For me, beginning a piece like this, it is customary to set a framework, and with open source software, the best place to start is with answering the question, “What Is It?” For the answer I always go to my favored source, Wikipedia, which defines it as:-
“Open source software (OSS) is computer software that is available in source code form: the source code and certain other rights normally reserved for copyright holders are provided under a free software license that permits users to study, change, improve and at times also to distribute the software.”
Interesting how Wikipedia has emerged to be the main reference point for definitions and other such information, given that by and large, Wikipedia is a great example of what open source is all about. Someone puts out an idea, and other people add, change, modify, improve, develop, and nurture that idea – which is just how open source software actually gets developed.
By providing customers with the source code, open source companies actually provide them with two key advantages that proprietary vendors are not presented with. The first is quite simple and very often overlooked. By having access to the source code, you are able to verify all of the claims, be they around security or any other feature, that the supplier may care to make. With proprietary software, you must take it on faith that what you are being told is the reality.
It was exactly this reason that helped the National Security Agency of the United States Department of Defense decide on Linux as the platform for their security environment. They saw the ability to effectively define their own architecture, and then work with other market forces to develop this component as critical. For them, the ability to modify an architecture to suit their business requirement, rather than change their modus operandi to suit some architecture that was being forced on them made much more sense. More to the point, and in true open source style, they decided to provide this security infrastructure to the world as part of the operating system, and element we now know as Security Enhanced (or SE) Linux.
It is this ability to adapt technology to suit the business that is fueling the open source software phenomenon in corporations and governments both large and small. So much so that many proprietary vendors are now claiming to be “open source friendly”, which is significantly different from being genuinely open source.
Being “open source” friendly mostly means that, for a proprietary vendor, they will certify their closed source offerings to work with particular open source technologies at various layers in the stack, it does not mean that they will provide you with a copy of the source code (as an open source vendor does), or in fact that they have optimized their offerings to leverage some of the advantages of the open source code base. There are exceptions to this though.
Companies like SAP & Intel, for example, work very closely with the open source community and encourage their developers to contribute to various open source projects, to the benefit of their customers, and in SAP’s case, they also work very closely with open source companies like Red Hat to ensure that on both sides the customers are provided with optimized offerings. For example, there is a customized version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) for SAP environments which delivers the best possible performance and stability and it is certified and supported by both organizations.
Open source software has really driven a major element which the business community is benefiting from, being the democratization of software. In terms of the democratization, anybody can contribute to an open source project, and I often refer to open source developers as being amongst the bravest people in the world, and my rationale is simple. How many of you reading this piece would develop something and then submit it to a community of more than 3,000,000 people for review and comment – it takes a pretty thick skin to do that, so my (Red) hat’s off to them for doing it. As such anybody can submit a feature and then by sheer weight of numbers, it gets “voted” on by the development community in terms of its relevance and importance.
Open source is here to stay - the question is, are you 'open' enough to embrace it!!
By George DeBono, General Manager of Red Hat Middle East and Africa