Open source: Just another buzzword?

Read time 9min 40sec
Muggie van Staden, Obsidian Systems.
Muggie van Staden, Obsidian Systems.

Talk to anyone - outside of the technology sector - about open source software (OSS) and you'll likely get a blank stare in return.

What many people may not realise is that OSS is quite likely the operating system their smartphone is running - that's if they have an Android-based device in their pocket.

In fact, according to Gartner (and granted, a year out of date, but the latest we have to go on), Android had more than 80% of the market at the end of 2016. That means billions of people are using a device that runs off OSS - despite whatever misgivings several people may have about its security.

So, what is OSS? It dates its history back to the 1950s when academics built software on a collaborative basis, and shared the software. Interestingly, this communal behaviour gave rise to the hacking culture, which was then associated with positive connotations.

This trend of sharing software, and the source code, continued, and today we see several systems running off OSS, or using OSS to run applications.

In fact, Ian Jansen van Rensburg, senior systems engineering manager at VMware Sub-Saharan Africa, argues that both OSS and the open source community are a critical part of the development and technology world in which we live. "To ignore it, or to simply avoid working with them, is short of business suicide if you want your business to thrive."

And the benefit is exactly the collaborative nature of the software, says Thomas Lee, CEO of Wingu. Lee is a clear proponent of OSS. But he makes the point that the open source movement is playing an important role in an increasingly digitised world. He notes as examples that household web names, such as Facebook, have been built on OSS.

It's the best of both worlds: the continuous community-focused improvement of bleeding-edge technology and the reliability, transparency and interoperability of an open system.

Muggie van Staden, Obsidian Systems

As Sumit Kumar Sharma, enterprise architect at In2IT, points out, OSS is now a movement, a philosophy. "In this new way of thinking, we emphasise collaboration between brilliant minds, traversing different domains of knowledge, different countries and cultures - to ultimately tackle some of society's most pressing challenges."

In fact, as Mayleen Bywater, senior product manager at Vox, says, OSS is evolving; as it becomes more streamlined and structured, bigger companies and even governments are starting to embrace it because of the agility it provides for specific parts of organisations.

A cautionary note

And, as global corporations turn to open source to drive some of their major offerings - including cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure - a wider range of businesses increasingly look to see what this technology can do for them.

Muggie van Staden, MD at Obsidian Systems, points out that the advantage, and driver, of OSS is that it provides freedom, openness and transparency - the latest in the definition of agile.

Yet, as Lee concedes, there have been issues when it comes to a lack of skills. As a result, many businesses shy away from open source because they are afraid of having no support, and yet there are examples such as RedHat, which is a multimillion-dollar business that provides commercial support for free software.

Then there is the no skills argument, with many companies concerned that they can't hire the talent they need. As Lee notes, the number of tertiary education institutions and large organisations using open source today has changed that situation.

So, while OSS is a tool billions use daily, there is a cautionary note: there are security concerns because of the collaborative nature of the intrinsic code. This is why some companies would rather use proprietary software that is more locked down.

Yet, Van Staden says, for organisations that require standards, security, and protocol for the safety of information, this is why there are licences available for Enterprise Open Source versions that have been tested, hardened and supported by experts.

Bywater adds that industries that would benefit from OSS are those that need agility, and those already using, or connecting to, Linux-based environments.

These include environments such as development houses or teams, where they use open source for on-the-fly development and testing, and ad hoc services that do not touch critical or confidential data. If they need to test components, they can add it to a community notice board, and people around the world can test it and provide feedback, notes Bywater.

Sharma points out that statistics from DevOps specialists Sonatype shows that 7 000 new open source software projects are launched every week across the globe, while a staggering 70 000 new open source components are released.

"It's the best of both worlds: the continuous community-focused improvement of bleeding-edge technology and the reliability, transparency and interoperability of an open system," says Van Staden.

"Open source isn't just a technology. It's a revolution," adds Sharma.

The lowdown on open source

Where did open source software come from?

Ian Jansen van Rensburg, senior systems engineering manager at VMware Sub-Saharan Africa: It's important to look at the history of open source to better understand its power; the term `free software' was first used when software was still not considered `copyright' (before the late 1970s). Later on, software vendors began a general trend to no longer distribute source code and only make use of executable machine code. This in a way led to the proprietary world as we know it, but also was the birth of the open source movement. The term `open source' was coined in the late 1990s because of a bigger need to share free software with various individuals to drive wider innovation and structure.

Thomas Lee, CEO of Wingu: Right at the beginning of computing, the software was always free with the hardware. Paying for it only came later with the evolution of specialist software houses. The open source community continues that original ethos of free software with paid hardware.

Muggie van Staden, MD at Obsidian Systems: Open source is openly sharing the source code for software development. This allows anyone, anywhere in the world, to scrutinise, modify and improve the code for the benefit of developers and users. The open source development methodology was prompted by a few developers who felt it was not right to keep code hidden from others and that development was fundamentally better when done collaboratively. From here, it has grown to become the most adopted software development in the world, used by millions of developers and thousands of organisations.

What's driving the adoption of open source software?

Thomas Lee, CEO of Wingu: We get all the benefits of a massive community collaborating to develop a piece of software. You cannot match the rate of innovation that thousands of global developers bring in the commercial world.

Mayleen Bywater, senior product manager at Vox: Unlike proprietary software, where there is a lot of red tape to overcome before changes are made, on open source, you have a global community that is creating code to add new features, and is fixing bugs on a continuous basis.

What about a perceived lack of skills?

Thomas Lee, CEO of Wingu: There's now a huge demand for skills due to the adoption of the technologies, and that's driving far greater training and learning for the environment. Certification courses are now plentiful, with various levels of administration and engineering industry certifications available.

What's next for open source software?

Simon Phipps, president of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) and founder of UK-based open source management consulting company Meshed Insights, recently published an article entitled '20 years and counting'. He points out that, without open source, we might not have the internet or the worldwide web, our computers and mobile devices might be very different, cloud computing and the Internet of Things would probably be impossible to scale, and Google and Facebook might not exist.

Internationally known developer relations strategist, community management expert and former OSI board member, Leslie Hawthorn agrees. "Without open source languages, libraries, operating systems and frameworks, the technological innovations we see today would have taken much longer or, perhaps, have been cost-prohibitive. Now anyone with a great idea can start a successful company by building a compelling application atop an open source stack and bring that idea to market quickly."

Looking back over the past 20 years, Phipps says each decade was marked by a growing awareness and understanding of what open source was.

The first decade, which was marked by advocacy and controversy, saw open source proponents trying to develop workable business models. They grappled with such issues as how to contribute freely, yet still be paid. Open source projects themselves were predominately about finding replacements for off-the-shelf, proprietary products.

During the second decade, things changed. The debate shifted to issues around governance and how to participate yet keep control or not be controlled, while projects were increasingly components of larger solutions.

As open source enters its third decade, Phipps believes the years ahead will be marked by:

  • The complexity business model: a business model that involves the monetising of, and finding governance for, complex solutions that arise from the integration of many open source parts.
  • Open source mosaics: open source projects that consist predominantly of families of parts built into component stacks; families of projects that will be hosted by consortia or trade associations like the Linux Foundation and OpenStack as well as by general purpose charities like Apache and the Software Freedom Conservancy.
  • The rise of Professional Generalists: open source developers who will increasingly be employed to integrate many technologies into complex solutions.
  • Software Freedom Redux: as new problems arise, software freedom will increasingly be applied to identify solutions that work for collaborative communities and independent deployers.

Hawthorn believes the next decade will see greater acceptance of InnerSource principles by companies. InnerSource is about developing software behind the corporate firewall as `open source', without everyone having access to the code repositories to follow or even contribute to its development, regardless of where they sit in the organisation. "By entrusting an organisation's technical team to work in the open source way, companies will become more efficient in their development practices, saving time, money and, most importantly, making their employees feel a greater sense of ownership and empowerment over their work," she says.

This article was first published in the May 2018 edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.

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