Open source: a slow rise to the top

There was a time when open source technology was ignored, if not distrusted, in the enterprise. Not anymore. Now it's the technology the C-suite turns to first. Not only is it more cost-effective, it's also where the cutting-edge breakthroughs are happening.

Larry Claasen
By Larry Claasen
Johannesburg, 06 Dec 2018
Riedwaan Bassadien, open source lead, Microsoft South Africa.
Riedwaan Bassadien, open source lead, Microsoft South Africa.

Is the debate over? Are we no longer fighting over open source versus proprietary software?

Thomas Lee, CEO, Wingu: If we look inside our customer base, we are seeing widespread adoption of open source technology. But I think it's also clear that proprietary is not going away. I've seen a company recently take out all its open source software in favour of proprietary. Clearly, the debate isn't going away.

Wilhelm Strydom, relationship manager, Obsidian Systems: Is there room for proprietary stuff? Clearly there is if you look at the success of the most proprietary vendors out there, in terms of not only software, but hardware as well.

But if you talk back-end, what happens behind that interface, I don't think there's much of a battle going on. The battle has mostly been won by open source. This can be seen in some of the proprietary guys adopting open source principals. In this respect, open source has clearly been the winner.

Matthew Lee, cloud and strategic alliances manager, SUSE: If you teared your software layers, from an infrastructure perspective, then open source has definitely won the battle. There are still a lot of proprietary applications out there, but they are being delivered on open source or are even built on open source.

Riedwaan Bassadien, open source lead, Microsoft South Africa: What we are seeing is a plethora of new startups and the like using Linux. Looking at this, it's undeniable if you are a proprietary company, or if you are completely open source, you are going to be using open source to develop things. Even at Microsoft, in Azure cloud, you would be surprised at how many of the Azure cloud services were developed with Linux technologies.

If open source is in such widespread use, why don't we see it on more PCs?

Wilhelm Strydom, Obsidian Systems: This might have something to do with what proprietary does bring to the table. It brings a bit of personality. It's a reflection of the group of people working on that technology.

Wilhelm Strydom, relationship manager, Obsidian Systems.
Wilhelm Strydom, relationship manager, Obsidian Systems.

However, this doesn't mean Linux isn't a feasible option. But when you are working with desktop users, you are probably dealing with people who are set in their ways, and like to do things in the way that they know. So, yes, uptake in terms of desktop users is the one place where Linux is lacking.

Thomas Lee, Wingu: If you look at our technical team, everyone runs Linux on their laptops. This is by choice. We don't enforce it. It's nevertheless now starting to permeate the rest of the company. We never expect this to happen in our business.

Riedwaan Bassadien, Microsoft South Africa: As we see new generations come into the workplace, we will see more acceptance of different types of technologies. You will have people with no preconceived experience, so you could see further adoption on the desktop.

So we won't need a marketing drive to get more people to try open source software on the desktop?

Stefan Lesicnik, lead, EOH OPEN: With containers - applications stored in a way that keeps them isolated from the host system that they run on - you can effectively run anything, so it's becoming less about what your desktop environment is about.

For me, it's not an issue. It comes down to what you are comfortable with.

We are seeing young developers using all that's available to them. To my mind, as long as they can be productive, it really doesn't matter.

No one is there to buy tech for tech reasons.

Matthew Lee, SUSE

Is there any resistance in the C-suite to open source?

Matthew Lee, SUSE: I don't think there's any resistance with the customers with whom we are engaging. It's actually an open source-first strategy.

Stefan Lesicnik, EOH OPEN: Open source is where the innovation is happening. The tools that have been created around containerisation have led to modern architectures like micro-services, where all the modern ways of working and thinking are.

We are seeing customers from both ends embracing it. The C-suite likes it for its strategic nature, and the developers like it because it's on the cutting edge.

Matthew Lee, cloud and strategic alliances manager, SUSE.
Matthew Lee, cloud and strategic alliances manager, SUSE.

These two worlds are starting to merge. Before, the C-suite was oblivious to how much open source was already in the business, but now it's become more strategic to them as well.

Thomas Lee, Wingu: The biggest challenge for the C-suite was how to go about monetising something that was effectively free. This is the difference in the discussion around open source. It's now about understanding where the revenue will be derived from it.

Matthew Lee, SUSE: No one is there to buy tech for tech reasons. Technology is there to provide a solution to the actual initiative, which is companies needing to be smarter, faster, and more agile.

The solutions and the tech providing this are typically open source products. You can't really be faster and more agile if you are running proprietary products.

Riedwaan Bassadien, Microsoft South Africa: Just following on from what Matthew is saying, at the end of the day, organisations will want something that will engage their customers better, optimise their operations, make their employees superheroes and make their products better.

It doesn't matter if it's done with proprietary or open source software if it solves a problem for a company. Saying that, a lot of the interesting things are being done with open source software.

What are the next opportunities for open source?

Matthew Lee, SUSE: The data-driven enterprise. A company that does well with its data is doing well overall. The future belongs to companies that can extrapolate their data using open source technology.

Riedwaan Bassadien, Microsoft South Africa: Every single company, from a stationery company to someone selling washing machines, is going to become digital. This means they will depend on things like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain, which are built on open source technology.

Take Dataflow. It is open source and it's the most popular AI product. The same with the cloud. Most of the cloud services are run on open source.

Thomas Lee, CEO, Wingu.
Thomas Lee, CEO, Wingu.

Thomas Lee, Wingu: The future of open source is open source everywhere. What we are seeing is that the open source mind-set drives standards. When you work on an open project, you have to be aware you are only building a small piece of it, and to get it to work properly, it has to fit in with what other people are working on. This means there has to be a common way to communicate, which, in turn, drives standards.

Wilhelm Strydom, Obsidian Systems: Adding to what Thomas said, a very important pillar to open source has been peer review. Peer review is best-of-breed because it means people have collectively put in thousands and thousands of hours perfecting something.

Where, if any, is there resistance to open source?

Matthew Lee, SUSE: There could be resistance from the status quo. People inside the organisation might object, but from a technology perspective, there's none. There might be a view to sweat an asset a little bit longer, but when it's replaced, it's replaced with something that has an open source flavour.

This can be seen in storage, for example. Someone responsible for storage could resist because it could put their job on the line.

Riedwaan Bassadien, Microsoft South Africa: Matthew makes a good point. In South Africa, we tend to be tribal about things. There's a 'tribe Microsoft' or a 'tribe Linux'. Each tends to be connected to that identity. So when tribe Linux encroaches on another tribe's territory, there's friction.

Every single company, from a stationery company to someone selling washing machines, is going to become digital.

Riedwaan Bassadien, Microsoft South Africa

This is not so in other countries. The overlap between Linux and Microsoft skills are huge. You don't get people who are only certified with one technology. This is a challenge we have to overcome as a country; we have to get people to understand different types of technologies because this is where the future is heading.

We can't have people stuck in a certain mind-set. They should be figuring out what works and getting things done.

Are we making progress in changing mind-sets?

Wilhelm Strydom, Obsidian Systems: I don't think there's an option. With everything becoming 'as-a-service', many consumers won't care. They just want you to provide a solution. They don't care how you go about doing it.

How big a driver will open source be in the digitisation of businesses?

Matthew Lee, SUSE: It already is. Small businesses, like plumbers, for instance, are using the digital invoicing and accounting services provided by banks to run their operations. People are running their businesses from apps on their phone. This is the purest form of digitalisation. The banks are able to offer these products because they are delivering these services using open source technologies.

Stefan Lesicnik, lead, EOH OPEN.
Stefan Lesicnik, lead, EOH OPEN.

Thomas Lee, Wingu: When it comes to digitisation, our customers are realising that they need to operate their infrastructure as code. It's no longer the case of them just buying 'vendor X's' networking equipment. They will now buy any vendor's equipment that gives them application programming interface (API) - a set of functions and procedures that allows the creation of applications. An API will allow for some kind of automation, enabling their network to 'do things'.

This means there will be an opportunity for open source services companies to teach network engineers new tricks, as they digitise the infrastructure.

It's one thing to have an ecommerce website and a payment gateway, but the underlying infrastructure it runs on also needs to be digitised.

We are seeing young developers using all that's available to them. To my mind, as long as they can be productive, it really doesn't matter.

Stefan Lesicnik, EOH OPEN

Some companies are doing a lot better than others when it comes to making this change. But if you don't have the mind-set that you are going to become a software company, regardless of the business you're in, you are going to struggle to make that change.

This article was first published in the January 2019 edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.