Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Monday, June 24, 2024

The Rise of the Open-Source Platform 

The success of closed-source companies (like Microsoft in the early days of the digital revolution) made it easy to write off open source as a niche movement with little real-world relevance. But the concept of open source is almost as old as software itself — it has been, and continues to be, a viable option.

The rise of Linux proved as much, and the result was plenty of core infrastructure software. Now, we’ve reached a point where major tech companies — Microsoft included — are realizing the benefits of open-sourcing their core platforms and infrastructure. Building on this momentum will require give and take by the entire open-source community.

Netflix took an early lead when it open sourced many of its cloud management tools. Doing so allowed Netflix to set standards in some areas of cloud management (which persist across alternative tools). It also allowed Netflix to recruit engineers working on their open-source projects — a major competitive advantage in today’s hiring market.

Large technology companies create only some open-source projects, however, and many struggle to come up with the necessary funding for development. That reality was illustrated recently when a major security bug known as Heartbleed was discovered in the OpenSSL cryptographic library, which powers most https-enabled sites on the Internet.

Continuum Analytics CEO Travis Oliphant

The investigations into the Heartbleed Bug revealed, among other things, that the OpenSSL project had just one full-time developer. A lack of funding was the culprit, and major tech companies responded by forming a consortium responsible for raising and distributing funding to critical projects that power the web.

That sort of cooperative response bodes well for the future of open source. It shows that projects don’t need to be closely tied to specific companies to benefit from the deep pockets of tech giants. Therefore, projects will be able to focus on more general solutions with broader reaches rather than catering to single companies.

A major driver of the migration to open source is the ability to prevent vendor lock-in, which can be costly — especially if a specific vendor closes down, or business needs require switching to another vendor. Because open source has a single point of ownership and is generally built around industry standards, moving between projects in response to changing business requirements is much easier and generally less expensive.

The open cloud platform OpenStack is an example of these forces at work. Developed in response to the rapid growth and dominant market share of Amazon Web Services, OpenStack allows companies to move their infrastructures between public AWS environments and private clouds.

The existence of an open-source alternative like OpenStack can actually encourage startups and smaller companies are with the knowledge they have open-source platform alternative to fall back on. Small companies, for example, can start on AWS and then switch to OpenStack when they have achieved enough scale to justify supporting their own infrastructures.

Despite these encouraging trends, open source still has a lot of room to improve. As momentum builds, many decision makers are mandating open source without truly understanding the collaborative nature of the community. That trend could lead to consumer-only scenarios, where companies use open-source software but don’t give back to the community by contributing themselves. In the long run, that scenario is obviously unsustainable.

Among the ways companies built around open source have tackled this problem is by offering either premium versions of popular open-source tools or other paid options. Both allow free use of the base software but require contributions for use of more advanced features or additional stability.

The companies offering these types of services generally spend significant resources further developing the open-source cores of their tools or platforms to meet enterprise needs. Enterprise requirements benefit the entire open-source ecosystem by requiring the software to be easier to use, while also allowing everyone to benefit from rapid innovation that is typical in popular open-source software. Further, this encourages use by promising young startups (or individual developers) that might one day become paying customers.

As open source progresses from operating systems to platforms and beyond, it will inevitably make the jump to applications, an area still dominated by paid software. That jump will require new and innovative funding models for consumer-facing projects.

Companies and individuals alike will do well to take advantage of the growing popularity of open source, but it’s important to give back when possible. Contribute by giving directly to organizations that sponsor open-source development, or by purchasing premium options from companies that support open source. Companies also can give back by sponsoring developers writing open-source software.

It’s important to recognize that open source is about creating a community around the software you’re releasing. Rarely is it useful to “dump” your unmaintained software into open source in hopes someone will pick it up. Creating open source is about creating community — and that takes time and effort beyond just writing code.

--Travis Oliphant is CEO of Continuum Analytics, a Python-based data analytics software solutions and services company.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).