Linux is a rare sight outside the technology industry but most computer users unknowingly use open source software every day, whenever they surf the net.

The open source Apache web server has been the dominant system for hosting internet sites for almost a decade. Almost 70 per cent of internet domains run Apache, which is more than 48m websites, according to research company Netcraft.

It has maintained its position in a valuable market against sustained competition from Microsoft and Sun, giving it a good claim to be the most successful open source (OS) project to date.

In doing so, Apache has also developed from a coalition of volunteers into a formalised body, the Apache Software Foundation, with thousands of participants.

It has extended beyond its flagship web server to launch hundreds of projects, including much of the unseen infrastructure that makes many internet applications possible, such as the widely used Jakarta Tomcat java web server.

Typically deployed on servers running Linux, Apache can run on most server systems, including Windows. Together with the MySQL database and one of three scripting languages, Perl, Python, and PHP, it makes up the suite of OS server applications known as the Lamp stack.

The web server owes its success not just to lower cost, but also the fact many of its supporters believe it is a better product.

Germany-based 1&1 Internet, one of Europe’s largest web hosts, has been using Apache on Linux since 1996.

Achim Weiss, chief technology officer, says: “There are more features integrated into Apache. Innovations using Apache are faster to come to market, and it is currently more efficient in usage and maintenance.”

Microsoft now claims to be competitive on overall cost, but Apache’s market share is nonetheless close to an all-time high. All this has been achieved by an organisation whose spending on software development is nil. The ASF accepts donations, but they are spent on administration.

Members communicate through electronic mailing lists and public collaboration pages known as “wikis”. Its governance structure is often described as meritocratic, as anyone can join and work their way up.

New members can contribute bug fixes and suggest new features. Once volunteers have a track record of high quality contributions, they can be promoted to the status of “committer”, with access to the source code of their project. They can then be elected to the management committee of a project, or even the board of directors for the Foundation.

It’s a model widely copied across the OS world. “That is how all the Apache projects are managed, and it is true for many, many projects that are not Apache foundation projects,” says Mr Goulde.

The collaboration model is used within some organisations, including IBM, which runs its own ”open source” projects internally, where employees in different parts of the company work together on projects that will benefit all.

The ASF is notable for its close collaboration with the likes of IBM and Sun, many of whom often donate software and other resources.

The ASF is sometimes charged with being too close to vendors, and the vendors in turn are often accused of using the ASF to squash competition and pursue their own interests.

Much controversy also surrounds Apache’s licensing model. Many other OS projects are licensed under the GPL (general public licence), which obliges any modified software to be returned to the OS community.

But in some circumstances, it is impossible to release it back – for example, where a company wants to combine OS software with proprietary software belonging to someone else. So Apache licences do not oblige companies to republish changes to the code.

Such debates are common in the technology industry, and the OS world in particular. Few, however, would dispute that the influence of the ASF has been enormous. If ever there was any doubt that OS was a viable model for developing software, the 10 year history of Apache disproves it.

Amid all the hype about Linux, the rest of the diverse world of OS projects tends to get overlooked. But in spite of their low profiles, their effect on the world of computing is just as significant.

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