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 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. )
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.
Chinese Version Below
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。
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。