Structure of an Open Source Project

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Structure of an Open Source Project

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Open source projects are a cornerstone of the digital world, providing powerful tools, frameworks, and platforms. Yet, they’re more than just code; they're living communities of contributors and users. To grasp the essence of an Open source project, we must understand its dynamics.

But first, let's understand how contributions are made because that typically shapes the structure of the project.

How Contributions Are Made

  • Push and Pull: Unlike traditional development, where changes are pushed, Open-source projects often rely on a "pull" model. Maintainers review these "pull requests" to decide if they should be merged.

  • The Power of Forking: Contributors can "fork" or create their own versions of projects, enabling experimentation without impacting the main project.

  • The Challenge of "Drive-By" Contributions: These one-off contributions can be beneficial but also present challenges in terms of quality and integration.

Where Interactions Take Place

  • Platform-Based Interaction: Platforms like GitHub provide a centralized space for project management, discussions, and contributions.

  • External Platforms: Forums, mailing lists, and chat apps offer more spaces for in-depth discussions and support.

  • Physical Gatherings: Conferences, meet-ups, and sprints provide opportunities for face-to-face interactions and collaboration.

Introduction to Open Source Dynamics

Open source projects aren't static. They evolve based on user demands, technological shifts, and the dynamics of the contributing community. Early-stage projects can transition from being small clubs to expansive federations as they mature. Recognizing these shifts is crucial for project sustainability.

Here, we'll delve into the four distinct models that describe these projects and explore their dynamics.

1. Federations

Essence*:* High contributor growth and high user growth.

Example: Linux.


  • Diverse groups work on different parts of the project.

  • Maintainers distribute ownership, encouraging wider participation.

  • Focus on managing major change proposals effectively.

  • Risks of bottlenecks due to a single point of failure.

Strategies for Success: Experiment with liberal contribution policies to spread ownership.

2. Clubs

Essence: High contributor growth, but low user growth.

Examples: Astropy (a package for astronomy in Python), languages like Clojure, Haskell, and Erlang.


  • Clubs cater to a specific niche, leading to a close-knit community.

  • Users are likely to become contributors due to shared interests.

  • A project’s survival hinges on a passionate community, even if it's small.

Strategies for Success*:* Be "sticky" by retaining contributors and ensuring newcomers replace the fading regulars.

3. Toys

Essence: Low contributor and user growth.

Examples: ssh-chat by Andrey Petrov, many projects on GitHub with fewer than ten stars.


  • Often, personal projects without expectations of major contributions.

  • Mostly developed for fun or experimentation.

Strategies for Success: Allow the project to grow organically, potentially moving to another category over time.

All the great Open source projects started as a toy😊

4. Stadiums

Essence: Low contributor growth but high user growth.

Examples: Webpack, Babel, Bundler, RSpec.


  • Driven by a handful of developers but widely used.

  • Centralized structure, with key decisions made by one or a few.

  • Often risk becoming overwhelmed due to their popularity.

Strategies for Success:

  • Use automation and lean heavily on distributed user-to-user support.

  • Focus on managing user demand efficiently.

Projects can move between different models based on changing dynamics. Adjusting contribution policies or reducing technical scope can push projects from one category to another.

Decentralized vs. Centralized Communities

Decentralized communities like clubs and federations focus on high-contributor growth, emphasizing recruitment and reduced friction.

Centralized ones, like stadiums, require effective attention management and often depend on platforms for support.


For new contributors venturing into the realm of open source, understanding these dynamics is invaluable. It’s not just about writing code, but about becoming part of a thriving community. By grasping these nuances, you can navigate these projects more effectively, make meaningful contributions, and establish lasting connections with fellow enthusiasts.

Additional Resources