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World's biggest open-source company? Google

Calling Red Hat the leading "open-source company" is no longer accurate as it overlooks much bigger contributors like IBM and, in particular, Google.

Open Source Initiative

Red Hat is generally credited as the industry's leading open-source company, but it's a distinction that is as meaningless as it is incorrect. While Red Hat's revenue directly derives from the open-source software it develops and distributes, other companies like Sun, IBM, and Google actually write and contribute far more open-source code. It may be time to stop talking about open-source companies and get back to the importance of open-source code.

Open source is increasingly the foundation upon which software and Web companies depend. MySpace made waves on Tuesday by open sourcing Qizmt, a distributed computation framework (running on Windows Server, intriguingly) that currently powers MySpace's "People you may know" feature. But MySpace, as VentureBeat notes, was simply playing catch-up to Facebook's recent open sourcing of Tornado.

Neither move is an attempt to score brownie points with the "in" crowd. Both moves are motivated by self-interest, self-interest that increasingly requires inviting developer communities to embrace and extend one's Web services/software through open source.

It's also a way to improve software quality. By embracing open-source projects as a foundation for a company's software, and then extending it through its own open-source projects, the collective quality of open source is strong and growing, as Accenture's Kit Plummer notes.

It's this enlightened self-interest and the quality is engenders that has turned open source into essential infrastructure for virtually all commercial software, and which means Red Hat and other pure-play open-source companies are no longer the center of the open-source universe.

The Linux kernel is comprised of 11.5 million lines of code, of which Red Hat is responsible for roughly 12 percent (measured in terms of lines of code changed). Even if we add in JBoss Application Server (another 2 million lines of code or so) and other Red Hat projects, we're still left with far less open-source code from Red Hat than from others.

Take Sun, for example. Sun is the primary developer behind Java (more than 6.5 million lines of code), Solaris (over 2 million lines of code), OpenOffice (approximately 10 million lines of code), and other open-source projects.

Or IBM, with 12.5 million lines of code contributed to Eclipse alone, not to mention Linux (6.3 percent of total contributions), Geronimo, and a wide variety of other open-source projects.

Google, however, is the most interesting company of all, as it's not a software company, per se. I asked Chris DiBona, Google's open source and public sector program manager, about Google's open-source contributions. His response:

Conservatively, we've released about 14 million lines of code. Android tops 10 million lines of code, and then you have Chrome (2 million lines of code), GWT (300,000 lines of code), and about a project released every week over the last five years. Then you have a couple hundred Googlers patching on a weekly or monthly basis.

While DiBona was quick to suggest that Google doesn't claim the crown for Open Source Top Contributor ("We'd say we're 'among' the largest [contributors]"), it almost certainly is the world's largest open-source code contributor, especially when one considers its other open-source activities, including hosting perhaps the world's largest repository for open-source projects, with more than 250,000 hosted projects, at least 40,000 of which are actively contributed, not to mention its Summer of Code. After all, lines of code, while useful, is not necessarily the best measure of the value of open-source contributions.

In fact, Patrick Finch of the Mozilla Foundation speculates that Google's best open-source contribution may have nothing to do with writing new code at all:

Google's biggest contribution to open source is arguably not code, but proving that you can scale Linux on whitebox hardware.

It's a great point, and one that underscores the fact that the "open-source company" distinction is somewhat useless. Google doesn't call itself an open-source company, and rightly so. Open source is simply part of its strategy for distributing software that will help it sell more advertising.

Sun attempted to turn itself into an open-source company, but once Oracle completes its acquisition of Sun, Oracle certainly won't take on that label. Not because it's a bad label, but because it's simply not a useful one anymore.

We are all open-source companies now. Which also means that none of us are. Open source is simply a way that we enable some aspect of our businesses, whether we're Red Hat or Microsoft or Google or Facebook.

And given that Web companies like Google don't need to directly monetize open source, we may actually see far more open-source code emerge from these Web companies than we ever have or ever will from traditional "open-source software companies" like Red Hat, MySQL, or Pentaho.