Opening up the code for innovation

Developed by a community of volunteers and made freely available, open source software is attracting attention and challenging proprietary packages, writes Rod Newing

Built by academics and not business people, the internet was open source from the outset. When Sir Tim Berners-Lee decided not to patent his web server and browser, he ensured that the world wide web, which made the internet usable by businesses, would be dominated by open source software.

It was only a matter of time before open source moved out from network infrastructure to applications, enabling computing to become fully independent from the big and powerful hardware and software vendors. Some of the most active areas currently in computing – big data analytics, the cloud, smartphones and tablet devices – rely heavily on the software.

Open source attracted adopters because they did not have to pay to install and use the software.  Having free access to the source code, meant that anybody in the active and enthusiastic user communities could develop and make available additional functionality and bug fixes very quickly.

Software companies liked it because, with the licence fee being replaced by ongoing support contracts, they were able to sell associated services. Even vendors, such as IBM and HP, were heavily promoting Linux, the open source operating system, against their own UNIX operating systems.

Governments liked it because, after being locked into a series of costly proprietary software upgrades for enormous numbers of users with little volume discounts being given, it offered them reduced annual IT costs. Software is not needed just by the Civil Service, but by the whole public sector, including local councils and the National Health Service, not to mention large numbers of students at schools and universities.

The speed of development associated with open source has encouraged innovation and increased business agility

Technically, adopting open source software was a sensible choice. However, it incurred resistance at the enterprise level from user organisations, possibly unaware that their businesses were already dependent on open source software deep in their infrastructure. They wanted the perceived lower risk of using software from major vendors, with a clear responsibility, known as “one throat to choke”, if things went wrong.

Faced with the threat of losing much of their installed user-base, the traditional proprietary software vendors defended their interests with a series of hard individual negotiations with their largest customers. The result was large-volume, long-term licensing deals that would keep them away from open source for a period.

Whereas the principal software vendors have always had a formal structured ecosystem of partners and resellers, open source has encouraged a much larger informal group of individuals and companies, including both developers and users, to collaborate in facilitating entire integrated, highly reliable and secure systems.

Major web-based companies, such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube, have built their massive and reliable infrastructures on open source. Even high-volume, real-time transaction processors, such as Amadeus, the global airline and travel booking system, are migrating mission-critical systems to open source.

The speed of development associated with open source has encouraged innovation and increased business agility, vital for bringing sustained advantage in an increasingly competitive business environment. With the shift to private and public cloud computing, open source is playing an increasingly important role in the transformation of corporate computing.