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17th of November 2018

Technology



Open Source Software: 20-Plus Years of Innovation | Best of ECT News

This story was originally published on Feb. 3, 2018, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

Open source led to a new software development and distribution model that offered an alternative to proprietary software. No single event takes the prize for starting the technology revolution. However, Feb. 3, 1998, is one of the more significant dates.

On that day, Christine Peterson, a futurist and lecturer in the field of nanotechnology, coined the "open source" term at a strategy session in Palo Alto, California, shortly after the release of the Netscape browser source code.

Later that month, Eric Raymond and Bruce Perens formed the Open Source Initiative, an educational and advocacy organization, to lobby for the open source label. Rapid adoption followed, with support from the Free Software Summit that April.

Numerous other events contributed to driving the movement. For instance, Red Hat launched as a start-up in 1993, with the goal of developing its own Linux distribution for enterprise use.

Other noteworthy dates in open source history:

1994 -- work began on the development of the free database MySQL; 1996 -- Apache HTTP server started its run to dominance as an open source entity on the Internet; 2004 -- Canonical released its Debian-based Ubuntu operating system, which brought the Linux desktop to everyday users.

The Free and Open Source movement has achieved successes probably no one dared to dream of when the free software movement began to take shape in the 1980s, noted Max Mehl, program manager of Free Software Foundation Europe.

"Today, Free Software and Open Source as a synonym are being used in almost every device -- from remotes to washing machines, and mobile phones to aircraft and the International Space Station," he told LinuxInsider.

Indisputable Impact

Large enterprises, even self-declared enemies of FOSS in the past, now recognize that the power of the community and the transparent processes benefit end users and encourage innovation, noted Mehl.

"The concept of Free Software licenses and copyleft, once a legal hack, is universally accepted and legally confirmed, he added.

The open source community has delivered tremendous results, observed Sheng Liang, CEO of Rancher Labs.

It has impacted the development of mature technologies, such as Linux, Java, Python and PHP, as well as more recent technologies, including cloud, containerization, blockchain and artificial intelligence, he told LinuxInsider.

"Open source technologies form the foundation of the technology infrastructure stack. Open source development has greatly increased the speed of technology innovation," Liang said.

Perhaps one of open source's most significant accomplishments is the democratization of technology and the Internet, suggested Cybric CTO Mike Kail.

The open source model allows global, direct contributions to advancements instead of siloed efforts within corporate boundaries, he told LinuxInsider.

"The LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack was what initially lit the rapidly burning fuse of Internet usage," Kail recalled. "At least parts of that stack continues to power a high percentage of sites."

Today, FOSS is almost everywhere. The GNU/Linux operating system (or a variant) powers all supercomputers, a large number of servers and network appliances, and the majority of smartphones, said Italo Vignoli, cofounder of The Document Foundation, which oversees LibreOffice development.

"FOSS is more reliable, robust, stable and secure than proprietary software, and this represents a huge advantage for the IT infrastructure and for enterprise applications," he told LinuxInsider.

End of Walled Gardens

Many people have forgotten or do not realize that 20 years ago the software industry was a world of walled gardens, remarked Owen Garrett, head of product at Nginx. You picked your allegiance -- Sun, IBM, SCO, HP, Windows. That choice defined the tools you used and even the types of applications you built.

"Twenty years ago, it was unthinkable that an enterprise organization would build business-critical services on anything other than a commercial, closed-source Unix vendor's platform," he told LinuxInsider. "Twenty years forward, the complete opposite is the case."

Back then, open source started from a much different state than in today's world. Much of OSS' efforts went into duplicating and freeing vendor-specific tools and applications, Garrett explained.

"Projects were peppered with arguments about licensing. The default choice when creating a new product for commercial sale was to go closed source. The GNU project, among others, was a power for good in advancing the open source agenda," he said.

Companies typically found it difficult to fit in with the new approach to software procurement. Switching from commercial to open source products usually meant cutting lose traditional sources of support.

"Corporate leaders grew up in an enterprise environment where someplace within was a procurement officer who established relationships with the sales force at a software company," noted Tim Mackey, senior technical evangelist at Black Duck Software. That relationship grew around the support structure for using that commercial software.

With open source, companies have to find new avenues for support, he told LinuxInsider. "If a company decides to replace the proprietary vendor with an open source product or company, the procurement may be 100 percent free, with no guarantees that patches are provided," for example.

Strings Attached

Far too many people believe that open source technologies are absolutely free, according to Mackey.

They may be without cost, but they are not without obligation, he cautioned.

Perhaps the biggest risk for organizations results from taking a project that appears to meet their needs without checking out the ecosystem.

"The result is they get blindsided. Either the project no longer gets maintained, or the version they are using goes away," Mackey said.

"OSS still suffers from the infamous 'free as in beer' analogy, where many assume that there is truly no cost to acquiring, installing, running and maintaining OSS. The communities still need to do a better job of communicating that," said Cybric's Kail.

Business Transformation

In the 20 years since that April 1998 Freeware Summit, the single most significant achievement of open source has been gaining ubiquity, observed Julian Dunn, director of product marketing at Chef Software.

Today, everyone interacts with open source software. Open source software permeates technology -- from the Internet to Web applications and apps on smartphones and computers.

"Nearly all of our Internet-connected gadgets, like smart door knobs or refrigerators, run on open source software at their core," Dunn told LinuxInsider.

Open source has transformed businesses with an agile and responsive approach, noted Alan Clark, director of industry initiatives, emerging standards and open source at Suse.

Technology trends driven by open source have changed the world, he told LinuxInsider.

"It doesn't matter what industry you are in. For instance, 3D printing is impacting housing, manufacturing and even healthcare. Big data/analytics/machine learning is impacting retailers, military and media. Mobile is impacting banking, retail and most other industries," Clark pointed out.

The open source community has grown exponentially. Today, there are hundreds of open source foundations and millions of projects on repositories such as Github. This is helpful for fostering innovation and collaboration, both of which are crucial to the growth of the community, he said.

Business-Critical Contributions

The "free" misnomer does not mean that there is no money to be made from open source software. However, not everyone succeeds with individual projects within the developing business model.

"Open source does not preclude a commercial model. Although many developers contribute in their own time, the world needed more than a collection of hobbyists to achieve greatness. The business community saw the opportunity and obliged," Nginx's Garrett said.

The vast majority of OSS contributions are made from employees of commercial organizations. Their companies are the very organizations whose business depends critically on the open source to which their employees contribute, he explained.

Those contributions may be direct, or indirect through sponsorship of foundations. Increasingly, commercial organizations have been releasing well-targeted, internally developed solutions to the community at large as a way of recognizing their employees and giving back to the wider community.

Open source has become the default for new software companies, said Howard Green, vice president of marketing at Azul Systems.

The default value comes in terms of the technologies used to build and support new products, as well as in terms of the product offerings themselves, he told LinuxInsider.

"Open source technologies thrive when they are used and maintained. Great products flourish, sometimes at almost exponential rates, driven by community adoption and evolution," Green said.

The way we create software today is different, thanks to the open source movement, noted Stormy Peters, senior manager of Red Hat's community team.

The way software developers share their work and work together has become much more efficient and effective. Much of that credit goes to the frameworks, best practices and licenses, as well as the communities, she told LinuxInsider.

"For me personally, open source software has created a global community of colleagues and friends that we would never have thought possible," Peters said. "At DevConf, I had dinner with a group of 15 people that came from countries around the world: Israel, Austria, France, U.S. and Brazil, to name a few. All of them were in Brno, Czech Republic, to collaborate on open source software projects that are making the world a better place."

Best-of-Breed Tools

Open source has a bright future at the center of technology innovation. It will continue to expand its reach and influence, noted Suse's Clark.

"As the speed of software development increases, the size of open source projects grow," he said, "and the services developed scale to global proportions. Open source becomes the only viable method for businesses to contain development costs, outpace the competition, and flourish with business transformation."

Open source set developer expectations that software should be open by default. Developers now expect to be able to fork and modify most things they work with as a matter of course, according to Jason Thane, cofounder of General UI.

"They are surprised and even a little suspicious if they can't. If a useful package is closed, you can bet there is an open alternative being developed to complement it or replace it," he told LinuxInsider.

Many open source projects are the best-of-breed solutions in their space to a point where there are no non-open source tools that have any meaningful traction, said Kevin Fleming, a member of the CTO office at Bloomberg.

Examples include TensorFlow, Apache Solr (for enterprise search), Kubernetes and OpenStack, he told LinuxInsider. "Essentially, these open source tools have more market share than any other options by orders of magnitude."

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software. Email Jack.

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