Open source technology has become mainstream, adopted by companies and organizations of all types and sizes. That adoption is not limited to the U.S., where much of the movement first started, but is worldwide. In terms of country, China is one of the biggest consumers of open source technology and increasingly one of the biggest contributors.

This post begins a multi-part exploration of “Open Source in China”, by introducing the important players in the ecosystem with some commentary. (If this is all old news and you want to jump ahead, go check out Part II on the game and rules of the ecosystem, and Part III on the macro technology and geopolitical trends that I believe will impact open source in China going forward. )

Big Tech

In China, all the big tech companies that you may or may not have heard of use open source technology to quickly expand and evolve their own technology. The motivation and rationale are not that different from any fast-growing tech company, because open source technology is free, transparent, and flexible enough to be modified to meet a company’s own special needs, if you know what you are doing. It is also a good way to attract and retain technical talent. Most developers prefer to work with open source technology and contribute back if their employers allow them to; Chinese developers are no different in that regard.

Some Chinese tech companies are much earlier adopters of new open source technologies than many of their American and European counterparts, in order to stay competitive in the growing and cutthroat Chinese Internet economy. JD.com, the e-commerce and logistics platform, began using Kuberentes in early 2016, less than a year after the container orchestration project was open sourced out of Google. It now runs one of the largest Kubernetes clusters in production. Didi Chuxing, the Uber of China that ate Uber China, openly states that using open source technology at scale is essential to scale up to its own lofty ambition.

Using open source technology is one thing, but are these Chinese tech giants giving back and open sourcing their own project? Increasingly so. The impetus to open source can be traced back to the antitrust legal battle between Tencent and Qihoo360 (a large Internet security company) in 2010, the so-called “3Q War”, derived from Tencent’s dominant messaging app QQ and the first “Q” in Qihoo. The crux of the dispute was whether Tencent abused its dominant market position by bundling its own anti-virus software to squeeze out the likes of Qihoo, not unlike Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows to squeeze out Netscape. Tencent eventually prevailed. This conflict, however, damaged Tencent’s reputation and catalyzed the company to begin to open source parts of its codebase to repair some of that damage. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”, and open source is that sunlight in technology.

Since then, almost all the major tech players have either open sourced some internal technology or created new ones in the open. They open source for a variety of competitive, strategic, and reputational reasons that I will discuss in future posts. Here’s a list of all the Chinese big tech companies’ GitHub pages, where most of their open source projects are hosted:

One notable absence from this list is JD.com, which has a GitHub page but no project. Many of these open source projects are documented in Chinese only, so they are mostly inaccessible to non-Chinese speaking audiences. The maintenance quality and engagement level are also wildly inconsistent. Some of these tech companies have a reputation of tossing out failed internal projects by “open sourcing” them as “contributions” to the tech community when the technologies are hardly usable.

Open Source Startups and VCs

There’s a new crop of startups in China, building and commercializing open source projects. Commercial open source as a general investment category is attracting lots of attention from VCs in Silicon Valley. Justifying this enthusiasm is the handful of commercial open source companies that have reached a meaningful size and gone public, like MongoDB, Elastic, Fastly, and Cloudera. Of course, the OG of commercializing open source, Red Hat, was snatched up by IBM for $36 billion USD, which remains the outsized outlier to date.

Most of the open source startups in China got started within the last five years and are small fledglings. The only ones that have garnered a meaningful amount of funding and reached a decent size in terms of employees are PingCAP and Kyligence. (Disclaimer: I’ve worked with both companies in the past in various capacities.) Another player in the ecosystem worth mentioning is Gitee, China’s homegrown Git-based developer collaboration alternative to GitHub. Gitee attracted a strategic investment from Baidu in late 2019 and was started by OSChina, one of the largest Chinese language media and community portals focused on open source.

Of course, you can’t have startups without the VCs, or VCs without the startups. There is a recent shift in focus in the Chinese VC landscape towards B2B enterprise startups, because the opportunities in consumer-facing applications are drying up. Commercial open source startups are a big chunk of the enterprise technology realm, and some VCs have been investing in the space for a few years now in relative obscurity. Here’s a list of VCs, who’s dabbled in commercial open source startups in China:

  • China Growth Capital
  • Fosun Group
  • Future Capital
  • GGV Capital
  • Matrix China
  • Morningside Venture Capital
  • Redpoint China
  • Sequoia China
  • Yunqi Partners

Besides Baidu’s investment in Gitee, none of the other big tech companies have made strategic investments in any commercial open source startups in China so far.

Individuals and Communities

Much of open source is powered by individual developers and grassroots online communities. That’s no different in China.

Out of the 50 million-plus GitHub users, China is the second largest in terms of both users and level of open source usage (measured by forks and clones) after the United States. Because the vast majority of open source projects live and grow on GitHub, what happens on that platform is a reasonably good proxy of what’s happening in open source.

Out of the top 5 most followed GitHub accounts, two of them are Chinese. Ruan Yifeng is a developer and active blogger, popular for producing lots of Chinese language technical tutorials and other programming related educational materials. Evan You is an ex-Google engineer and the creator of Vue.js, a widely-used open source frontend framework. Because of Vue’s traction, Evan’s personal history being born and raised in China, and his early efforts to make a Chinese version of Vue’s documentation, he is a legit open source celebrity developer, both in and outside China. There are many other Chinese engineers active on GitHub, and their activities and contributions very much drive the open source scene in China.

In terms of communities and conferences, besides OSChina, there is the annual China Open Source Conference, which Nat Friedman, the CEO of GitHub, has headlined in each of the last two years. There is also an active and growing cloud-native community, because the core technological foundations of the cloud are mostly open source. It is fostered by the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), which is a part of the Linux Foundation, along with many local companies and organizations, who have a stake in China’s own rapid growth in cloud computing. Most of the big tech open source players that I’ve mentioned make significant financial contributions to the CNCF as part of its membership. From a technical contribution front, China makes the third most contributions to the open source projects hosted by the CNCF, after the U.S. and Germany. And out of those companies who've made code contributions, PingCAP and Huawei have been making the most.

To put faces to some these names and communities, this feel-good documentary made by Honeypot, a Berlin-based developers job platform, is a decent watch:

There will inevitably be companies, organizations, communities, and people who are part of open source in China, whom I did not mention here. This post is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive; no post can be. But I’m confident that most of the players, who move and shake things in China’s open source ecosystem are covered here. One obvious element that I left off is, of course, the government. I explore the government's role, along with emerging technology and geopolitical trends, in Part II and Part III of this series.

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中国的开源世界:玩家

开源科技已经成为主流,被各种类型和规模的公司和组织采用。虽然最初的开源活动大多来自美国,现在全世界范围内的人们都开始使用开源科技了。中国是使用开源技术的最大国之一,也日益成为最大的贡献者之一。

这篇文章通过介绍和评论开源生态系统中的主要玩家、角色,来开启我对“中国开源”这一系列文章的探索。(如果这个话题对您来说已经不新鲜了,建议直接跳到本系列的第二篇关于整个生态的游戏规则,或第三篇关于宏观技术和地缘政治趋势会在未来怎样驱动中国开源的发展。)

科技巨头

在中国,所有你可能听说过或没有听说过的大型科技公司都在使用开源技术来迅速扩展和发展自己的技术。其动机与任何快速发展的科技公司没有太大区别,因为开源技术是免费的、透明的、灵活的,如果一个公司自己有能力,可以对其进行修改以满足公司自身的特殊需求。这也是吸引和留住技术人才的好办法。大多数开发者更喜欢使用开源技术,而且如果他们的雇主允许的话,他们也很愿意贡献回报给开源社区;在这方面,中国的开发者没有什么不同。

一些中国科技巨头会比许多美国和欧洲同行更早地采用一些新的开源技术,以便在不断增长和残酷的中国互联网经济中保持竞争力。京东从2016年初开始就在使用Kuberentes,距离这个容器编排科技项目从谷歌开源出来还不到一年。它现在运行着生产环境中最大的Kubernetes集群之一吃了优步中国的“中国优步”,滴滴出行,也曾公开表示过,大规模使用开源技术对于实现自己的雄心壮志至关重要。

使用开源技术是一回事,但这些巨头们有在为开源技术贡献代码,甚至开源自己的项目吗?有的,且越来越是如此。这个想开源的动力可以追溯到2010年腾讯与奇虎360的反垄断法律战,即所谓的“3Q大战”。诉讼的点是腾讯是否滥用市场份额的优势,将自己的杀毒软件捆绑在一起,以挤出奇虎和类似公司的产品,这种做法看似与微软在Windows上捆绑Internet Explorer以挤出Netscape并无不同。腾讯最终赢了这场官司。然而,这场冲突损害了腾讯的声誉,并促使腾讯开始开源部分源代码,来修复一些名声上的损害。“阳光是最好的消毒剂”,而开源则是科技界的阳光。

从那时起,几乎所有的科技巨头要么开源一些内部技术,要么公开创造新技术。每个公司开源的原因有很多,我将在以后的文章中讨论。以下是所有中国大型科技公司的GitHub页面列表,大部分开源项目都托管在这里:

值得提一下的是京东虽然有个GitHub页面,但并没有项目。这些开源项目中有很多都是用中文写的文档,所以无法被不懂中文的人所用。整体维护的质量和活跃程度也高低不等。有些巨头在开源圈里的名声是,内部项目做的不好要作废了,就通过“开源”将这些失败的项目“贡献”给社区,但其实根本无法使用。

初创公司和风投

中国已经有一批新的创业公司,正在创造开源科技并将其商业化。“商业开源”(Commercial Open Source)作为一种投资类别,正吸引着许多硅谷风投的关注。证实这股热情的是少数几个商业开源公司已经达到规模并上市,比如MongoDB、Elastic、Fastly和Cloudera。当然,商业化开源的老牌公司,Red Hat,已经被IBM以360亿美元的高价收购,这比交易仍然是迄今为止最大的异数。

中国的大多数开源初创公司都是在过去五年内起步的,所以总体规模较小。就员工数量和风投资金量而言,最有规模的只有PingCAPKyligence。(免责声明:我过去曾以不同的身份与这两家公司合作过。)开源生态中值得一提的另一个组织是Gitee,是个中国本土的GitHub替代品。Gitee于2019年底吸引了百度的战略投资。它是由OSChina,一个中文开源技术交流社区,做起来的。

当然,创业不能没有风投,风投也不能没有创业。由于to C的各种投资机会正在枯竭,中国风投领域近期的重心正在向B2B企业服务的创业公司转移。商业开源是企业服务领域的很大一块,一些风投在这一领域的投资已经有几年了,现在还相对默默无闻。以下是涉足中国商业开源初创企业的一些风投机构:

  • 华创资本
  • 复星集团
  • 明势资本
  • GGV
  • 经纬中国
  • 晨兴资本
  • 红点中国
  • 红杉中国
  • 云启资本

除了百度对Gitee的投资以外,其他巨头目前都还没有对中国的任何商业开源初创公司做出战略投资。

个人和社区

许多开源软件都是由个人开发者和草根社区支撑起来的。在中国也一样。

超过5000万的GitHub用户中,中国的用户数量和开源使用量(以forks和clones衡量)仅次于美国,位居第二。因为绝大多数开源项目都是在GitHub上托管和发展,所以在这个平台上发生的事情可以比较准确的反映开源世界里的动态。

在最受关注的五大GitHub账户中,有两个是华裔。阮一峰是一个开发者和活跃的博主,因制作大量的中文技术教程和其他与编程相关的教材而广受欢迎。尤雨溪是个前谷歌工程师,也是Vue.js(一个广泛使用的开源前端框架)的创建者。由于Vue的人气,尤雨溪在中国出生长大的个人历史,以及他早期为制作Vue文档的中文版本所做的努力,他在中国和整个开源领域里都是个名人。还有许多中国工程师在GitHub上非常活跃,他们的活动和贡献极大地推动着开源在中国的发展。

在社区和会议方面,除了OSChina之外,还有一年一度的中国开源年会,GitHub的首席执行官Nat Friedman在过去两年中每年都参与了这个大会。还有一个活跃而不断增长的群体就是云原生社区,因为云计算的核心技术基础大多是开源的。它是由作为Linux基金会一部分的云原生计算基金会(Cloud Native Computing Foundation,CNCF)以及许多与中国自身在云计算领域的快速增长有利害关系的本地公司和组织共同培育的。我提到的科技巨头们大多数都是CNCF的会员,做出了巨大的资金贡献。从技术贡献的角度来看,中国对CNCF所管理的开源项目的贡献仅次于美国和德国。而在有做出代码贡献的公司中,PingCAP和华为的贡献最多

大家可以看看这部由Honeypot,一个总部位于柏林的开发者就业平台,制作的关于中国开源社区的短纪录片:

我在这篇文章中难免漏掉了一些参与中国开源的公司、组织、社区和个人。这篇文章绝非是全面或详尽无遗的;任何文章都不可能做到那样。但我相信,中国开源生态中的大多数有影响力的玩家在本文都提到了。我唯一没有提到的一个重要玩家就是政府。我在本系列的第二篇第三篇分析政府扮演的角色,以及未来的宏观技术和地缘政治趋势会怎样驱动中国的开源世界。

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