Open-source software is now not only acceptable; in many companies, it is required. In the past, enterprises looked at open source projects as if they were science experiments, lacking the support and “single throat to choke” in case of an escalation. But the tide has turned. It is now common to have one or more companies offering support on open source projects, enabling enterprises to not only get the same level of service formerly reserved for proprietary commercial software, but to also benefit from the vibrant communities surrounding open source projects.
What are the benefits of community for the enterprise? Independence and transparency.
Open-source is an insurance policy for the enterprise. There’s no single point of failure. If a software company is acquired or changes focus, there’s a large community that can continue development. It reduces vendor lock-in.
Software companies used to offer this insurance in the form of source code escrow contracts – an arrangement where if the software company ceases to be able to provide the terms agreed to in the contract, the customer can gain access to a source code repository managed by a third party. But what often happens in reality is that when these triggers apply, the actual developers of the source code have already disappeared into the ether and found new jobs in other companies. Without an actual, open source project, it is hard for that developer community to stay integrated and productive.
Open-source communities also blur company lines. They remain connected, whether formally, by entities like the Apache Software Foundation that provide rules of governance for projects, or informally via online forums, sites like StackOverflow, and Meetups. These connections keep the community together and available beyond the longevity of individual companies.
A large open-source community created around a technology also means that organizations can find talent who know the technology inside and out. These individuals can then be hired internally or brought on as consultants to train, operate, fix bugs, or customize the software for the unique needs of the enterprise.
It’s a brand new world. Open-source projects can now easily be extended with DevOps tools for continuous integration and containerization that make it much easier to customize and maintain customizations through frequent release cycles. This enables companies to get near-custom software, while benefiting from the innovation of an external community – one that extends beyond an individual company.
The open-source movement has significantly increased the transparency of the software industry. Before open-source, a large enterprise making a multi-million dollar decision would often do so only after experiencing a few reference calls and some demonstrations of a set of requirements, in which users never touched the keyboards, only the sales engineers did.
Contrast this to today. First, your engineers can look at all of the community code. They can build the code themselves and try it at will. They can look at community social media channels such as forums, IRC, Slack, and StackOverflow and explicitly see what people are saying – including the good, the bad, and the ugly. They can test the system out on their own terms, without interference from the vendor.
All of the code that is required to make a software solution really work – the glue to other systems, the instantiation of the systems with certain configurations, data, and the rules – are also now out in the open for companies to see and try. It’s freely available on YouTube channels, GitHub repositories and community sites, where mounds of experience is immediately available.
But despite all of these changes, trying software is still hard to do. It requires hardware – and nobody wants to procure, install, configure and operate hardware, just to try software. That’s where another major IT movement comes in – the cloud. The cloud has revolutionized the adoption of open-source software, because even if the software requires extensive hardware, it is extraordinarily easy to provision on one of a few cloud computing infrastructure vendors such as Heroku, Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform. In minutes, a developer can light up a 10 node Linux cluster, try a Big Data architecture on his own data, and shut it off, spending nominal amounts of money, if any at all.
This transparency to how the software actually works is unprecedented, making enterprises more informed than ever before. They can investigate their software choices more deeply and even try them before buying, vastly reducing the risk enterprises have to take.
My company, Splice Machine, just recently made the plunge into the open-source world and we will never look back. We have developed a community page as a launch point to get at the code, documentation, best practices, and cloud infrastructure necessary to make the benefits mentioned above a reality for our customers.
Open-source is vibrant. Visit https://projects.apache.org/ to see the growth of just those projects in the Apache Software Foundation. There are many other popular projects outside Apache, including operating systems (https://www.centos.org, Linux Kernel), Databases (MongoDB,MySQL, PostgreSQL), and many others (WordPress.com: Create a free website or blog, Magento: eCommerce Software & eCommerce Platform Solutions, and VideoLAN -VLC media player).
Open-Source does, however, come with its own set of challenges. It is incumbent upon the vendor to find the right monetization strategy to meet their business objectives. While some companies integrate components and provide support services, and others reserve some features for an Enterprise edition that remains proprietary, it is clear that every open-source company must find a way to convert project adopters into paying customers. Red Hat is the most mature company blazing the open-source path. Hortonworks: Open and Connected Data Platforms proved that you can go public as an open source company, raising $100 million in 2014 and just this month, Talend Real-Time Open Source Data Integration Software raised $94 million.
Open-source is not about “free software.” Most enterprises are willing to pay for support and enterprise features that enhance, extend, and facilitate the use of open-source software. But what they thirst for is the independence, transparency, and community that an open-source project provides.
Monte Zweben is co-founder and CEO of Splice Machine. He founded Red Pepper Software and Blue Martini Software, and is currently on the Board of Directors of Rocket Fuel. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science/Management from Carnegie Mellon University, and M.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University.
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