What's behind the ascendency of enterprise open source?

John Leonard
clock • 8 min read

With open source filling mission-critical niches everywhere, we look at the drivers

Microsoft's abrupt volte face to embrace open source a few years ago met with a wave of cynicism from those who reflexively typed the company's name as ‘M$' and referred disparagingly to its best-known product as ‘Windoze'.

You don't see much of that ‘Great Satan' talk anymore, even in the most partisan of Linux forums, although there remains a deal of suspicion about the motives of Microsoft and other tech giants as they take up key positions in the Linux Foundation and other open source industry collaborations. Be that as it may, most now see Redmond's move as a canny one, a recognition of the way the wind was blowing and a determination not to be caught on the hop.

From its back-bedroom and academic roots, open source is now a serious enterprise option and is found everywhere from mobile phone operating systems to banking internals in the gleaming skyscrapers of the City. Of course, not all open source is born equal, and some source code is definitely more open than others (more about that later), but being able to adopt and adapt other people's work and to share the results has undoubtedly lit a fire under technological innovation.

Open is on the up

In a recent study from Red Hat, a total of 69 per cent of IT professionals and influencers rated open source software as ‘important' or ‘extremely important' (four or five on a five-point scale) to their organisations, with just one per cent saying it is not at all important.

A significant proportion of cloud, big data and web technologies (containers, Hadoop, streaming, etc) are open source, as are most of the newer databases. The range of applications for which there is a viable open-source option is growing all the time. Organisations don't necessarily select it because it's cheaper (although the fact that free versions are almost always available certainly helps with adoption at the early stages). Instead they choose it for its quality, the fact they can contribute to its development in order to meet their own needs, because it fills gaps in coverage by proprietary solutions - plus, of course, an active community means that patches, fixes and updates should be issued more promptly.

Facebook alone open-sourced 158 projects last year

Programs that would once have been guarded jealously behind closed doors are now routinely open sourced with the aim of attracting developers in order to cut their time to market (think Kubernetes which started life in Google, Apache Kafka which was an internal project at LinkedIn, and React from Facebook; Facebook alone open-sourced 158 projects last year).

What's behind the rise?

There are many trends underlying the ascendency of open source. One is the increased use of cloud, both as a way of working and as a distribution platform. Pre-GitHub, most projects were in-house efforts - maybe that's still the case, but the easy availability of code on cloud repositories has certainly changed the game. It has also enabled players from countries like China to start playing a much bigger role. Anyone attending a software summit in the last couple of years could not have failed to notice the vastly larger presence of Chinese sponsors, media and developers.

"It's a very positive thing," said Alan Clark, chairman of the OpenStack Foundation and CTO at Suse. "You get more contributors which means you get more done. But they also come in with different perspectives, different markets and different requirements, and that helps improve the software."

Another trend is the bringing together of multiple open-source components to build platforms that span the various deployment models. Suse is a case in point, creating modular versions of its Linux distribution to run everywhere from the data centre to edge devices to public cloud, and overlaying that with other components including Open Stack to create a software defined infrastructure layer.

"It's so you can manage the different types of virtualisation technologies like containerisation and bare metal and you don't have to do that is silos, you can manage them together, which gives you higher agility, lower risk and lower cost," Clark explained, adding that the next layer up caters for DevOps and delivery - another movement driving enterprise open source.

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