Open Source

Doing things differently

Read time 13min 20sec

When it comes to cloud computing, data centre technology, data storage, and big data analytics software, open source versions are among the best in the world. In fact, to call some of these technologies 'versions' is incorrect, as they do not have an equal.

We have a small, but strong OSS community in SA, but there is definitely room for improvement.

Muggie Van Staden, MD, Obsidian Systems

According to LSD MD Sven Lesicnik, the increasing adoption of open source platforms is testament to the fact that the old ways of delivering digital experiences are being replaced by newer, more agile solutions. "Open source has solidified its position as the default base for software development, and is growing as the default enterprise software solution. Because it outperforms proprietary packages on quality, cost, customisation and security, open source is becoming the foundation of technologies such as the Internet of things, big data and cloud computing," he says.

"Even the Microsoft .Net framework was open sourced. The fact that it allows immediate access to the back-end, and it's freely available, is making open source increasingly attractive as the technology to underpin private, public and hybrid clouds."

Fast risers

OpenStack is currently the largest open source cloud project out there. The technology offered by OpenStack has increased in popularity in a relatively short time. Docker is another cloud-based OSS technology. It is even being viewed by some experts as the second most popular open source cloud project in the world - which is quite impressive, since it started in 2013. Other open source cloud technologies like Cloud Foundry and Apache Mesos have also risen rapidly in the last few years.

Even two years ago, Obsidian Systems' MD Muggie van Staden was used to spending the first 20 or so minutes of any prospective client meeting explaining what OSS was and what it does. "We no longer have to explain what OSS is, only how it can best benefit the company we're dealing with," he says.

"A couple of years ago, OSS wasn't this cool, and companies were only deploying it in certain instances. Now, almost every enterprise customer in SA is running some sort of OSS. But there has been a significant change in mind-shift recently. We no longer have to go to clients to convince them about the benefits of OSS - they know it's better," says Lesicnik.

Van Staden points out the recent popularity of Hadoop - a core technology that deals with the growth of big data. "This is new technology - five to 10 years ago, it wasn't even thought of. However, by 2020, half of the world's data should be sitting in Hadoop, Gartner believes."

Matthew Lee, regional manager for Africa at SUSE, also cites a lot of recent growth. "End-customers are becoming increasingly comfortable with this technology, which was very much seen as a bohemian disruptor of proprietary software in the past." He says the company has been experiencing double-digit growth in recent years, and that OSS uptake is having a 'hockey-stick effect' on the industry.

"While OSS is not a new technology, it has in the past couple of years come to the fore, with more local businesses embracing it. Proprietary software certainly still has its place in the South African market, but the shortcomings of proprietary software have stirred businesses towards OSS," he states.

Working together

At a Microsoft cloud briefing last year, the company's CEO, Satya Nadella, famously declared 'Microsoft ? Linux' on a slide that quickly went viral. Platform strategy manager at Microsoft SA, Riedwaan Bassadien, explains how Microsoft's acceptance of OSS technology was largely a result of dialogue from its clients, many of whom operate in a homogenous IT environment. "We have come to appreciate how customers are increasingly adopting OSS, and this has meant that OSS and proprietary have to work together."

Microsoft launched a subsidiary called Microsoft Open Technologies in 2012, created with the goal of focusing on open source work and community collaboration. "This subsidiary is now part of the rest of Microsoft. The fact that it no longer needs to be a separate subsidiary shows how integrated OSS has become in Microsoft," says Bassadien. A further testament to this is Bassadien himself, whose role at the company is to grow Microsoft through openness, he says.

Van Staden believes a notable driver to the increase in uptake of OSS in the corporate environment is its speed to market. "It's not necessarily about OSS being a cheaper option, it's that it is quick to deploy," he says. "Companies can no longer wait six months to get something out to market."

Innovation and community

The innovation that's been seen in the OSS space is dramatic. Says Bassadien: "OSS used to be an alternative to proprietary, but the innovation in this space means there are instances where OSS technology is not comparable in a proprietary version." So instead of trying to create a proprietary competitor, it's better for the two sides to work together. Besides, as Bassadien points out, with today's accelerated rate of technological change, there isn't time to come up with an alternative. "For the best interests of the client, it's better to work with what is already available and we know works best."

The one area in which SA could stand to better itself, however, is with regards to the local OSS community. Says Bassadien: "The source code is available - you can see it, and you can use it. But this on its own is not good enough. There needs to be an active community to increase viability of the code. If you're not able to build a strong enough community, the code rots away."

"We have a small, but strong OSS community in SA, but there is definitely room for improvement," says Van Staden. "Companies need to be willing to let their employees spend company time giving back to the community."

In future, it will no longer come down to OSS versus proprietary software.

Riedwaan Bassadien, platform strategy manager, Microsoft

Bassadien believes, in future, it will no longer come down to OSS versus proprietary software. "The focus will be on what the best technology is to solve the problem, regardless of what kind of technology it is."

The future for OSS is certainly a bright one. Lee points to the most recent Linux Job Report (released March 2015), which states nearly all hiring managers (97%) are looking to recruit Linux professionals in the next six months, and 44% of hiring managers saying they're more likely to hire a candidate with Linux certification. "These numbers say it all," Lee concludes.

Made in Africa

Open source software projects created close to home.

Entertainment, e-commerce and mobile phones are driving open source software (OSS) projects in Africa. According to CodeAfrica, there were 12 329 GitHub users in Africa, as of 1 January 2015.

GitHub is used to hosting open source software projects on a global scale. Since the beginning of the year, it reports over nine million users and over 21.1 million repositories, making it the largest global code hoster of its kind.

Here are eight examples of what the OSS community has been up to on the continent.

Project name: Rootio Radio
Country of origin: Uganda
Description: This is the Web application for RootIO Radio. Logged in users can manage stations, programmes, schedules and people. A read-only view of the telephony server shows incoming and outgoing calls, messages and gateways. A Web API is provided for the handset client, and protected by key or user login. It's a grassroots radio project for community input and output.

Project name: Ushahidi
Country of origin: Kenya
Description: Ushahidi is an open source Web application for information collection, visualisation and interactive mapping. It helps collect data from many sources, including e-mail, SMS text messaging, Twitter streams and RSS feeds. The platform offers tools to help process that information, categorise it, geo-locate it and publish it on a map.

Project name: Slaw
Country of origin: South Africa
Description: Slaw is a lightweight library for generating and rendering Akoma Ntoso 2.0 Act XML from plain text and PDF documents. It is used to power and and uses grammars developed for South African acts and bylaws.

Project name: Smartmin
Country of origin: Rwanda
Description: Smartmin was born out of the frustration of the Django admin site not being well suited to client users. Smartmin aims to allow you to quickly build scaffolding that you can customise by using Django 1.7's views.

Project name: RapidPro
Country of origin: Rwanda
Description: RapidPro is a hosted service for visually building interactive messaging applications.

Project name: WooCommerce
Country of origin: South Africa
Description: A WordPress plugin to convert a Web site into an e-commerce store that delivers enterprise-level quality and features.

Project name: Baobab
Country of origin: Malawi
Description: Medical records software

Project name: OpenELIS
Country of origin: Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya
Description: A community building laboratory information systems for resource-constrained international clinical and reference laboratories.

Security and privacy in open source

A study shows code transparency increases trustworthiness.

Seventy-six percent of EMEA respondents believe commercial backing and code transparency increases the trustworthiness of the application, shows the Zimbra-sponsored study, The Open Source Collaboration Study: Viewpoints on Security & Privacy in the US & EMEA. Only 68% of US respondents agreed.

Other key findings in the study include:

1. An assurance of continuity with commercial open source applications is believed to be the most important benefit. Respondents in general are very positive about commercial open source applications, especially about the assurance of continuity.

2. Despite benefits, companies are slow to adopt. The average percentage of business applications used by organisations that is commercial open source is 30% in the US and 25% in EMEA.

3. EMEA organisations are more likely to enforce security and data privacy policies. Throughout this study, there is evidence that EMEA organisations are more concerned with the privacy consequences of messaging and collaboration. US organisations focus more on security.

4. Unencrypted e-mail is considered the most risky file-sharing technology. Respondents in both the US and EMEA believe unencrypted e-mail, followed by cloud file sharing/file sync-and-share tools, are the most risky ways to share documents. Least risky is encrypted e-mail. Some interesting differences include the perception by US respondents that the use of unencrypted e-mail is more risky, whereas EMEA respondents are more concerned about cloud file sharing/file sync-and-share tools.

5. Employees increase privacy and security risks. US employees are more likely than EMEA employees to put their organisations' messaging and collaboration solutions at risk.

6. What factors in messaging and collaboration solutions are important? US respondents say it is ease of use and EMEA respondents say vendor support is most important when selecting a messaging and collaboration solution.

Overall, IT professionals' perceptions of commercial open source software for messaging and collaboration are more positive than their perceptions of proprietary software. Common to both the US and EMEA is IT professionals' dissatisfaction with their current messaging and collaboration platforms, the majority of which are proprietary solutions. And, while IT professionals in the US and EMEA disagree on the relative importance of security versus privacy, there is agreement among IT professionals that commercial open source software offers better cost, control, quality and business continuity than proprietary software.

Software freedom and free beer

Organisations and events promoting open source software in South Africa.

SA is doing much in support of open source software (OSS) locally. The country's annualSoftware Freedom Day promotes and spreads awareness of OSS on a national scale, and Obsidian Systems-sponsored Free Beer Sessions takes place quarterly, providing some fun and socialisation while discussing OSS issues with experts and enthusiasts.

Other OSS-related events include an annual JoomlaDay. Relative newcomer, Open Source Software for South Africa's (OSSSA) aim is to promote OSS within public and private sectors, and global non-profit organisation, The Open Source Initiative (OSI), also plays an active role in SA.

Software Freedom Day 2015

This year's Software Freedom Day takes place in Pretoria, Gauteng, on 19 September, at the Station Lounge opposite the Pretoria Gautrain Station terminal.

The main goals of the day include engaging with, encouraging and educating individual computer users, South African businesses, local start-ups and other groups about the use of free software and to promote an open philosophy. Attendees are encouraged to ask questions and engage with speakers in order to learn more about what exactly free software entails, and how it can be used to their benefit.

In staying with an open and free philosophy, the event is free to any interested parties.

Free Beer Sessions

This event describes itself as "a beer that is free in the sense of freedom, not in the sense of free beer. In this case, the beer is actually free."

2015's theme has been about celebrating "the power of open source and beer". Sponsored by Obsidian Systems, Free Beer Sessions combine the social aspect of drinking beer, with speakers whose ideas inspire dialogue in the OSS community.

The most recent and 17th session took place on 27 August, and featured speakers Keutlwile Leso, client technical advisor at IBM; and Mark Clarke from Jumping Bean, who discussed issues around the Internet of things and how it impacts security.


A relatively newly-formed organisation, OSSSA aims to spread awareness of OSS throughout SA, especially for use within its public and private sectors.

Launched in October 2014, OSSSA is made up of individuals and organisations in SA that aim to promote the use of OSS within the country. The company's founder, Charl Botha, believes the use of open source equivalents to proprietary software will greatly aid us as a country that does not really have the financial resources to spend on expensive licence-based software.

He also believes in OSS's ability to grow the country economically and in terms of much-needed skills.

Open Source Initiative

A global non-profit organisation, the OSI "protects and promotes open source, championing open source in society through education, collaboration, and infrastructure, stewarding the Open Source Definition and preventing abuse of the open source concept".

To celebrate the OSI's 17th anniversary, and to promote its dedication to community-driven software, the OSI has launched an Individual Membership Drive this year. Its goal is to increase by 2 398 memberships.


Joomla is an open source-based content management system, which runs the annual JoomlaDay. SA has participated in this event since 2007. This year marked Joomla's 11th annual event, and while it promotes Joomla specifically, it also creates awareness about OSS in general.

This year's JoomlaDay took place at the The Kelway Hotel, in Port Elizabeth, on 6 and 7 March.

See also