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Shaping the landscape of innovation

Open source represents much more than free software.
Read time 10min 40sec

Open source software is more ubiquitous now than ever before, and is shaping the landscape of innovation in the software industry. For many years, open source was most commonly acknowledged as the Linux operating system, obtainable free and open to anyone keen on using it. “Today, the concepts of collaborative development, with peer contribution to obtain a community success spans across all spheres and industries,” says Muggie van Staden, MD at Obsidian Systems.

SAS South Africa’s country manager Akesh Lalla agrees, adding that an open source environment supports the rapid and agile development of projects and models. “Open source provides an open space to tackle new challenges, to explore the data and see what answers it contains. New projects can enable significant successes with fast deployment, and, importantly, it also supports the ‘failing fast’ strategy without incurring significant development and infrastructure costs.”

There are three key benefits to open source software, adds Mervyn George, innovation strategy lead for Africa at SAP. “The first benefit is that it’s readily available for access and almost always free to use, so for a company looking to implement or build solutions on a tight budget, the appeal is obvious. The second benefit is that contributors to the code are comprised of any willing member of the user community, so the ability to influence change is appealing to developers, architects and tech teams. The third benefit is the strength of the community, because the ecosystem it touches collaborates to strengthen the solution offering for the benefit of the entire community, and that community is therefore purpose-aligned.”

Speaking of how open source can be monetised, Van Staden says if anything, the marketing of open source in hindsight perhaps did a disservice to the power behind the model. Open source software was associated with the term 'free' and most people hearing that misunderstood the term and assumed it as a reflection of cost. Free means the freedom to choose, innovate, migrate and not be limited by proprietary software at the time. In the last few years, with the rapid development of cloud solutions, the proliferation of data, and the Internet of Things (IoT), there’s been a push to connect operations and for developers to provide agility to organisations to meet business challenges more rapidly. The ability to automate tasks while minimising risk and increasing speed is top-of-mind for everyone. “Our partners are moving from startups to business successes as the focus is not profit first and more about providing the user with a great experience and meeting customer business needs, hence DevOps.”

Associated cost

There are different ways for open source software to make money, says George. “Donations from individual users are typically accepted and open source entities set up as non-profit organisations could even offer a tax incentive to individuals for their donations.”

These donations can also take the form of memberships or regular contributions from corporate users. While open source software is usually free to download, there may be exceptions for specific professional licence versions, or restrictions with regards to the specific application of the software, in which case additional fees may apply. For the community, there are other forms of income, including offering services (such as training, implementation services and customisation, or support agreements), developing and selling value-added enhancements (plug-ins, themes, extensions, or accessories), hosting events, and publishing books or other paid-for content. There may also be a core team employed by the open source software’s holding entity that can offer a similar set of services to generate revenue.

Open source software was associated with the term 'free' and most businesses hearing that misunderstood the term and assumed it as a reflection of cost.

Muggie van Staden, Obsidian Systems

Many trends, including artificial intelligence, blockchain, IoT and big data analytics, have also altered the open source landscape. “One can’t mention big data without mentioning the open source project – Apache Hadoop. This is one of the most important frameworks that catapulted big data into the forefront for businesses to harness the information of customers by the processing of data across clusters of computers using programming models. Since then, analytic models are continuously learning and influencing the way we do business,” says Van Staden.

According to George, exponential technologies such as those mentioned have gained substantial traction, enough to have entered numerous mainstream applications. “Open source software, including programming languages like Python and C++, and machine learning frameworks like Tensorflow, or blockchains like Hyperledger, has made adopting and developing these exponential technologies more accessible to companies of all sizes.

“Due to this traction, open source platforms and technologies have become the default in many tech domains, including blockchain, data science and AI. For this reason, large proprietary tech firms have sought to embed, integrate with or acquire open source platforms.”

Open source platforms have also historically dominated AI and big data analytics and have long driven innovation in algorithms and development environments, says Lalla. “With the increased commercial use of AI, IoT and machine learning, companies have had to look for commercial enterprise tools to help them scale into production. Model management, reuse and transparency is the strength of commercial enterprise tools that compliment open source technology.”

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. Since its inception, open source has been associated with numerous security risks and bugs. “When discussing compliance, these issues are driven by business needs,” says Van Staden. DevSecOps is addressing security needs from the infrastructure layers to developing customised applications upfront rather than retrospectively, to minimise risk. This is the benefit of companies that specialise in taking open source software and making it enterprise-ready.

Muggie van Staden
Muggie van Staden

In the mix

While companies are doing a lot of development in open source, playing with concepts and products, putting it into production still presents a challenge, adds Lalla. “Evolving companies’ analytics platforms and operationalising analytics is where the challenge lies. A hybrid approach of combining open source with proprietary software can deliver the best of both worlds, because proprietary software can address the challenges of taking a project into production and moving to scale for enterprise-wide use.”

George believes that community-based brands derive strength in numbers. For compliance concerns, such as developer malpractice or licence infringements, the community should be empowered to raise concerns. “Without this practice, it becomes unfeasible for a core team to monitor and react to all compliance incidents. For security concerns such as malicious use of open source code and attacks on open source infrastructure, representation from individuals and companies with cyber-security expertise should be encouraged, even enforced, where possible, on project or foundation councils.”

Another bugbear for the open source community is a lack of skills. “Open source skills are certainly born out of passion, curiosity and the need to solve problems,” says Van Staden. “There are many ways one can learn something online; the key is to put this into action and continually learn, practise, share knowledge and keep on trying new things. With the Covid-19 pandemic, many mindsets are being changed week by week that could change the platforms and methods that we use to develop our skills. Communities on Gitlab, GitHub and other code repositories are the playgrounds for any open source school.”

Future skills will be impacted by the popular technologies of today, the roles we choose for humans to retain, and a growing need for people to learn how to better engage with other people, adds George. With current jobs in demand centred around open source and proprietary technologies, this will still be prevalent for many years, although with the increase in job automation across various departments and lines of business, future applications of human knowledge of these technologies will lean towards solution architecture and reverse engineering as opposed to hands-on development. “The open source ecosystem, along with the proprietary software ecosystem, should continue to invest in skills development – through access to learning content and software tools, and opportunities to apply new skills. This investment should start at an early stage of education – primary school level in many cases.”

Speaking of the rising challenges in open source software, Lalla believes that governance is key, particularly in South Africa, where the regulatory environment is becoming tighter and more challenging. It’s important to be able to see right through your entire data lineage, to know how the data has changed and how AI inside the model has impacted the results and outputs. When the regulator asks those questions, organisations must be in a position to answer – regulators expect companies to provide the appropriate levels of traceability and auditability. This is particularly true of organisations operating in the financial sector, where regulatory requirements are extremely demanding. Digital guardianship, or providing mechanisms to meet both expectations of the people entrusting you with their data and the internal organisational moral compasses for protecting agreed upon use of the data, is key too. “Crucially, controls are also necessary to provide trust in the data. Businesses have to trust that the results of models are accurate and that those models will continue to perform into the future. Transparency, governance and security are all essential components, and they become even more critical when organisations scale their efforts.”

Open source platforms and technologies have become the default in many tech domains, including blockchain, data science and AI.

Mervyn George, SAP

For George, open source also faces operational challenges, such as training and certification of service providers, and maintenance aspects like feature upgrades and security patches. “The more adoption there is, the more breadth of application, or different use cases for implementation across different technology domains and industry sectors there is to be considered, which results in a potentially unobtainable product backlog. This excessive demand requires additional resources in terms of people, money and time, to deliver. As with traditional tech firms, the demand for scope coverage can lead to poor clarity in strategic direction and being spread too thinly. This would be compounded by having too many contributors, some of whom may expect their stance within the tech landscape to let their voice be favoured over that of other contributors.”

“What might have been seen as barriers to diversity, the accessibility of open source communities addresses non-discrimination based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, marital status and many more as the needs of individuals lean to being more inclusive,” says Van Staden. “By the nature of inclusiveness, contributions of code to open source projects are also on the rise. In order to maintain the peer review process, a priority is to ensure the quality of the deliverables of projects and uphold the coding standards. Open source is also based on a shared vision and goals and one would be hard-pressed to maintain that in a world striving for individual recognition before collective success.”

Where does the future lie?

So, what next for open source? “I believe it’s safe to say that open source is here to stay as a model, however, the landscape of software may be riskier to predict. The key elements that will determine industry choices will be security, privacy and visibility of what is in your stack, such as being open source, and the voice from upstream of the open source community,” says Van Staden.

For purists, open source software will continue to venture unscathed by organisational politics or biased influence from megabrand tech firms, adds George. “In their defence, some open source technologies could be considered indispensable, if such a concept truly exists, given their high levels of adoption. Python, R and Android are examples that have gained enough traction to consider it implausible that they ever become redundant. The reality is that if a successful open source technology is not yet owned or incorporated by a megabrand tech firm, it will at some point be acquired by one of them,” he concludes.

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