‘Don’t risk being left behind’

Adoption of open source software has been the key to success for many of today’s top-performing companies. For those without a transitioning strategy, it is time to adopt or die, warns Professor Jim Norton


The shift to open source software (OSS) is one of the most important current trends in technology, yet it is surprisingly little discussed when compared with the major e-businesses built on its foundations, including Google, Amazon, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Open source can offer huge benefits. While transitioning from closed to open systems is no trivial task, organisations that fail to embrace it risk being left behind as their competitors capitalise on the new possibilities offered.

There are wider benefits to the economy as a whole, adopting open source will help to ensure that businesses are fit for purpose, can compete globally and are best able to evolve to meet the changing requirements of their customers and marketplaces.

OSS did not spring into life fully formed; it has had a long gestation period. Its antecedents stretch back some 40 years to the concepts of open system interconnection (OSI) and the development by Bell Laboratories of the portable UNIX operating system.

UNIX was the inspiration for the first Linux kernel released in 1991 and the following 22 years have seen intensive development of that operating system. Along the way, a number of well-known proprietary operating systems, such as those from Apple and BlackBerry, built on OSS foundations, while others, such as Google’s Android, remain largely open.

The advantages of open source, both to the IT provider and the enterprise customer, are manifold. Perhaps one its most important attributes is the access to greater innovation that OSS affords. The combination of open source software, open systems interoperability and open standards has created a self-reinforcing community of shared research and development, and a pooling of creative ideas. In the words of Jim Whitehurst, chief executive of Linux provider Red Hat: “More innovation will happen first in open source and that’s a radical change from even five years ago.”

Adopting open source will help to ensure that businesses are fit for purpose, can compete globally and are best able to evolve

It is not just about innovation. When faced with an ever-faster pace of change, OSS provides an important competitive weapon by encouraging a quicker response to changing requirements. The speed of change in many markets, especially those with a consumer focus, is now relentless. The availability of a wide range of cost-effective development tools, the ability to scale rapidly and access to a global community of shared knowledge, all favour the use of the open approach. Having an IT infrastructure that is able to support the required commercial agility is a key to success.

Under the continuing impetus of Moore’s Law of increasing technological change, developments continue apace. In hardware, this has included the introduction of ultra-high resolution displays, enhanced wireless networking and network-based storage, while in software and systems the field of business analytics has grown. By embracing OSS, companies can benefit from the rapid exploitation of new technological developments in a way that is not possible with closed proprietary systems that require on-going maintenance and reconfiguration.

One of the most important, yet often overlooked, advantages is better access to skilled, motivated and innovative people. A generation has now grown up with the internet and with open source. They want to work with these systems and tools rather than the closed and proprietary approaches that are frequently seen as being more limiting. If companies want to attract the best talent, they must embrace open source software.

This “people advantage” also extends to the existence of a global OSS community, allowing companies to draw on millions of software architects, analysts, designers and programmers to share knowledge and resolve problems. In turn, this opens up endless possibilities for greater collaboration and innovation.

There is also the added benefit of lower total cost of ownership. While OSS is generally free to acquire, rather than being subject to the licensing fees normally charged for access to proprietary software, this is not the correct basis on which to compare costs. It is more appropriate to consider the total cost of ownership over the lifetime of use of the software. Last year, the London School of Economics published a report on the total cost of ownership for the UK Government’s Cabinet Office. This report found that: “The highest score for strategic drivers was for reduced vendor lock-in. A close second was value for money.”

Open source has demonstrated its capabilities and is now considered fit for purpose even in business-critical applications. Amadeus IT Group, which processes around a billion travel-related transactions per year and the fast-moving trading systems of the London Stock Exchange exemplify its use in highly demanding transaction processing environments.

Open source allows consumers access in real time to a depth and range of services that would simply be unaffordable using the old models. The importance of this for the broader UK economy, too, should not be ignored.

Based on the Open for Business white paper, sponsored by Amadeus IT Group.

Professor Jim Norton is a respected adviser to governments, an independent director, and has served on several notable inquiries and commissions; he is a past president of the BCS – The Chartered Institute for IT, former chief executive of the UK Radiocommunications Agency and ex-chairman of Deutsche Telekom Ltd.