Hidden powerhouse drives forward new markets

From the birth of the internet to the creation of the cloud, free software has been the major driving force, as Billy MacInnes discovers


It is not hard to get a good example of the hidden benefits open source software (OSS) brings to everyday life. Start with something most of us use frequently: the internet.

Around 78 per cent of websites rely on an open source technology known as PHP and nearly 58 per cent of web servers use Apache software which is also OSS. An additional 12 per cent use Nginx, yet another open source project. In total, 70 per cent of the web hosting market is powered by open source.

Three content management systems commonly used for blogs, WordPress, Joomla and Drupal, are OSS and account for 70 per cent of the market.

Dominique Karg, chief hacking officer at AlienVault, offers a personal recollection of the impact OSS made 15 years ago.

“I still remember the huge satisfaction I had by just setting up my own Apache and sharing a couple of sites,” she says. “This exhilarating experience drove me, and a huge number of others, to explore and set up our own server systems: web servers with database backends, security programmes and network simulators – for example, Zebra – to play with more advanced stuff.”

Open source is, in a very real sense, the reason the cloud exists

Red Hat chief executive Jim Whitehurst claims OSS played a large role in the development of Google and Facebook. In an interview with the Times of India, he says: “The cost of building even the beginnings of Google, if you were doing that in the traditional IT stack way, would have been prohibitive. Our estimate is that, if they had paid traditional licence fees, even discounted, they would have paid $10 billion (£62 billion) every year in such fees.”

Google is a strong supporter and is involved in numerous initiatives, such as Apache, OpenBSD, OpenSSH and Chrome. Facebook also has a very strong open source ethos. It runs the world’s largest deployment of Hadoop software, supporting distributed processing of large data sets across computer clusters. Other Hadoop users include Google, Amazon and Microsoft.

Open source is also fuelling a large part of the cloud computing phenomenon. Stephen O’Grady, analyst at RedMonk, is unequivocal. “Open source is, in a very real sense, the reason the cloud exists,” he says.

Major cloud providers, such as Amazon, built their platforms on open source software foundations. The lack of licensing restrictions made open source much easier to use with cloud platforms, compared to companies such as Microsoft which had to make Windows licensing fit the cloud model.

“The result is a cloud environment which is not all open source – Microsoft, VMware and other closed source providers have substantial penetration – but overwhelmingly tilted in open source’s favour,” adds Mr O’Grady.

Fabio Torlini, vice president of marketing at Rackspace, agrees open source will make significant inroads in cloud computing. “When an organisation has firm plans for many hundreds or thousands of cloud servers, open source can have a significant financial advantage. Equally, when usage is expected to vary significantly, open source solutions can sidestep the commercial complexities of enterprise licences that have not yet adapted to the cloud era.”

The smartphone and tablet markets are big open source users. Apple’s iPhone helped popularise the smartphone but, according to figures from analysts IDC, the Android open-source operating system was installed on 68 per cent of phones shipped in the second quarter of 2012.

The natural benefits of open source technology – freedom of choice, no licensing costs, no vendor lock-in, easy to understand licensing terms, the ability to modify source and improve code to address an issue or problem – have helped to grow new markets more rapidly than if they had been left to proprietary vendors. Without open source technology, things would be very different today.