F#, .NET and the Open Source situation


If you read my (generally sporadic) blog postings, you’ll know that in general I write about either F# and / or Azure, usually from a programmatic point-of-view. How easy is it to reason about a certain thing? How quickly can we make use of some Azure service from F#? And so on. In this post, as part of the annual F# Advent calendar, I want to switch focus and instead discuss an increasingly important areas of software development that I’ve been exposed to as part of my learning and adopting of F# – that of open source software development.

Disclaimer: There have been a number of debates on Twitter and GitHub regarding open source within the context of several Microsoft-led projects over the past few weeks. This post is not a response to those issues; this post was in fact authored in early November, well before any of these debates had been initiated.

The distinction between .NET communities

Coming from someone who has been a .NET developer almost exclusively throughout my career (aside from a brief stint with C++ and the obligatory various web and database languages that you get dragged into), one of the elements of working in F# that you can’t really ignore is the community involvement that permeates through just about everything that happens in and around F#, from the development of the language to key packages that are developed, through community meetups and user-groups, through to the tooling that is used on both “classic” .NET and Mono / CoreCLR stacks. Before I started working with F#, I had very little experience of open source development or tools etc. Thankfully, I’ve found the community to be extremely open, friendly, and always happy to help out others, as well as to continually improve the state of software development in F#. So if there’s a lack of tooling available for a specific purpose, or a tool that doesn’t quite do what is needed, the mentality in the F# community is to improve the existing tooling if possible, and where not, simply write a new tool from scratch.

This is a very different mentality in the rest of the .NET community, where we are by and large reliant on what Microsoft serves up both in terms of tooling, libraries and frameworks. This is not necessarily a failing of either the community or Microsoft – it’s just the way it is, and it’s something that has been fostered over the years by both parties. This model is slowly changing, and there are some popular OSS projects out there – JSON .NET being an example of something that is owned by the open source community and Microsoft themselves now use. Other examples of open source software within the .NET community include EventStore and Nancy. However, generally the average .NET developer is content to accept the pace of change, and direction, that Microsoft sets. This has historically not necessarily been a bad thing, but with the increasing rate of change of programming languages, frameworks and tools, it’s hard to see that remaining a successful model.

Misunderstanding the F# community

I think that these two different mindsets have (somewhat unfairly) earned the F# community a reputation of being somewhat disruptive and of not “going with the flow”. It’s true that some F# projects (notably type providers) are not compatible with C# and VB .NET. Yet it’s often forgotten (or not even known) that many open source projects that happen to have been written in F# work perfectly well in C# and VB (and often are explicitly designed with that in mind). Some examples include: –

  • Paket – a dependency manager designed to work well with NuGet packages and GitHub repositories
  • Fake – a build automation system using a DSL built in F#
  • FSCheck – a property-based testing framework based on Haskell’s QuickCheck
  • Project Scaffold – a build template with everything needed for successful organisation of code, tools and publishing.

It’s sometimes disappointing to hear well-known people throughout the .NET and Microsoft community often misconstrue projects like these as somehow to only be of use to F# users.

At the same time, there is an element of smugness and / or superiority that sometimes permeates from some corners of the F# community, which I think isn’t all that helpful. To an extent though, rather been being an essentially negative act, this is caused by the enthusiasm of the community and its desire to improve the state of software development within .NET, and perhaps also by the frustration caused by some of the misunderstandings and FUD about F# in the public domain e.g. it’s only for maths people, it’s too hard to learn, it’s not of use in line-of-business applications etc..

Defining open source software

I’d like to discuss a little about open source software now. Frankly, I would not consider myself an expert in defining what open source really is, but having now spent a few years now in the F# community contributing to a few different projects, I certainly have a better idea than I used to, and do feel qualified to at least put down some opinions. I’m taking a leap of faith here that my experiences in F# open source projects reflects positively on open source as a whole, because despite any  criticisms that can be leveled at the F# community and ecosystem, it really has a fantastic approach to open source, collaborative software development that can be learned from. Here are some points of interest – and misconceptions – that I’ve observed from looking at a number of projects across the .NET community, both in and outside of the F# community.

GitHub

GitHub is a great site, and has become the de-facto repository site for most F# open projects, as well as even Microsoft’s attempts to move into the open source world. However, creating a code repository on GitHub (or moving an existing code repository from CodePlex to GitHub) does not instantly make a project “open source”. I’ll say that again, because it’s worth making a point of this. Just the act of putting some code on GitHub does not mean it is an open source project. If it were, it’d be easy to make a project open-source. However, I’ve learned that working on truly open source software is much more than simply making the repository public for everyone to look at.

Cross Platform .NET

I also see this mention of “open source” as somehow being a catch-all term for software developed for Mac and Linux (particularly from some Microsoft quarters). This is a mistake. It suggests that software that is developed on (or for) Windows doesn’t need to be open source, or is somehow different in terms of how software is developed. It’s great that Microsoft are moving to a more open model, and adopting CoreCLR for running .NET code cross platform – but, again, just making software run on Mac and / or Linux does not immediately elevate a project to being successfully “open source”.

Sharing is Caring

But the biggest challenge I see in creating a successful open source project is to adopt a truly collaborative, pro-active approach to software development. This means being genuinely interested in external feedback on your project – even if it’s not what you want to hear. It means encouraging people to submit pull requests. It might also mean giving up complete ownership of the project where you might not agree with every feature proposed by the community on the project, or feel comfortable with strangers submitting PRs to your project written in a different coding style to what you are used to. It also means getting feedback in at an early a stage as possible – ideally at the planning stage of any feature – and accepting help from the community in shaping the design and implementation of said feature. This is not the same as working on a project for several months, releasing it to the public in GitHub, and then getting feedback on it retrospectively.

It’s only through adopting a really open, collaborative approach to software that you can have a cycle of < 48 hours from someone submitting a feature request, to several people giving feedback on the feature, to someone implementing it.

Microsoft, .NET and Open Source

Obviously, Microsoft have taken a big step in the large year or so to try to adopt “open source” development processes. This is to be applauded. But they’re not there yet, and there is some evidence which lead me to believe that it will take them a while to truly get open source – but they are trying. Some of the teams seem to have gotten the idea of getting feedback early e.g. the C# compiler team. Ironically, a mature programming language like C# is one type of project that you probably need more control and direction over than e.g. a library, where the barrier to entry is much lower. Conversely, there are also a number of teams at Microsoft developing frameworks and libraries that are ostensibly open source, yet I’m really not seeing that much in the way of a collaborative mentality except for the superficial steps of putting a repository onto GitHub and asking feedback after a period of time spent developing in isolation. Releases and features and still managed with a reactive rather than proactive mentality. PRs from non-Microsoft team members are few and far between. Direction in many of these projects is controlled almost entirely by Microsoft. In short, the general open source community aren’t yet empowered to contribute to these projects in a way that I would like to see.

Conclusion

An important element of the distinction between the F# community and the rest of .NET is likely due to the differences in terms of investment in both F# and C#/VB.NET stacks by Microsoft – the fact that F# has been forced to stand on its own feet has helped it mature extremely quickly. In addition, it should be mentioned that there have been a number of key individuals within the F# community who have helped both grow and nurture the community – I’m not sure just how F# would be looking  today without them. Ultimately, what we do have today with F# is a growing global community, and an ecosystem of tools and libraries which takes the best of existing .NET packages combined with others that harness the power of F# as well. It’s a community which includes the Microsoft Visual F# team as a valued member, rather than a all-controlling entity, and a community  which – whilst still growing and evolving – is open, confident and in control of its own destiny.

Thanks to the community for showing me all of this over the past few years, and allowing me contribute towards a fun, vibrant and growing ecosystem. If you want to learn about open source projects, and secondly about F# in general, you could do a lot worse than look at some of the up-for-grabs issues of the projects on http://fsprojects.github.io/.

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