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With GitHub Buy, Is Microsoft Moving to Open Source?

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.

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.

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 the public 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.

GitHub allows a city to collaborate with third parties who want to help it improve its code, and to easily share its apps with other local governments.

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 the public 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 Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (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 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,” Friedman 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.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology.