Open Source

The difference between 'open' and 'open source'

The following is a contributed article by Jonathan Gershater, principal technical product marketing, Cloud and Virtualization, Red Hat


Gone are the days when monolithic vendors such as IBM sold a complete hardware and software solution. As companies seek to modernise their hardware and software infrastructure, they also want to reduce costs and not be locked into only buying solutions from one vendor. Today, companies want to mix and match their choice of hardware and software solutions, and, to achieve this, the products they buy must be interoperable.

Many open standards consortia and organisations exist to enable such interoperability, for example the W3C (World Wide Web consortium) for web standards; TIA (Telecommunications Industry Association) for telecommunications; and the Open Network Foundation for network interoperability; or the Open Data Center alliance.

An additional approach to interoperability is open source software, with “open source” meaning that the design is open and not proprietary. A software program or design of hardware could be open source, allowing users to modify the source code or the design to suit their needs with the confidence that no entity can prevent them from doing so. Additionally, open source solutions inherently do not lock a customer into a specific vendor, making open source an ideal technology platform for IT innovation, including cloud computing and Linux containers.

But “open source” is not the same as “open” a term used by many vendors today. Let's look at the differences.


Open source software has three main characteristics:

1.        The user is allowed to redistribute the software. There is no license that prohibits this, and the open source software can be included as part of another software solution without having to pay any fees or royalties. Thus, open source software promotes collaboration and sharing, as opposed to closed source/proprietary software models, which specifically prohibit the use of or distribution of the software without explicit permission.

2.        The vendor is obliged to distribute the source code with the software solution and the user is allowed to redistribute it.

3.        The license permits modifications which can be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software. Open source licenses are well described here for additional detail.


Open source software is often preferred because:

•          Costs are often lower than alternative proprietary solutions.

•          The user can see how the solution works and modify it to suit their needs.

•          The user can fix a bug without waiting for the vendor to fix it.

•          The software is not controlled by one vendor; rather it is created by a range of vendors and independent contributors. Unlike proprietary software which may no longer be supported if the vendor goes out of business or its programmers stop working on it, open source software can be continued by anyone else who freely downloads the source code.


So what is the difference between a software solution that is open and one that is open source?

First, consider that word: “open”.

When a vendor says their solution is “open” the vendor typically offers an application programming interface (API). APIs are the glue between applications and provide an access point, enabling connections with data sources, third-party data services or other applications. An API could allow another application to consume data that another solution produces. For example, a financial application might have an API that provides global financial market data to their partners, who consume the data by writing applications that conform to the API.

A large retailer could advertise their API thus: “Our open API provides access to our product catalog, thus enabling distribution partners to earn affiliate revenues.” An open API governs how one application can communicate and interact with another and the concept is backed/driven by the Open API Initiative, which standardizes how REST APIs are described.

However, caveat emptor (buyer beware)!

An open API is not the same as open source software. Some software described as “open” implies that the solution is freely available, has transparent source code or some level of interoperability; far too often though, the reality is that these “open” technologies are proprietary and closed source with APIs providing the only gateway to interoperate.

If the goal is to not be locked into a vendor and to operate in an environment that provides a high degree of flexibility between different technology stacks, then ensure a given software solution is actually “open source” and that it adheres to open standards. Verify that the source code is freely available and the solution can be modified and distributed without violating a license.

As a growing number of organizations embrace open source and open standards, understanding the difference between “open” and “open source” is key. If embracing open source is part of your organization's strategy to enable interoperability, ask your vendor(s) to detail their approach, and how it aligns to the characteristics of true open source. If it doesn't, “open” alone may not be enough to give you the interoperability and flexibility you are seeking.


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