With its collaborative and inclusive nature, open-source is rapidly developing and evolving. This kind of software is constantly being improved and updated with new features and functionalities, based on a large and active community of developers continually contributing to open-source projects.

The rapid growth of open-source is also a testament to its effectiveness and the increasing recognition of its benefits by individuals and organizations around the world. During Singapore Fintech Festival last week, TNGlobal spoke with Mr. Wang Xu, Vice Chairman of the Open-Source Technology Committee at Ant Group, aiming to explore the underlying motivations of Ant Group’s commitment to the open-source community, the expected outcomes of such initiatives, the balance between open-source contribution and proprietary business interests, and the cultural shifts that come with embracing open-source in a corporate environment.

Mr. Wang Xu, Vice Chairman of the Open-Source Technology Committee at Ant Group

Can you elaborate on the strategic importance of open-source technology to Ant Group, particularly in the context of FinTech?

Open-source is one of the core technology strategies of Ant Group. Beginning from day one, the business model of Ant Group has always been based on “trust”. People use the Alipay app because they trust it to handle financial transactions. And our technology stack has always been a core factor to enable that trust. Letting people see and explore more about the technical infrastructure supporting our businesses via open-source initiatives, is one of the most effective ways to build trust with our customers and partners, tech-savvy users, and the developer community.

Also, we believe in being “open” and “inclusive”, and these are also fundamental success factors of our business, in line with the spirit of open-source community. Making our technologies available for the community is an effective way to facilitate the development of ecosystems and help the growth of our customers and partners in a sustainable way.

How does Ant Group evaluate the impact of open-sourcing its technologies, such as Kata Containers, OceanBase, and SOFAStack, on the broader technology ecosystem?

First, open-sourcing our technical projects essentially makes them alive and long-lasting. Through open sourcing, there will be a broader developer community working on a certain technology stack, and its ecosystem can be more prosperous.

I would also like to share my personal story on building an ecosystem around Kata Containers project. Before we co-launched Kata Containers (a project hosted in OpenInfra Foundation), the “secure container” was not a well-known concept. However, in just one year after the project was launched, two major companies in this area quickly open-sourced two more secure container projects with a similar concept. This resulted in a quick adoption of secure containers as a concept in cloud-native developer communities and many research papers being published in this technical area. Open-source Kata from day one accelerated the advancement of secure containers and subsequently boosted the prosperity of the cloud-native ecosystem.

Furthermore, open-sourcing technical projects reduce the barrier of POC (Proof of Concept) and can improve the adoption of the technology by other companies. For example, through open-sourcing, the SOFAStack project, a distributed service framework, has been used not only by Ant Group, but also adopted by many other companies.

Last but not least, participating in open-source is the best way for developers to get familiar with and then become proficient in a technological ecosystem. For example, with an open-sourced distributed SQL database like OceanBase, it is much easier for students to learn the design and implementation of a sophisticated database system. So, working in open-source is the best way to learn a new technology.

What are the motivations for commercial companies to engage in open-source? Can you provide specific examples of how Ant Group has experienced benefits through its open-source initiatives?

For a commercial company, there can be several reasons to engage in open-source:

  1. Better engineering quality: Participating in open-source allows you to work and collaborate with the community and receive valuable expertise and advices from other developers. Such a development model allows technical issues to be discussed in public, henceforth results in better long-term engineering decisions and more secure and reliable design in the long run.
  2. Accelerating technology adoption: The establishment of a developer community around a certain project will greatly accelerate the adoption of a new technology, especially technologies in the very early stage, like privacy computing.
  3. Build long-term trust: Partners will be less concerned about using a technology because they would have at least the last good version, especially if the community is thriving and active.

As mentioned previously, through open-sourcing, Kata Containers received so many good quality technical contributions from developers in the cloud-native community. As a result of deploying Kata Containers and other technologies for isolated heterogeneous workloads, Ant Group was able to significantly reduce CO2 emissions in the past year, and Kata Containers was also awarded the OpenInfra Super-User award. The achievement would not have been possible without the contribution of the developer community.

Trust is a fundamental aspect of financial services. How does Ant Group measure or assess the increase in trust that results from its open-source contributions?

On one hand, open-source makes developers and other technical talents more familiar with our technology stack and R&D activities, so that they know and engage with Ant Group better. We see this as a kind of trust built by open-source.

On the other hand, if an open-source project is made available through commercialized products (e.g., SOFAStack), a high-quality open-source community will bring trust across potential customers and partners, and reduce the barrier to adoption.

Openness can lead to a collective ownership model of technology. How does this model influence Ant Group’s relationships with its partners and competitors?

It is true that the partners and competitors may become co-authors in many open-source projects. We firmly believe that true openness would lead to a more thrived ecosystem which could benefit both our company and partners/competitors alike. In this progress, we might have more in-depth knowledge of a project and develop dedicated in-house use cases, while other developers may develop their own use cases.

For Ant Group, we are committed to the openness of the project we open-sourced and provide our unique value-added service to the community. Making open-source projects to be more community-friendly is a part of my team’s job.

Given that the Developer Innovation Camp showcased open-source projects in an interactive and engaging manner, can you discuss how Ant Group ensures that open-source projects remain approachable and engaging for developers over time?

First, it is a keen observation that open-source projects do have shelf-life. Projects got archived over time because the maintainers lost interest, or simply the technology stack became obsolete. So, we understand why people are concerned about it.

Interactive and engagement operational stimuli are good ways to keep people active, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient. We believe people come to open-source projects because they offer unique value propositions to a technical challenge, and does so in an engineeringly excellent and easy-to-use manner. What we actually need to do to increase the shelf-life of our project, make sure a project stays that way. 3 possible “cancers” which might affect a project are:

  1. The project gets bulky overtime and its value proposition is no longer sharp and attractive enough.
  2. The community becomes inactive or toxic due to a lack of participation, or a lack of governance.
  3. The steering community steered the project in the wrong direction and developers decided to either stay on a fork or finding an alternative project that could be fundamentally better.

We solve these 3 issues by:

  1. Helping the project teams to keep the documents and open roadmap tidy and sharp, and keep running education content so people would follow the  principle;
  2. Solving the inactive communities by preventing projects that are not meant to last long from open-sourcing on day 1. Ant group runs TOC review for every single project the company decides to open-source.
  3. Promoting upstream first philosophy, and using the same repo for internal and external development.

Not every project has a strong business atmosphere. Given that there is also a cultural and community aspect to open source, how does Ant Group foster a culture that supports open-source ideals internally and in its interactions with the community?

First of all, this is a hard problem to solve. Building good open-source projects is not easy, but fostering open-source talents is intrinsically harder.

In this regard, there are two principles we are abiding by:

  1. Embracing open-source is good for our developers’ growth and technical reputation;
  2. Embracing the engineering culture of open-source by making steadier, adaptive, and anti-fragile engineering decisions.

We conduct the operation by designing different programs for engineers at different levels with different roles:

  1. We build an open-source club with many technical leaders, collecting their common questions/issues, and resolving them through external speakers or internal workshops;
  2. We developed a new technical education product called “lightweight coding camp”, which is tailed for young engineers and new hires who are not working on open-source projects in their day-to-day life, but are super interested in them;
  3. For teams who recently open-sourced their project, we designed and implemented immersive workshops in which team members can learn open-source development 101s and have an overview on the project and community through analytics.

Finally, can you discuss any challenges Ant Group has faced while transitioning or maintaining parts of its technology stack as open source, and how it has overcome them?

There are many technical challenges to adopting open-source stacks in a commercial company. One of them is the incoherent timeline between open-source releases and internal feature releases. Developing in a corporation requires the team to work against a tight deadline. However, community-driven development can be consensus-based and they can run really slowly. It could easily result in forked projects.

Our practice is to submit the design or interface changes to the community as early as possible and complete the negotiation and trade-off before we have an internal workable implementation. This could minimize the future cost even if we have to migrate to a modified implementation.

Second, it would be extremely hard for projects to stay active if there are some major attritions of key developers.

We solve this issue by making the open-source decision “harder” so people can take it more seriously. The open-source technical committee runs a bi-monthly meeting that reviews all new open-source applications. We would stop open-source project applications which are not goal-centric, not long-term oriented, or the team has no interest in learning the proper way of doing open-source.