Stimulating Open Source development using competitions

by Rick Jelliffe

Last week on XML-DEV I suggested that there should be a competition with prize money to stimulate development of faster XML parsers suitable for high transaction work. Elliotte Harold even quoted my (not original) Open Source is not a free lunch, it is stone soup.

There are examples of industry consortia sponsoring such development: the OpenMP implementation contest for example. And groups such as OSDL offer fellowships to make sure strategic software is maintained.

At the tail of this discussion, Robin Berjon of the W3C Efficient XML Interchange WG announced a competition for a fast XML parser. His WG wants to find the fastest XML parser in order to have some benchmark to see whether the non-XML (but XML infoset carrying and XML API interfaceable) binary formats being considered deliver enough improvement to be worthwhile.

This is exactly the right kind of initiative from the W3C. It addresses my hobbyhorse that current Open Source parsers have not been written for raw speed (in fact, I see from Perl benchmarks that they get a 30 to 1 performance difference on different parsers and interfaces) and many have not benefitted from recent advances in optimizations (it is both sad and a tribute to James Clark that expat, about the first XML parser, is still about the fastest Open Source XML parser for some document types), for example my technique for scanning with SSE on x86. Not being written for speed, the relative performance of optimized binary formats is mercurial.

However, I don't know if it will work. There needs to be money involved. It is unreasonable to expect someone of the quality of, say, SAXON's Michael Kay to work without either support or the chance of reward. The software strategists and information architects at banks, Fortune 500s, governments, militaries and other consortia who use Open Source software should consider the benefit in time, timeliness, cost, ROI, efficiency, lower hardware outlay, etc. that, say, a 50% speed up in XML parsing time would cause: is this worth contributing to, say, a prize equal to two week's salary of a good programmer? (say US$4000) That's one hundred bucks each, if sharing in this with the other 40 members of your consortium?

I see it as a no-brainer, myself. Institutional users of Open Source softwre have a great opporitunity to guide development in ways that suit their organization: to encourage real product and open research that can also potentially feedback into even proprietary parsers.

I think the current top two strategic investments for encouraging higher-transaction rates in Open Source XML software would be first for some group to offer a prize to join the W3C Efficient XML Interchange competition (perhaps with a longer deadline), and second for people who use Michael Kay's SAXON software to take out corporate licenses (Michael uses the higher-end product licenses to support work on the lower-end Open Source product.)


Jeff Rafter
2006-04-12 08:37:45
Hi Rick,

For XML Parsers the higher rewards may be necessary. But the idea of competitions for open source can also be used on microprojects. For example, take a look at this call for better RSS integration in Thunderbird: