The 10 Most Important Open Source Projects of 2011

Well, here we are, another year almost done for. Time to look back and take stock of the year that was. You know what? It turns out that 2011 was a banner year for open source projects. So much so, that picking the 10 most important was pretty difficult.
So what do I mean by “important,” anyway? Clearly, it’s not just projects that are widely used. That list would be just too long to even contemplate. You’d have to include Apache, GCC,, Debian, Fedora, openSUSE, Linux Mint, not to mention a bazillion and one libraries and utilities that we depend on every day.
So to judge importance, I looked at projects that are influential, gaining in popularity, and/or technical standouts in new areas. In other words, projects that are even more noteworthy than the other noteworthy projects. This means that many projects that are crucial didn’t make the list. And now, in no particular order, the 10 most important projects of 2011.


Hadoop Logo

Hadoop Logo

Without a doubt, Hadoop has had a fantastic year. The distributed computing platform from Apache has seen massive uptake and industry support.

Hadoop is being used and/or supported by almost every enterprise player. Naturally it’s big with Yahoo, the company that started the project, but it’s also being used by Amazon, IBM, Twitter, Facebook, and just about any other company that’s working with Big Data.
Hadoop isn’t new, of course, but this year it really seemed to take off as an industry standard. Kind of like Linux, when you think about it… This year EMC, Oracle, and even Microsoft announced commercial support or products that work with Hadoop, and Yahoo spun off HortonWorks to focus on Hadoop. It’s almost easier to name companies that aren’t working with Hadoop than ones that are.


Speaking of ubiquity, how about that Git, huh? Linus Torvalds other little hobby project has not only done good for Linux, but it’s hugely popular for FOSS projects. If you’re working on a new open source project, the odds are pretty good that you’re going to be using Git over any other distributed version control system (DVCS).
Git isn’t just a popular tool, it’s the foundation of one of the most popular gathering spots around the Web for open source development: GitHub. It’s also being used and offered by Gitorious,, Google Code Hosting, and pretty much every other major platform for hosting FOSS projects.


Was 2011 the peak of noSQL as a buzzword, or was that 2010? It’s so hard to keep track, but Apache Cassandra deserves a slot in the top 10 this year buzzword or no.
If you’re not familiar with Cassandra, it’s a scalable, distributed, and fault-tolerant database that takes cues from Amazon’s Dynamo (PDF) and Google’s BigTable database system.
Cassandra has been adopted by an impressive list of users including IBM, Netflix, Digg, Facebook, Rackspace, and many others.


The LibreOffice team has done a great job of keeping the torch burning after the Sun acquisition. While Apache is working to continue, LibreOffice picked up the ball and ran with it. The project has delivered release after release, not only with a slew of new features but also with reliable updates for major versions that are exactly what organizations that depend on an office suite need.
For anybody that’s interested in running Linux on the desktop, LibreOffice has been a crucial project. For users who want to get away from Microsoft Office, but still have compatibility with Office file formats, LibreOffice has been there for them.
Not only has LibreOffice done well technically, it’s also moved forward with impressive speed as an organization. 2012 should be an interesting year for the open source office suite.


Few projects have taken off quite like OpenStack. The “cloud operating system” kicked off by RackSpace has signed up (at this count) 144 companies to work on OpenStack, including SUSE and Canonical.
OpenStack is designed to provide the components that any organization would need to use to deploy their own private or public cloud: Compute, object storage, image service, and (newer) identity management and a GUI dashboard.
Now, you’re not going to see much OpenStack in deployment yet — but it’s definitely a project to watch for open source cloud.
An honorary mention goes to Eucalyptus, though. While OpenStack has oodles of momentum and industry support, Eucalyptus has production deployments and Amazon Web Services compatibility. This is not an area where it’s a “zero sum” game — there’s room for several players, and I suspect that Eucalyptus will be around for a very long time as well.


Apache (more accurately, the Apache HTTP Server Project) still rules the Web with an iron fist. OK, it’s more like a velvet glove, but Apache is definitely far and away the most popular Web server. But 2011 was a huge year for Nginx, an alternative Web server that excels at HTTP and reverse proxy serving.
Nginx reached a lifetime peak of 8.85% market share this year on the Netcraft Server Survey. According to this profile on Royal Pingdom, the usage for Nginx has jumped nearly 300%.
The little server that could reached another major milestone this year as well. Specifically, Nginx went corporate and started offering commercial support.
It’s being used by some of the biggest sites in the world, including Dropbox,, Facebook, and about 25% of the world’s busiest sites.


You can’t swing a cat these days without hitting a Web developer using jQuery. Not that you should go around swinging cats, of course. jQuery is a JavaScript library that’s massively popular. In fact, it’sconsidered the most widely used JavaScript library in the world.
If you’re working with JavaScript, you’ve probably touched on jQuery this year. As of late, it’s come into criticism and some folks have tried to slim it down, but jQuery is still the go-to for many developers.


Another JavaScript entry for the top 10, you’d almost think that Web development was important this year or something. Node.js is built on Google’s V8 JavaScript engine and is designed to be “an easy way to build scalable network programs.”
Node.js is another big win for open source industry acceptance – sponsored by Joyent, it has a healthy community of contributors and is used by everybody from LinkedIn to 37Signals, Rdio, Yahoo, and GitHub.


Another set of watch-words for 2011? DevOps, and IT automation. While there are a number of excellent open source IT automation offerings out there, this year belonged to Puppet.
Puppet is an “automated administrative engine” primarily aimed at Linux and UNIX-like systems. It can be used to perform administrative tasks across two, twenty, or two thousand computers. (Probably even more.) Puppet has been steadily growing and improving for years, but this year Puppet went after the enterprise big time with its Puppet Enterprise offering. It’s also gotten a big vote of confidence in the form of an investment from Google Ventures, Cisco, and VMware. Puppet hasn’t just been important in 2011, expect it to be big in 2012, too. (And if you’re a system administrator hunting for work, you probably want Puppet on your resume along with our next entry.)


Linux, the kernel, has had a pretty good year. What am I talking about? Linux had a great year. It turned 20, hit 3.0 (not coincidentally) and continued merrily on the path to world domination.
Sure, we kid about world domination – but have you looked around lately? Linux is everywhere. It’s powering phones and all kinds of embedded devices. It’s the bedrock of cloud services, and dominates the TOP500 supercomputer list.
Google, Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, countless government agencies, businesses, and educational institutions depend on Linux for mission-critical services. The long and short of it is, without Linux, many of the other projects we depend on simply wouldn’t have been possible. It’s the rock-solid foundation that people use to build so many important services. (And not-so-important, too.)

No Android?

While I was compiling this list, I thought hard about putting Android on. It’s hard to argue that Android is unimportant in 2011, isn’t it? Absolutely. It’s also, unfortunately, hard to make a strong case for Android as an open source project.
Sure, Google lobs some source over the wall when it gets around to it – but Android development happens mostly behind closed doors. There’s little opportunity for the millions of Android fans and potential hackers around the world to influence Android development unless they happen to work for Google or one of its partner companies.
It’s great that Google releases the code, but it’s more of a “source open” project than an open source project.

All the Rest

As I said, there’s just not room for every open source project that’s important to somebody. But maybe I missed a project that had a stand-out 2011? If you have a project that qualifies, let us know in the comments. And while you’re at it, what do you think for 2012? What projects will be most important then?