Open source or privately owned? Available to everyone or a select few? There’s a nagging persistence to these questions for businesses. Sometimes the pendulum swings toward the benefits of share and share alike — in other moments, safeguarding networks becomes the paramount concern.
As noted by Computer World, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the Open Source Initiative — so it’s worth taking a hard look at where open-source software came from, its pros and cons and what it means for the future of technological advancement.
While the concept of communally developed software sounds good in theory, articulating the real-world benefits of open-source software can be challenging. A recent initiative by Swedish furniture maker IKEA, however, provides useful context. According to Bloomberg, the company’s new “Delaktig” modular sofa line lets customers design their optimal end result from a set list of components.
That’s open source in a nutshell — established, publicly available code lets companies use existing templates to deploy common solutions or leverage the framework to build something unique. By working together, sharing data and vetting eventual releases, groups such as the OSI help develop reliable code that empowers business outcomes.
The Open Source Initiative
As noted by Computer World, the Open Source Initiative got its start in 1998 “as a general educational and advocacy organization with the aim of raising awareness and adoption for open development processes … and all manner of open goodness.” Now, 20 years on, the organization has made significant inroads but hasn’t quite shaken the reliance of companies on proprietary software.
It’s no surprise that the pendulum swung away from open-source software recently. The shift of critical data to cloud-based storage combined with recent high-profile vulnerabilities like Heartbleed — which relied on OpenSSL — made companies wary of putting too much faith in open-source software.
Companies Joining Open Source Ranks
The hard truth? Open-source software is still just that — software. Despite regular review and best efforts, no piece of software is perfect, and any tool that’s used as widely as OpenSSL is top priority for hackers. But enterprises are coming around to the idea of open source as essential technology. According to Tech Crunch, technology giant Microsoft has now joined the OSI as a premium sponsor. The popular internet advertisement blocker Adblock Plus — originally built with open-source code — is partnering with the OSI.
Along with funding, innovation is underway. Google is opening an AI research center in France, with all code and results open to the public, according to Tech Crunch. As noted by FossBytes, Facebook used open-source technology to develop a new unit of time known as a Flick, which is short for frame-tick and is exactly 1/705,600,000 of a second. It allows videos at certain hertz to represent single-frame durations as integer quantities rather than decimal places. Flick should make it easier for companies and content creators to keep their videos in sync regardless of their encoding frequency.
Benefits of Open Source
So what’s the downside if companies choose to design solutions in house rather than leveraging open-source tools?
The amount of time it takes for local IT to build applications and services from the ground up using proprietary code can be hindering. It’s the old “don’t reinvent the wheel” argument: For common functions, chances are there’s an open-source variant that already does what companies need, doesn’t cost anything and can be customized to meet industry standards.
Cyberattacks are the bigger problem with avoiding open-source software. As noted in The Guardian, it’s a matter of “‘when, not if'” a major cyberattack targets critical infrastructure or utilities. What could be a contained hacking situation may turn into a national disaster if companies aren’t willing to share data about software implementation and best practices. Open source allows enterprises to prepare for cyberattacks communally rather than fending for themselves after a breach.
When Will Open Source Catch On?
The benefits of open source for tech advancement are substantial. Hopefully, emerging support from industry leaders like Facebook and Google should help jump-start other open-source projects, while work such as Northrop Grumman’s Cync program helps cybersecurity startups get access to the advanced resources they need to change the market. It’s not ubiquitous yet, but 20 years on, the OSI is making good progress and open-source tech is gaining ground as viable, reliable corporate IT groundwork.