But is it safe? Uncork a bottle of vintage open-source FUD

FOSS's hidden marathon to big-ticket respectability

“Yeah, but is open source a safe choice?” Surprisingly, I’ve been asked that frequently of late. Larger organisations in particular are giving me the old squinty eye. The folks in these conference rooms and tentacular email threads are often looking to replace decades old stacks of IT and get their “digital transformation” on, so perhaps they can be forgiven asking such a dated question.

Having been out on the choppy proprietary seas so long they’re a bit wobbly with those sea legs and can’t rightly say where the land begins and the water stops.

Who are these people?

Most of the open source questioners come from larger organisations. Banks very rarely pop up here, and governments have long been hip to using open source. Both have ancient, proprietary systems in place here and there that are finally crumbling to dust and need replacing fast. Their concerns are more oft around risk management and picking the right projects.

It’s usually organisations whose business is dealing with actual three dimensional objects that ask about open source. Manufacturing, industrials, oil and gas, mining, and others who have typically looked at IT as, at best, a helper for their business rather than a core product enabler.

These industries are witnessing the lighting fast injection of software into their products - that whole “Internet of Things” jag we keep hearing about. Companies here are being forced to look at both using open source in their products and shipping open source as part of their business.

The technical and pricing requirements for IoT scale software is a perfect fit for open source, especially that pricing bit. On the other end - peddling open source themselves - companies that are looking to build and sell software-driven “platforms” are finding that partners and developers are not so keen to join closed source ecosystems.

These two pulls create some weird clunking in the heads of management at these companies who aren’t used to working with a sandals and rainbow frame of mind. They have a scepticism born of their inexperience with open source. Let’s address some of their trepidation.

If all your friends jumped off a bridge...

There was a time when using open source seemed a little odd. IBM’s billion dollar Linux R&D spend in 2001 was quite the eyebrow-raiser, but they could smell the revenue wafting in from the future. By 2008 a significant amount, if not a majority, of buyers were comfortable with open source.

That positive sentiment has only grown. This year’s long-running Blackduck open source survey found that 78 per cent of the respondents were using open source software to run their businesses (well mixed in with closed source, of course), up from 42 per cent in 2010. Similarly, Forrester’s recent surveys shows that just 13 per cent of developers have yet to use open source. Even in the seemingly staid world of manufacturing only 10 per cent of respondents have never touched open source.

Put another way, the usage of open source to support, if not outright run a company’s core businesses is normal. Like, totally normal.

You’ll be using open source sooner rather than later. How can you make sure it goes well?

Keeping an even keel

How to answer this hidden generation of doubters? Make like it's 2006 all over again: marshal your arguements, plan a strategy, prove it works.

First, you should only aim to use open source projects and software that have a stable, long life. Part of what you pay for with closed source software is the comforting sense that the company will be there for years to come. At least, you should be getting that guarantee. You don’t want to build your business on-top of a fly-by-night technology - open or closed! - that leaves you stranded on an EOL island.

To sniff out stability, I’d evaluate the project's community in three areas:

  • Is the community relatively free of conflict? If developers and stakeholders are generally congenial, the long term prospects are better than if they're antagonistic.
  • Is the community thriving? You want the code to be continually updated, with the freshest features and whizbang thought technologies (REST! Responsive UI! Microservices!). Otherwise you’ll be stuck with “legacy” frameworks, slowing you down like barnacles, and equally hard to remove.
  • Does the community generally stay on the same course, or is it always changing tack? Multiple identity crises and dramatic changes can add a tremendous amount of instability to the project's roadmap, requiring you to change yourself or stay left behind on old, unsupported versions.

Put on those sandals and slide up the rainbow

Beyond just using open source, many companies are now in a position where shipping open source looks to be a vital, strategic option. As previously “analog” devices like turbines, planes, buildings, cars – and, yes, even coffee machines – are essentially highly networked computers. Businesses can benefit from gussying up their their new “platforms” with open source. While companies like Microsoft, Oracle and Apple show that you can build platform communities around closed source platforms, using open source as a tactic is valuable, perhaps even easier.

Attracting developers (and their patron companies) to your new platform is difficult, no matter open or closed. By my reckoning, building the community of business partners and developers is easiest when open source is involved. Partners are suspicious of the commercial motivation of the platform owners and look to open sourcing to provide a type of mutual assured success and continual access to the core platform. Developers simply like having freely available code and continue to put more faith and interest into open source projects than closed source ones.

All of this conjecture amounts to a strong suggestion for companies considering anything having to do with sticking software, APIs, and network connections into their devices: think seriously about the benefits (and drawbacks!) of open source your core platforms. The tried–and–true “open core” model provides plenty of room for high-priced, closed software wrapped around a delicious open core. Keeping your platforms 100 per cent closed has the potential to, well, close off too many opportunities.

While all of this may seem blindingly obvious to the old salts out there, as more industries inject software into their devices and businesses, this topic will keep floating back up. Us tech-obsessed people will scratch our heads and wonder what’s wrong with them. But it’s all new to those being eaten by software. Hopefully they’ll figure out that it’s smooth sailing with open source. ®

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