Why open source has never been stronger

By | September 9, 2019

There has perhaps never been so much angst over whether open source software development is sustainable, and yet there’s never been better evidence that we’re in the golden age of open source. Or on the cusp. Here and there a open source company might struggle to earn a buck, but as a community of communities, open source has never been healthier. There are a couple good indicators for this.

The clouds have parted


The first is that the clouds–yes, all of these –are available sourcing vital building blocks that expose their surgeries. Google rightly gets credit for transferring first on this with projects including Kubernetes and TensorFlow, but the others have followed suit. For example, Microsoft Azure released Azure Functions, which”extends the existing Azure application platform with capabilities to execute code triggered by events occurring in virtually any Azure or third-party service as well as on-premises systems”

Azure Functions is a substantial open source release, so much so that CNCF executive director Dan Kohn initially supposed the Azure Functions”SDK is open source, but I don’t think the underlying functions are.” In other words, Kohn assumed the on-ramp into Azure was open source, but not the code that could enable a programmer to conduct serverless installation on bare metal. That assumption, however, was wrong, and Kohn adjusted himself:”That really is open source and can be conducted on any environment (including bare metal).”

Boom.

More recently, AWS released Firecracker, a lightweight, open source virtualization technology for running multi-tenant container workloads that emerged from AWS’ serverless goods (Lambda and Fargate). At a textbook example of how open source is supposed to work, Firecracker was originated from the Google-spawned crosvm but then spawned its own upgrade in the kind of Weave Ignite, which made Firecracker a lot easier to manage.

These are only a couple of examples of the interesting open source projects emerging from the public clouds. (Across the sea, Alibaba has been open its processor architecture, among other items.) More remains to be done, but these offer hope that the public clouds come not to bury open source, but rather to raise it.

Enterprises are creating waves
Perhaps even more tellingly, mainstream enterprises are also getting religion on open source. Over a decade ago, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst announced a open source emergency of types:

The huge majority of applications written today is composed in enterprise rather than for resale. And the vast majority of this is not actually used. The waste in IT software development is extraordinary…. Ultimately, for open source to provide value to all our clients globally, we need to get our customers not only as users of open source products but truly engaged in open source and getting involved in the development community.

Since that announcement, things have gotten better. While it remains true that many enterprises aren’t deeply engaged in the open source development community, that’s changing. In 2017, only 32.7% of programmers responding to Stack Overflow’s developer survey said they contribute to open source projects. By 2019, that number had jumped to 65%:

The information is somewhat problematic, as the questions asked in the 2 years were distinct; in 2017 they did not ask how often programmers contribute, as Lawrence Hecht has emphasized . Most programmers who contribute to open source do this episodically, and less than once per month.

Even so, it is not tough to believe that the more companies get serious about becoming software companies, the more they’re likely to promote their developers to get involved in the open source communities upon which they rely. At the corporate level, such participation might seem simpler for new-school enterprises such as Lyft, which can be roiling old industries by open sourcing code and data to assist foster their disruption.

“But obviously the new children do this,” you say.

Well, it’s not just the upstarts. Old-school enterprises like Home Depot host code on GitHub, while financial services companies like Capital One move much further, sponsoring open source occasions to assist cultivate community around their proliferating projects. Or for an even more spectacular example of old-school embracing new lessons, think about that the Los Angeles Department of Transportation spawned the Open Mobility Foundation, using open source software designed to help handle the scooters, bikes, drones, rideshare, and autonomous vehicles zipping around cities.

So, again, not everybody is doing it. Not yet. But much more organizations take part in open source today than were back in 2008, when Whitehurst left his request greater enterprise involvement. This involvement is occurring both in the elite level (public clouds) and in much more mainstream ways, ushering in a golden era of open source.

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