It has become fashionable today to study open source through the lens of economic benefits to developers and sometimes draw rather alarming conclusions. It has also become fashionable to assume a business model tie and then berate the open source community, or their licences, for lack of leadership when the business model fails. The purpose of this article is to explain, in the first part, the fallacy of assuming any economic tie in open source at all and, in the second part, go on to explain how economics in open source is situational and give an overview of some of the more successful models.
Open Source is a Creative Intellectual Endeavour
All the creative endeavours of humanity, like art, science or even writing code, are often viewed as activities that produce societal benefit. Logically, therefore, the people who engage in them are seen as benefactors of society, but assuming people engage in these endeavours purely to benefit society is mostly wrong. People engage in creative endeavours because it satisfies some deep need within themselves to exercise creativity and solve problems often with little regard to the societal benefit. The other problem is that the more directed and regimented a creative endeavour is, the less productive its output becomes. Essentially to be truly creative, the individual has to be free to pursue their own ideas. The conundrum for society therefore is how do you harness this creativity for societal good if you can’t direct it without stifling the very creativity you want to harness? Obviously society has evolved many models that answer this (universities, benefactors, art incubation programmes, museums, galleries and the like) with particular inducements like funding, collaboration, infrastructure and so on.
Why Open Source development is better than Proprietary
Simply put, the Open Source model, involving huge freedoms to developers to decide direction and great opportunities for collaboration stimulates the intellectual creativity of those developers to a far greater extent than when you have a regimented project plan and a specific task within it. The most creatively deadening job for any engineer is to find themselves strictly bound within the confines of a project plan for everything. This, by the way, is why simply allowing a percentage of paid time for participating in Open Source seems to enhance input to proprietary projects: the liberated creativity has a knock on effect even in regimented development. However, obviously, the goal for any Corporation dependent on code development should be to go beyond the knock on effect and actually employ open source methodologies everywhere high creativity is needed.
What is Open Source?
Open Source has it’s origin in code sharing models, permissive from BSD and reciprocal from GNU. However, one of its great values is the reasons why people do open source aren’t the same reasons why the framework was created in the first place. Today Open Source is a framework which stimulates creativity among developers and helps them create communities, provides economic benefits to corportations (provided they understand how to harness them) and produces a great societal good in general in terms of published reusable code.
Economics and Open Source
As I said earlier, the framework of Open Source has no tie to economics, in the same way things like artistic endeavour don’t. It is possible for a great artist to make money (as Picasso did), but it’s equally possible for a great artist to live all their lives in penury (as van Gough did). The demonstration of the analogy is that trying to measure the greatness of the art by the income of the artist is completely wrong and shortsighted. Developing the ability to exploit your art for commercial gain is an additional skill an artist can develop (or not, as they choose) it’s also an ability they could fail in and in all cases it bears no relation to the societal good their art produces. In precisely the same way, finding an economic model that allows you to exploit open source (either individually or commercially) is firstly a matter of choice (if you have other reasons for doing Open Source, there’s no need to bother) and secondly not a guarantee of success because not all models succeed. Perhaps the easiest way to appreciate this is through the lens of personal history.
Why I got into Open Source
As a physics PhD student, I’d always been interested in how operating systems functioned, but thanks to the BSD lawsuit and being in the UK I had no access to the actual source code. When Linux came along as a distribution in 1992, it was a revelation: not only could I read the source code but I could have a fully functional UNIX like system at home instead of having to queue for time to write up my thesis in TeX on the limited number of department terminals.
After completing my PhD I was offered a job looking after computer systems in the department and my first success was shaving a factor of ten off the computing budget by buying cheap Pentium systems running Linux instead of proprietary UNIX workstations. This success was nearly derailed by an NFS bug in Linux but finding and fixing the bug (and getting it upstream into the 1.0.2 kernel) cemented the budget savings and proved to the department that we could handle this new technology for a fraction of the cost of the old. It also confirmed my desire to poke around in the Operating System which I continued to do, even as I moved to America to work on
In 2000 I got my first Open Source break when the product I’d been working on got sold to a silicon valley startup, SteelEye, whose business plan was to bring High Availability to Linux. As the only person on the team with an Open Source track record, I became first the Architect and later CTO of the company, with my first job being to make the somewhat eccentric Linux SCSI subsystem work for the shared SCSI clusters LifeKeeper then used. Getting SCSI working lead to fund interactions with the Linux community, an Invitation to present on fixing SCSI to the Kernel Summit in 2002 and the maintainership of SCSI in 2003. From that point, working on upstream open source became a fixture of my Job requirements but progressing through Novell, Parallels and now IBM it also became a quality sought by employers.
I have definitely made some money consulting on Open Source, but it’s been dwarfed by my salary which does get a boost from my being an Open Source developer with an external track record.
The Primary Contributor Economic Models
Looking at the active contributors to Open Source, the primary model is that either your job description includes working on designated open source projects so you’re paid to contribute as your day job or you were hired because of what you’ve already done in open source and contributing more is a tolerated use of your employer’s time, a third, and by far smaller group is people who work full-time on Open Source but fund themselves either by shared contributions like Patreon or Tidelift or by actively consulting on their projects. However, these models cover existing contributors and they’re not really a route to becoming a contributor because employers like certainty so they’re unlikely to hire someone with no track record to work on open source, and are probably not going to tolerate use of their time for developing random open source projects. This means that the route to becoming a contributor, like the route to becoming an artist, is to begin in your own time.
Users versus Developers
Open Source, by its nature, is built by developers for developers. This means that although the primary consumers of open source are end users, they get pretty much no say in how the project evolves. This lack of user involvement has been lamented over the years, especially in projects like the Linux Desktop, but no real community solution has ever been found. The bottom line is that users often don’t know what they want and even if they do they can’t put it in technical terms, meaning that all user-driven product development involves extensive and expensive product research which is far beyond any open source project. However, this type of product research is well within the ability of most corporations, who can also afford to hire developers to provide input and influence into Open Source projects.
Business Model One: Reflecting the Needs of Users
In many ways, this has become the primary business model of open source. The theory is simple: develop a traditional customer focussed business strategy and execute it by connecting the gathered opinions of customers to the open source project in exchange for revenue for subscription, support or even early shipped product. The business value to the end user is simple: it’s the business value of the product tuned to their needs and the fact that they wouldn’t be prepared to develop the skills to interact with the open source developer community themselves. This business model starts to break down if the end users acquire developer sophistication, as happens with Red Hat and Enterprise users. However, this can still be combatted by making sure its economically unfeasible for a single end user to match the breadth of the offering (the entire distribution). In this case, the ability of the end user to become involved in individual open source projects which matter to them is actually a better and cheaper way of doing product research and feeds back into the synergy of this business model.
This business model entirely breaks down when, as in the case of the cloud service provider, the end user becomes big enough and technically sophisticated enough to run their own distributions and sees doing this as a necessary adjunct to their service business. This means that you can no longer escape the technical sophistication of the end user by pursuing a breadth of offerings strategy.
Business Model Two: Drive Innovation and Standardization
Although venture capitalists (VCs) pay lip service to the idea of constant innovation, this isn’t actually what they do as a business model: they tend to take an innovation and then monetize it. The problem is this model doesn’t work for open source: retaining control of an open source project requires a constant stream of innovation within the source tree itself. Single innovations get attention but unless they’re followed up with another innovation, they tend to give the impression your source tree is stagnating, encouraging forks. However, the most useful property of open source is that by sharing a project and encouraging contributions, you can obtain a constant stream of innovation from a well managed community. Once you have a constant stream of innovation to show, forking the project becomes much harder, even for a cloud service provider with hundreds of developers, because they must show they can match the innovation stream in the public tree. Add to that Standardization which in open source simply means getting your project adopted for use by multiple consumers (say two different clouds, or a range of industry). Further, if the project is largely run by a single entity and properly managed, seeing the incoming innovations allows you to recruit the best innovators, thus giving you direct ownership of most of the innovation stream. In the early days, you make money simply by offering user connection services as in Business Model One, but the ultimate goal is likely acquisition for the talent possesed, which is a standard VC exit strategy.
All of this points to the hypothesis that the current VC model is wrong. Instead of investing in people with the ideas, you should be investing in people who can attract and lead others with ideas
Other Business Models
Although the models listed above have proven successful over time, they’re by no means the only possible ones. As the space of potential business models gets explored, it could turn out they’re not even the best ones, meaning the potential innovation a savvy business executive might bring to open source is newer and better business models.
Business models are optional extras with open source and just because you have a successful open source project does not mean you’ll have an equally successful business model unless you put sufficient thought into constructing and maintaining it. Thus a successful open source start up requires three elements: A sound business model, or someone who can evolve one, a solid community leader and manager and someone with technical ability in the problem space.
If you like working in Open Source as a contributor, you don’t necessarily have to have a business model at all and you can often simply rely on recognition leading to opportunities that provide sufficient remuneration.
Although there are several well known business models for exploiting open source, there’s no reason you can’t create your own different one but remember: a successful open source project in no way guarantees a successful business model.
About the author: James Bottomley is a Distinguished Engineer at IBM Research where he works on Cloud and Container technology. He is also Linux Kernel maintainer of the SCSI subsystem. He has been a Director on the Board of the Linux Foundation and Chair of its Technical Advisory Board. "The Mythical Economic Model of Open Source" ©James Bottomley, 2019, Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) via James Bottomley's random Pages. Reposted here with permission, under an Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.
Image credit: "Mythical.png" by Open Source Initiative, 2019, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication, is a derivative (cropped and color adjusted) of "Pothole Point" a U.S. National Park Service photo, available under Public Domain, via the U.S. National Park Service.
Since he was a child, Marco Marinello has always found computers and how they operate intriguing. His father introduced him to the world of computer science early, including the basics of Linux system administration. Fortunately his own school — and in fact all of the South Tyrol region where he lives — runs a modified version of Debian (“Free Upgrade in Southtyrol's Schools” or “FUSS") for both administrative computing, and significantly for Marco, on student laptops as well. Free and Open Source Software provides schools and students unique educational opportunities while enhancing the technology services offered to teachers, administrators, families, and ultimately the community they serve.
Motivated by his own interests and with the support of the Bozen-Bolzano School District and staff, Marco began volunteering with the maintenance of his local school network. The opportunity to work hands-on with the technology, learn from working professionals, and help his community, fostered his curiosity and promoted exploration of computers and computing: he soon found himself programming, teaching himself HTML and Python.
Screenshot of the latest version of FUSS (©Paolo Dongilli. License: CC BY-SA 4.0)
With continued opportunities, only made possible through the Bozen-Bolzano schools commitment to Free and Open Source Software, Marco began working on the FUSS project directly. His first project was to port the FUSS distribution to armhf, and the installation of RaspberryPis in a Bolzano high school computer lab. The work not only provided Marco with the technical education one might expect, but with presentations to both his school’s teachers and technicians as well as the local Linux User Group, important lessons in writing and communications followed.
Marco Marinello with Piergiorgio Cemin, teacher and FUSS Project member (©Emiliano Vavassori. License: CC BY-SA 4.0)
I think that FUSS gave me the very important opportunity to approach and learn the importance of free software and I’m therefore very grateful.
— Marco Marinello, student and developer.
A workshop held by Marco Marinello in 2016 (©Emiliano Vavassori. License: CC BY-SA 4.0)
Marco’s initial success led to many other projects — and learning opportunities: “PyHearings,” a project for parents to book appointments with teachers, and “Gestione piano di Aggiornamento” a teachers’ training portal, a complete web-application based on Django, that automates the district’s previous process (that required 20 employees). Fully embracing the “open ethos” Marco also contributed to existing projects integrated with FUSS like, OctoMon (the district’s central monitoring system) and OctoNet (the district’s management tool). And to make his Free and Open Source experience complete, Marco has presented on Django and LibreOffice Online: again highlighting that the activities undertaken, and skills acquired, aren’t just technical. With dedicated staff and creative administrators, Free and Open Source Software can be a valuable addition, enhancing the school’s entire curriculum.
Considering the success of students like Marco, and the FUSS program itself, we reached out to Paolo Dongilli, Technical Inspector for the Italian Department for Education and Traininig of the Autonomous Province of Bozen-Bolzano, to learn more about the program, it’s inception, and where it is headed. We hope the experiences of the Bozen-Bolzano schools can help other schools recognize the opportunities of Free and Open Source Software to extend technology resources and contribute to educational programs.
One of the IT-labs with FUSS - Middle School “Ada Negri” in Bolzano (©Paolo Dongilli. License: CC BY-SA 4.0)
Open Source Initiative (OSI): Can you tell us a little about the schools, school district, and Bozen/Bolzano Area?
Paolo Dongilli: The Autonomous Province Bozen – South Tyrolis is located in Northern Italy with a population of just over 525,000 people. Because of its location, along the Italian and Austrian border, residents may speak Italian, German, or Ladin, a native language common the Dolomite Mountains. As one can imagine, with such a diverse community living within a politically autonomous region, our schools face many challenges in accommodating learners’ educational needs, while respecting our many cultures, and compiling with independent local and regional governments. The school system serving the community thus includes 44,000 students attending 78 German language schools; 17,000 students in Italian language schools; and another 2,500 students in Ladin language schools. Even more interesting (i.e. challenging), is that each of these three language-based school systems have their own school boards.
OSI: What is your background in technology generally, and with open source and GNU/Linux specifically?
Paolo Dongilli: I graduated in 1998 with a degree in Computer Science Engineering, and began working in Computational Linguistics at EURAC Research, then for the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano.
In 2008 I left research and joined the ICT Division of the Province of Bozen-Bolzano where, I worked for the ICT Strategy and Planning Office in the Enterprise Architecture Group which, in 2016, led to a position with the Italian Department for Education and Traininig of South Tyrol to coordinate FUSS (Free Upgrade South Tyrol's Schools).
I started exploring the Free and Open Source Software world during the 90s, when I was studying at the university. When I came back to Bolzano I and some friends founded Linux User Group Bolzano-Bozen-Bulsan to help spread the use of FLOSS and GNU/Linux in South Tyrol.
OSI: What were some of the key drivers, issues, circumstances that led to your interest in introducing open source and GNU/Linux to the school district?
Paolo Dongilli: Open Source Software can be extremely helpful to both students and schools. A perfect example of this would be by looking at Bozen-Bolzano schools. FUSS is a complete GNU/Linux solution, server, client and desktop / standalone, based on Debian for the management of our school network. Importantly, the project provides and promotes, “digital sustainability,” allowing students and teachers to use at home the same tools installed at school, freely and without any cost for families.
OSI: What barriers did you have to overcome throughout the process of introducing and implementing your plan?
Paolo Dongilli: From the very beginning [January 2005], the concept of Free Software in schools was favored by local political parties and school directors of the Italian language schools. A key motivation during planning was the opportunity for students and teachers to use the same software at school and at home, without any additional costs to families. Planners were also aware they were Investing public money, and felt the project could spark new educational projects: creating new software and manuals, reusing and modifying existing software, sharing the new outcome with the world.
In addition to the benefits related to access and academics, planners believed FLOSS would provide financial savings, compared to purchasing expensive recurring licenses from vendors like Microsoft, while also extending the life of hardware through open source alternatives. https://docs.italia.it/italia/piano-triennale-ict/codice-amministrazione-digitale-docs/it/v2018-09-28/
As one might expect, we experienced the typical barriers from people who did not want to exit their comfort zone, or did not appreciate the importance of investing public money in schools in a sustainable way. Fortunately those people were a minority: our teachers understood the importance of this change and the pupils started using GNU/Linux without any difficulty.
Paolo Dongilli presenting at SFSCon 2018 (©Open Source Initaitive. License: CC BY 4.0)
OSI: How did the transition go? How did you raise awareness, gain support, address concerns, confront objections?
Paolo Dongilli: The project was financed by the European Social Fund, supported and sponsored by the Italian Department for Education and Traininig of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano, administratively managed by the Professional Training Institute “Luigi Einaudi” of Bolzano, in collaboration with the Italian Department for Education and Traininig, and with the advice and collaboration of the IT firm Truelite Srl as technological partner. A strong synergy and convergence of intent was created between politics, public, and private sectors, and the planning phase of the FUSS project began in January 2005, with a deployment phase during the summer of that year. The project went live in September at the beginning of the new school year.
OSI: How did the implementation go, technically, culturally, academically?
Paolo Dongilli: The project included an analysis of the state of hardware across the district, the preparation of software packages — such as the FUSS-server (configuration of services on the server side), and FUSS-client — and the development of a variety of tools to make the server and client installation simpler and automated. We also worked to identify open source alternatives to existing applications used across the district.
Over the years other services were added, such as Octofuss (server and user management), Octomon (technical monitoring of installations), a VPN network that connects all schools, servers with e-learning platforms (Moodle and Chamilo), VOIP services for some schools, just to mention the most significant.
We also developed and implemented a comprehensive training course for the administration of the systems. This included seven teachers and one administrator (The FUSS Group) who were charged with not only managing the technical side (hardware and software), but just as importantly, carry out our educational and client-side support activities, helping teaching staff and students fully maximize the resources available with the new FUSS environment.
A FUSS Group operates in every Italian school in South Tyrol meeting local needs, and becomes, in time, a point of reference and advice for all educational activities using information and communication technologies (ICT). Today, the FUSS Group also proposes new tools and services based on Debian or derivatives (Ubuntu, Mint), recommends updates suitable to specific teaching and learning needs, and assesses requests from teachers. All requests are considered.
All this without forgetting the fundamental purpose: to support colleagues and students in the use of ICT on a daily basis for teaching and learning.
OSI: How did you measure success, and did you meet those expectations?
Paolo Dongilli: Success is measured in many ways. First sustainability: the ability of teachers and students to accomplish their daily work, meet educational objectives, and perform administrative tasks, through Free and Open Source Software. Secondly, influencing best-practices: the adoption of LibreOffice and open (document) formats in education positively influenced our local public administration which now uses and keeps LibreOffice up-to-date. And most importantly, educational value: the participation of students studying, modifying, creating, and publishing Free and Open Source Software and documentation, flipping the classroom and showing their efforts to colleagues and teachers.
OSI: What failed, or did not go as expected?
Paolo Dongilli: As the saying goes: “nemo propheta in patria sua,” i.e. “nobody is a prophet in his own land.” Although we’ve been successful for almost fifteen years, FUSS has never been able to spread beyond our Italian language schools, to the German and Ladin language schools within South Tyrol. We’ve been unable to or make headway with ethical reasons/arguments, didactic advantages of Free and Open Source Software over proprietary software, or even through demonstrated cost savings, which can then be invested in faculty development or new educational initiatives.
OSI: What is the program like today?
Paolo Dongilli: Today governance is provided by the Italian Department for Education and Traininig, through the “FUSS Lab for Digital Sustainability in Schools”.
FUSS Digital Sustainability Laboratory at Liceo “Toniolo” (©Paolo Dongilli. License CC BY-SA 4.0)
The FUSS Lab is composed by 4 people (Piergiorgio Cemin, Massimo Previdi, Claudio Cavalli, and myself) in collaboration with Mauro Valer, inspector for the MINT subjects and the great support of Marco Marinello who has been helping with great passion since when he was in middle school. In September Piergiorgio Cemin, after many years of teaching and support for the project will retire and Massimo Previdi will bring back his experience to the high school (IISS “Galileo Galilei”) where he has been teaching. They will be substituted in the team by Andrea Bonani, teacher and former coordinator of the project, and Stefania Fiore, also teacher and open source enthusiast.
A group of 12 GNU/Linux professionals (7 FTE) of the Province of Bolzano IT division (FUSS Technicians) provides technical assistance, maintaining all the networks, clients, servers, and available devices in all schools doing a great job every day.
Our current footprint includes 64 servers and around 4,000 PCs and notebooks. Current staffing support includes at least one teacher at each school serving as the “FUSS referent,” with a total of approximately 70 teachers across the district who act as points of contact for FUSS technicians. These teams serve to assist other non-technical staff and students, undertake maintenance, and respond to requests related to installed software, new software, or training needs.
A few important notes about our outreach activities. First, according to Article 69 of the National Code for Digital Administration, every line of code we develop as part of the FUSS project is distributed under the GPLv3, with all documentation carrying a CC BY- SA license. We’re also working directly with the community to share our work, and increase the use of Free and Open Source Software outside of schools. For example, a group of volunteers from the Linux User Group Bozen-Bolzano, and the Group “Digital Sustainability South Tyrol - Alto Adige”, offer twice monthly workshops in 4 different cities (Bozen, Meran, Bruneck, and Brixen) to help the public install Linux on PCs and notebooks. These volunteers provide demonstrations and training on how to use the the GNU/Linux operating system, and the most common software packages, such as LibreOffice (a real favorite among community participants).
OSI: What would be your three best pieces of advice for others considering implementing open source within their own schools and districts?
Paolo Dongilli: First of all, don’t reinvent the wheel, i.e. look around to see if there are examples from other organizations that you can follow and software you can reuse. We at the FUSS Project are happy to share with you our experience and lessons learned over the past 14 years. Write to us: email@example.com. We’re happy to share all we have: multilingual distributions for both servers and clients — all Debian — with additional packages to make configuration on school networks easier, and a series of metapackages to group the most common packages needed in elementary, middle and high schools.
I’d also suggest, when presenting a project plan to your school or school district, in addition to highlighting all the technical and economic advantages, emphasize how “sustainable digitalization,” based on Free and Open Source Software, open formats, and free didactic material, improves knowledge sharing, fosters non-traditional educational opportunities, and extends access to students and families who may not have access to proprietary systems.
Also, don’t underestimate the importance (and value) of communication with, and training of users (teachers, principals, pupils and their families) through your local Free and Open Source Software community.
Lastly, invest money in people — motivated people, no matter what their role, technicians, developers, teachers, students — instead of spending money in renewing proprietary software licenses (i.e. operating expenses) in your school. Remember that when you spend money developing new FOSS or enhancing existing FOSS you also invest money (i.e. capital expenses). Share all what you do and create (software, documentation, didactic material), especially if you use public money
21 years in, the landscape around open source evolved a lot. But is, "open source" enough? According to Thierry Carrez, VP of Engineering at OSI Affiliate Member OpenStack Foundation, open source is necessary, but it is not sufficient. In this post he'll detail why.
Free software started in the 80’s by defining a number of freedoms. The author of free software has to grant users (and future contributors to the software) those freedoms. To summarize, those freedoms made you free to study, improve the software, and distribute your improvements to the public, so that ultimately everyone benefits. That was done in reaction to the apparition of "proprietary" software in a world that previously considered software a public good.
When open source was defined in 1998, it focused on a more specific angle: the rights users of the software get with the software, like access to the source code, or lack of constraints on usage. This straight focus on user rights (and less confusing naming) made it much more understandable to businesses and was key to the success of open source in our industry today.
Despite being more business-friendly, open source was never a "business model". Open source, like free software before it, is just a set of freedoms and rights attached to software. Those are conveyed through software licenses and using copyright law as their enforcement mechanism. Publishing software under a F/OSS license may be a component of a business model, but if it is the only one, then you have a problem.
The freedoms and rights attached to free and open source software bring a number of key benefits for users.
The first, and most-often cited of those benefits is cost. Access to the source code is basically free as in beer. Thanks to the English language, this created interesting confusion in the mass-market as to what the "free" in "free software" actually meant. You can totally sell "free software" -- this is generally done by adding freedoms or bundling services beyond what F/OSS itself mandates (and not by removing freedoms, as some recently would like you to think).
If the cost benefit has proven more significant as open source evolved, it's not because users are less and less willing to pay for software or computing. It's due to the more and more ubiquitous nature of computing. As software eats the world, the traditional software pay-per-seat models are getting less and less adapted to how users work, and they create extra friction in a world where everyone competes on speed.
As an engineer, I think that today, cost is a scapegoat benefit. What matters more to users is actually availability. With open source software, there is no barrier to trying out the software with all of its functionality. You don't have to ask anyone for permission (or enter any contractual relationship) to evaluate the software for future use, to experiment with it, or just to have fun with it. And once you are ready to jump in, there is no friction in transitioning from experimentation to production.
As an executive, I consider sustainability to be an even more significant benefit. When an organization makes the choice of deploying software, it does not want to left without maintenance, just because the vendor decides to drop support for the software you run, or just because the vendor goes bankrupt. The source code being available for anyone to modify means you are not relying on a single vendor for long-term maintenance.
Having a multi-vendor space is also a great way to avoid lock-in. When your business grows a dependency on software, the cost of switching to another solution can get very high. You find yourself on the vulnerable side of maintenance deals. Being able to rely on a market of vendors providing maintenance and services is a much more sustainable way of consuming software.
Another key benefit of open source adoption in a corporate setting is that open source makes it easier to identify and attract talent. Enterprises can easily identify potential recruits based on the open record of their contributions to the technology they are interested in. Conversely, candidates can easily identify with the open source technologies an organization is using. They can join a company with certainty that they will be able to capitalize on the software experience they will grow there.
A critical benefit on the technical side is transparency. Access to the source code means that users are able to look under the hood and understand by themselves how the software works, or why it behaves the way it does. Transparency also allows you to efficiently audit the software for security vulnerabilities. Beyond that, the ability to take and modify the source code means you have the possibility of self-service: finding and fixing issues by yourself, without even depending on a vendor. In both cases that increases your speed in reacting to unexpected behavior or failures.
Last but not least: with open source you have the possibility to engage in the community developing the software, and to influence its direction by contributing directly to it. This is not about "giving back" (although that is nice). Organizations that engage in the open source communities are more efficient, anticipate changes, or can voice concerns about decisions that would adversely affect them. They can make sure the software adapts to future needs by growing the features they will need tomorrow.
Beyond those user benefits (directly derived from the freedoms and rights attached to F/OSS), open source software also has positive effects to wider ecosystems.
Monopolies are bad for users. Monocultures are vulnerable environments. Open source software allows challengers to group efforts and collaborate to build an alternative to the monopoly player. It does not need to beat or eliminate the proprietary solution -- being successful is enough to create a balance and result in a healthier ecosystem.
Looking at the big picture, we live on a planet with limited natural goods, where reducing waste and optimizing productivity is becoming truly critical. As software gets pervasive and more and more people produce it, the open source production model reduces duplication of effort and the waste of energy of having the same solutions developed in multiple parallel proprietary silos.
Finally, I personally think a big part of today's social issues is the result of artificially separating our society between producers and consumers. Too many people are losing the skills necessary to build things, and are just given subscriptions, black boxes and content to absorb in a well-oiled consumption machine. Free and open source software blurs the line between producers and consumers by removing barriers and making every consumer a potential producer. It is part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.
All those benefits explain why open source software is so successful today. Those unique benefits ultimately make a superior product, one that is a smart choice for users. It is also a balancing force that drives good hygiene to wider ecosystems, which is why I would go so far as saying it is necessary in today's world.
Open source is everywhere today. It has become the default way to build and publish software. You can find open source on every server, you can find open source on every phone... Even Microsoft, the company which basically invented proprietary software, is heavily adopting open source today, with great success. By all accounts, open source won.
But... has it, really ?
The server, and by extension the computing, networking, and storage infrastructure, are unquestionably dominated by open source. But the growing share of code running operations for this infrastructure software is almost always kept private. The glue code used to provide users access to this infrastructure (what is commonly described as "cloud computing") is more often than not a trade secret. And if you look to the other side, the desktop (or the user-side applications in general) are still overwhelmingly driven by proprietary software.
Even contemplating what are generally considered open source success stories, winning can leave a bitter taste in the mouth. For example, looking at two key tech successes of the last 10 years, Amazon Web Services and Android, they both are heavily relying on open source software. They are arguably a part of this success of open source picture I just painted. But if you go back and look at all the user benefits I listed, the users of AWS and Android don’t really enjoy them all. As an AWS user, you don't have transparency: you can’t really look under the hood and understand how AWS runs things, or why the service behaves the way it does. As an Android user, you can’t really engage with Android upstream, contribute to the creation of the software and make sure it serves your needs better tomorrow.
So open source won and is ubiquitous... however in most cases, users are denied some of the key benefits of open source. And looking at what is called "open source" today, one can find lots of twisted production models. By "twisted", I mean models where some open source benefits go missing, like the ability to efficiently engage in the community.
For example, you find single-vendor open source, where the software is controlled by a single company doing development behind closed doors. You find open-core open source, where advanced features are reserved for a proprietary version and the open source software is used as a trial edition. You find open source code drops, where an organization just periodically dumps their code to open-wash it with an open source label. You find fire and forget open source, where people just publish once on GitHub with no intention of ever maintaining the code. How did we get here?
What made open source so attractive to the software industry was the promise of the community. An engaged community that would help them write the software, build a more direct relationship that would transcend classic vendor links, and help you promote the software. The issue was, those companies still very much wanted to keep control: of the software, of the design, of the product roadmap, and of the revenue. And so, in reaction to the success of open source, the software industry evolved a way to produce open source software that would allow them to retain control.
But the fact is... you can’t really have control and community. The exclusive control by a specific party over the code is discouraging other contributors from participating. The external community is considered as free labor, and is not on a level playing field compared to contributors on the inside, who really decide the direction of the software. This is bound to create frustration. This does not make a sustainable community, and ultimately does not result in sustainable software.
The open-core model followed by some of those companies creates an additional layer of community tension. At first glance, keeping a set of advanced features for a proprietary edition of the software sounds like a smart business model. But what happens when a contributor proposes code that would make the "community edition" better ? Or when someone starts to question why a single party is capitalizing on the work of "the community"? In the best case, this leads to the death of the community, and in the worst case this leads to a fork... which makes this model particularly brittle.
By 2019, I think it became clearer to everyone that they have to choose between keeping control and growing a healthy community. However most companies chose to retain control, and abandon the idea of true community contribution. Their goal is to keep reaping the marketing gains of calling their software open source, of pretending to have all the benefits associated with the open source label, while applying a control recipe that is much closer to proprietary software than to the original freedoms and rights associated with free software and open source.
So the issue with twisted production models like single-vendor or open-core is that you are missing some benefits, like availability, or sustainability, or self-service, or the ability to engage and influence the direction of the software. The software industry adapted to the success of open source: it adopted open source licenses but little else, stripping users of the benefits associated with open source while following the letter of the open source law.
How is that possible?
The issue is that free software and open source both addressed solely the angle of freedom and rights that users get with the end product, as conveyed through software licenses. They did not mandate how the software was to be built. They said nothing about who really controls the creation of the software. And how open source is built actually has a major impact on the benefits users get out of the software.
The sad reality is, in this century, most open source projects are actually closed one way or the other: their core development may be done behind closed doors, or their governance may be locked down to ensure permanent control by the main sponsor. Everyone produces open source software, but projects developed by a truly open community have become rare.
And yet, with truly open communities, we have an open source production model that guarantees all the benefits of free and open source software. It has a number of different names. I call it open collaboration: the model where a community of equals contributes to a commons on a level playing field, generally under an open governance and sometimes the asset lock of a neutral non-profit organization. No reserved seats, no elite group of developers doing design behind closed doors. Contribution is the only valid currency.
Open collaboration used to be the norm for free and open source software production. While it is more rare today, the success of recent open infrastructure communities like OpenStack or Kubernetes proves that this model is still viable today at very large scale, and can be business-friendly. This model guarantees all the open source benefits I listed above, especially sustainability (not relying on a single vendor), and the ability for anyone to engage, influence the direction of the software, and make sure it addresses their future needs.
As much as I may regret it, the software industry is free to release their closely-developed software under an open source license. They have every right to call their software "open source", as long as they comply with the terms of an OSI-approved license. So if we want to promote good all-benefits-included open source against twisted some-benefits-withheld open source, F/OSS advocates will need to regroup, work together, reaffirm the Open Source Definition and build additional standards on top of it, beyond "open source".
So while being necessary, open source today is not enough. What should we, open source enthusiasts and advocates, do about that ? First, let me clarify what we should not do.
Since open source was coined in 1998, software companies have evolved ways to retain control while producing open source software, and in that process stripped users of some of the traditional benefits associated with F/OSS. But those companies were still abiding to the terms of the open source licenses, giving users a clear base set of freedoms and rights.
Over the past year, a number of those companies have decided that they wanted even more control, in particular control of any revenue associated with the open source software. They proposed new licenses, removing established freedoms and rights in order to be able to assert that level of control. The Open Source Definition defines those minimal freedoms and rights that any open source software should have, so the Open Source Initiative (OSI), as steadfast guardians of that definition, rightfully resisted those attempts.
Those companies quickly switched to attacking OSI's legitimacy, pitching "Open Source" more as a broad category than a clear set of freedoms and rights. And they created new licenses, with deceptive naming ("community", "commons", "public"...) in an effort to blur the lines and retain some of the Open Source Definition aura for their now-proprietary software.
The solution is not in redefining open source, or claiming it's no longer relevant. Open source is not a business model, or a constantly evolving way to produce software. It is a base set of user freedoms and rights expressed in the license the software is published under. Like all standards, its value resides in its permanence.
Yes, I'm of the opinion that today, "open source" is not enough. Yes, we need to go beyond open source. But in order to do that, we need to base that additional layer on a solid foundation: the Open Source Definition.
That makes the work of the OSI more important than ever. Open source used to be attacked from the outside, proprietary software companies claiming open source software was inferior or dangerous. Those were clear attacks that were relatively easy to resist: it was mostly education and advocacy, and ultimately the quality of open source software could be used to prove our point. Now it's attacked from the inside, by companies traditionally producing open source software, claiming that it should change to better fit their business models. We need to go back to the basics and explain why those rights and freedoms matter, and why blurring the lines ultimately weakens everyone. We need a strong OSI to lead that new fight, because it is far from over.
As I argued in previous parts, how open source is built ultimately impacts the benefits users get. A lot of us know that, and we all came up with our own vocabulary to describe those various ways open source is produced today.
Even within a given model (say open collaboration between equals on a level playing field), we use different sets of principles: the OpenStack Foundation has the 4 Opens (open source, open development, open design, open community), the Eclipse Foundation has the Open Source Rules of Engagement (open, transparent, meritocracy), the Apache Foundation has the Apache Way... We all advocate for our own variant, focusing on differences rather than what we have in common: the key benefits those variants all enable.
This abundance of slightly-different vocabulary makes it difficult to rally around and communicate efficiently. If we have no clear way to differentiate good all-benefits-included open source from twisted some-benefits-withheld open source, the confusion (where all open source is considered equal) benefits the twisted production models. I think it is time for us to regroup, and converge around a clear, common classification of open source production models.
We need to classify those models based on which benefits they guarantee to the users of the produced software. Open-core does not guarantee availability, single-vendor does not provide sustainability nor does it allow to efficiently engage and influence the direction of the software, while open-collaboration gives you all three.
Once we have this classification, we'll need to heavily communicate around it, with a single voice. As long as we use slightly different terms (or mean slightly different things when using common terms), we maintain confusion which ultimately benefits the most restrictive models.
Beyond that, I think we need to talk more. Open source conferences used to be all about education and advocacy: what is this weird way of producing software, and why you should probably be interested in it. Once open source became ubiquitous, those style of horizontal open source conferences became less relevant, and were soon replaced by more vertical conferences around a specific stack or a specific use case.
This is a good evolution: this is what winning looks like. The issue is: the future of open source is not discussed anymore. We rest on our laurels, while the world continually evolves and adapts. Some open source conference islands may still exist, with high-level keynotes still raising the issues, but those are generally one-way conversations.
To do this important work of converging vocabulary and defining common standards on how open source is produced, Twitter won't cut it. To bootstrap the effort we'll need to meet, get around a table and take the time to discuss specific issues together. Ideally that would be done around some other event(s) to avoid extra travel.
And we need to do that soon. This work is becoming urgent. "Open source" as a standard has lots of value because of all the user benefits traditionally associated with free and open source software. That created an aura that all open source software still benefits from today. But that aura is weakening over time, thanks to twisted production models. How much more single-vendor open source can we afford until "open source" no longer means you can engage with the community and influence the direction of the software?
So here is my call to action...
In 2019, open source is more important than ever. Open source has not "won", this is a continuous effort, and we are today at a critical junction. I think open source advocates and enthusiasts need to get together, defining clear, standard terminology on how open source software is built, and start communicate heavily around it with a single voice. And beyond that, we need to create forums where those questions on the future of open source are discussed. Because whatever battles you win today, the world does not stop evolving and adapting.
Obviously I don't have all the answers. And there are lots of interesting questions. It's just time we have a place to ask those questions and discuss the answers. If you are interested and want to get involved, feel free to contact me.
About the author: Thierry Carrez is VP of Engineering at OSI Affiliate Member OpenStack Foundation and an elected member of the OpenStack Technical Committee. "Open Source in 2019," parts 1/3, 2/3 & 3/3, © Thierry Carrez, 2019, via ttx:reloaded. Reposted here with permission, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Image credit: "OpenSourceIN2019_0.png" by Open Source Initiative, 2019, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication, is a derivative (cropped and elongated) of "Hikers on the Boardwalk Through the Steam at Grand Prismatic Spring" a U.S. National Park Service photo by Jacob W. Frank (2016), available under Public Domain, via the U.S. National Park Service.
Resources designed to fill key skills gaps as open source industry matures.
OSCON – PORTLAND, OR – July 17, 2019 –Brandeis University’s Graduate Professional Studies division (GPS) will partner with The Open Source Initiative® (OSI) to provide new educational offerings for the open source community, the university announced at OSCON 2019.
As more companies start leveraging Open Source Software to reduce costs, decrease time to deployment and foster innovation, the organizations that have realized success as open source consumers are now extending their participation within open source communities as collaborators and contributors. This shift can create new challenges to traditional business processes and models, requiring dedicated policies, programs and personnel to ensure that the investments in open source projects produce the desired benefits while still aligning with the values of the open source communities. The Brandeis GPS-OSI partnership will help address the growing demand for expertise within organizations seeking to authentically collaborate with, and productively manage, open source resources.
“Understanding how to assess, engage, and contribute to open source communities while also delivering value to your company is the next generation skill set employers are looking for,” said Patrick Masson, general manager of the Open Source Initiative. “We're thrilled to work with Brandeis to help continue the incredible growth of open source software and projects.”
True to open source software process and principles, the educational offerings coming out of the partnership will be crowd-sourced and jointly developed by an advisory board comprised of university curriculum development experts and senior open source advocates from Amazon, Red Hat, Bloomberg, Twitter and other leading companies.
“Brandeis GPS is known for developing programs that keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in technology,” said Dr. James La Creta, the university’s chief information officer and chair of the Master of Science in Technology Management program. “Much like the other graduate programs at Brandeis GPS, open source technology's flexibility, speed, and cost-effectiveness makes it extremely desirable for organizations. It yields a better quality product, creates a culture of collaboration, and attracts curious and innovative talent that all CIO's covet.”
Courses and other initiatives are currently in development, and the university expects to announce more information about the first open source educational program later this year. Visit www.brandeis.edu/open-source to learn more.
About Brandeis Graduate Professional Studies
Brandeis University’s Graduate Professional Studies division (GPS) offers fully online, part-time graduate programs, specializations, and professional development courses in today’s most in-demand fields. With graduate programs that include Technology Management, Information Security Leadership, User-Centered Design, and Digital Innovation for FinTech, Brandeis GPS strives to provide programs that empower students to be on the leading edge of advancements in technology and innovation. Courses are led by industry experts who deliver professional insights and individualized support. Brandeis GPS is dedicated to extending the rigorous academic standards that make Brandeis University one of the top institutions in the country to a diverse population seeking to advance their careers through continuing studies.
About The Open Source Initiative
Founded in 1998, The Open Source Initiative protects and promotes Open Source Software, development and communities, championing software freedom in society through education, collaboration, and infrastructure, stewarding the Open Source Definition, and preventing abuse of the ideals and ethos inherent to the open source movement. The OSI is a public charity with global vision based in California. For more information about the OSI, please see, opensource.org.
Generous support from long-standing open source collaborator and contributor will advance open source alignment and foster open standards.
OSCON, Portland, OR - July 15, 2019 – The Open Source Initiative ® (OSI), the founding organization of the Open Source Software movement and steward of the Open Source Definition, announced today corporate sponsorship by Juniper Networks, the longstanding proponent of open source software and open standards, and industry leader in automated, scalable, and secure networks. Juniper Networks firmly believes open source and open standards foster greater innovation, and for years has actively participated in a variety of open source communities and key standards bodies, including FreeBSD Foundation, Linux Foundation, Cloud Native Computing Foundation, and OpenStack Foundation. In addition to their support of open source foundations, the networking company has released or contributed to many free and open source projects such as OpenStack, Ansible, Salt, PyEZ, wistar, OpenNTI, Tungsten Fabric, along with dozens of others.
“Open source has never been more fundamental to technology innovation today, forming the building blocks for widely used platforms in networks, clouds and applications in every industry sector.” said Randy Bias, VP of Technology and Open Source Software. “Juniper supports the OSI’s key role in articulating and defending the principles on which open source is based, especially as the technologies in which open source is used rapidly evolve and respond to competitive and regulatory pressures.”
“Open source has meaning,” added VM (Vicky) Brasseur, Director of Open Source Strategy at Juniper Networks. “It means a lot to Juniper Networks, which recognises the benefits it receives from using Open Source Software and its responsibilities to the communities that build that software. That meaning extends beyond the software to the term itself, as represented in the Open Source Definition (OSD). Without this shared and standard definition, Juniper and other enterprises could not communicate and operate effectively. We at Juniper are grateful for the dedication that OSI has shown over the past and future years to protecting the Open Source Definition and the meaning of open source.”
As more and more companies shift from being consumers of open source to contributors—or even creators—of open source, many face internal challenges: executive buy-in, re-orienting middle management, re-engineering internal processes, and identifying compatible business models that don’t just work with open source (or conflict with it), but actually leverage its power to innovate and differentiate. These are the issues now front and center for so many seeking the benefits and successes of Open Source Software, and this is exactly where the OSI is focusing work today: continuing efforts in awareness and adoption, while expanding work to promote authenticity and foster sustainability.
Support from the world’s leading technology companies, like Juniper Networks, is critical for not only the financial contributions that keep OSI operational, but also for their role as exemplars who help to inform current practice and mentor the broader Open Source Software community. “Juniper have been tremendous support to OSI while we have been establishing the Open Source and Standards Working Group to address the challenges faced understanding open source by the de jure standards community” said Simon Phipps, OSI Director and immediate past President. “Having them additionally offer sponsorship is most welcome and we look forward to further collaboration.”
About Juniper Networks
Juniper Networks simplifies the complexities of networking with products, solutions and services in the cloud era to transform the way we connect, work and live. We remove the traditional constraints of networking to enable our customers and partners to deliver automated, scalable and secure networks that connect the world. Additional information can be found at Juniper Networks (www.juniper.net) or connect with Juniper on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Discover more about Juniper Networks and open source, at https://www.juniper.net/us/en/company/open-source/.
About The Open Source Initiative
Founded in 1998, The Open Source Initiative protects and promotes Open Source Software, development and communities, championing software freedom in society through education, collaboration, and infrastructure, stewarding the Open Source Definition, and preventing abuse of the ideals and ethos inherent to the open source movement. The OSI is a public charity with global vision based in California. For more information about the OSI and sponsorship opportunities, please see, https://opensource.org/sponsors, or connect via Twitter.