact, I have been doing working with Open Source on the .Net platform for over 5 years now. And a few conversations with friends have given me quite a retrospective on the state of OSS.Net.

5 years ago, it was 2004, .Net 1.1 was still a hot thing, and Stored Procedures on top of datasets where still a raging debate. Open source was considered a threat and Steve Balmer was busy blasting at any OSS project that showed up. The very existence or need for OSS on the .NET platform was frequently questioned.

I remember trying to find work in 2005, after over a year of actively working on Open Source projects and with Rhino Mocks making steady but sure progress in the .NET TDD community and not being able to leverage that experience into job interviews. It was only commercial experience that counted for the gate keepers.

The last 5 years have been quite interesting in the .NET ecosystem from the OSS world. It has gotten to the point where the use of OSS tools, frameworks and platforms is no longer a strange exception, but is quite common place.

There are several data points on which I am basing this statement:

  • Books about OSS projects are commonly published.
  • Microsoft is doing a lot to encourage OSS on the .Net platform.
  • NHibernate’s download numbers are consistently above ten thousands a month, usually closer or above twenty thousands a month.
  • I released Windsor 2.0 not even two weeks ago, and it has over 1,200 downloads already.
  • The number of messages to the NHibernate users mailing list is usually above a thousands per month.
  • My NHibernate course sold out and I have to do a repeat course to satisfy demand.

And then, there is my own experience, both as a member in the community and as a consultant. I see OSS being used quite often. A lot of my engagements are about OSS tools and framework, and I am rarely the person to introduce them into the company.

I think that there are several factors playing around here, but most of that is around maturity. The OSS players in the .NET world had had some time to work on things, and most established projects have been around for years. NHibernate is 6 years old, Castle is 5, Rhino Mocks 4. It is not the Open Source world that represent stability. With Microsoft replacing their data access strategy every two years, it might be best to use NHibernate, because it has been around for a long time already.

There is also the issue of maturity in the ecosystem itself. It has became quite clear that it is acceptable and even desirable to use OSS projects. And we have companies making explicit decisions to support Open Source projects (iMeta decision to donate 3 dev months is just one example, although the most prominent one). Recently I was working with a client on strategies for Open Sourcing their software, and how to manage a good Open Source project. In another client, a decision has been reached to put all the infrastructure stuff as Open Source, even newly developed one, because they are infrastructure. Infrastructure is seen as a commodity, and as such, there is little value in trying to make it unique.

There is a lot of value, however, in making it Open Source and accepting improvements from others. And I was able to point out to that client how outside contributions to the infrastructure has enabled us to do things that we would have to do ourselves.

Things are changing, I don’t think that we are at the balance point yet, but I think that we are seeing a very big shift, happening very very slowly. And from the Open Source perspective, things are looking quite good.