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Open source software, once just the domain of technology hobbyists, is taking over the software world
According to Gartner, open source software will be included in mission-critical software portfolios of virtually all Global 2000 enterprises by 2016. In fact, according to open source management vendor Black Duck Software, there are now a million different open source software projects. Here are 10 reasons for the surging popularity of open source software.
According to this year’s Black Duck Future of Open Source survey, quality was the top reason why respondents chose open source. That’s a big change. In 2011, quality was in fifth place. As open source projects gain adherents, more people contribute to improving stability, spotting or fixing bugs and streamlining interfaces. A related factor, ease of deployment, rose from sixth place in 2013 to third place today, another sign of the rapid maturation of open source projects. In fact, many open source tools are now as simple to install as their proprietary equivalents -- simpler, if you take into account the fact that in many cases no purchase or procurement process is involved.
According to a 2013 report from the Linux Foundation, 80 percent of companies plan to increase their use of Linux over the next five years, while only 20 percent plan to increase their use of Windows. The number of companies using Linux for mission-critical workloads grew from 60 percent in 2010, to 73 percent in 2012. And, sure, price was a factor. Even when adding in support costs, open source software is generally significantly cheaper overall. But, according to the Linux Foundation report, it was only the second-most important factor. The first was the feature set. This is a dramatic reversal from the early years of open source technology, when the commercial products were generally more complete and robust.
Security was once viewed as an open source liability, but that has changed. This year, 72 percent of BlackDuck's respondents said that they specifically chose open source because of security. Open source software allows users to review code for potential security flaws. “I really do like the transparency of open source,” says Daniel Polly, enterprise information security officer at First Financial Bank. “But more so, when a piece of software is interacting with data, I do like the fact that with open source you can see what's going on in that data stream.” Polly says the bank uses Snort. Commercial vendors are now being pressed to match what open source can offer, both in security and in other areas, he adds.
Traditional software vendors create and develop their products in-house. Open source vendors, however, aren't starting from zero – they innovate on top of a common base. "Open source provides a software foundation that alleviates the need to start development projects from scratch," says analyst Jon Oltsik. "It can then be customized for specific purposes which can help accelerate the development process." With cloud services there's the Amazon or Microsoft approach. "In this arena, I see service providers providing Apache OpenStack-powered clouds offering comparable services to Amazon EC2, but differentiating on the variety of service offerings, professional services, and custom-tailored service levels," says Citrix’s Mark Hinkle (pictured, left).
Traditional proprietary software is often focused on the needs of a particular market segment, for example, enterprise or SMB. Open source projects typically don't suffer from this problem since they're usually built around customer requirements.
“As a typical startup, we kicked off with an IT backbone built almost entirely on open source technology,” says Rafael Herrera (pictured left), head of BI International at Groupon. “The key factor for us – besides the cost gains – was scalability. We needed a framework that could support dynamic growth from the outset. As a typical startup, we kicked off with an IT backbone built almost entirely on open source technology,” adds Herrera. For example, Groupon uses an open source data integration platform from Talend.
Open source software allows savvy users to go right into the source code and modify it. "I've been able to extend the open source software we're using to fit our need without engaging a third party," says Paul Stadler (pictured left), technology manager at the Chester County Cat Hospital. The company uses open source veterinary practice management software for its core operations, running on a Linux server and delivered via a Web-based interface to employee desktops and mobile devices.
In fact, the adaptability and flexibility of open source software was the fourth most important reason why companies chose it over proprietary software, according to this year’s Black Duck survey. This benefit of open source was ranked eighth last year.
In the past, when several companies needed the same functionality, they built it from scratch, used a product from an outside vendor or formed a consortium to create and maintain the product. Open source software streamlines this process by enabling competing companies to work together. This frees up time and money for companies to spend working on projects that differentiate themselves. According to Black Duck’s survey, 50 percent of corporations contribute to open source, and 56 percent say that they will increase their contributions this year. By participating in development, enterprises can help influence the way the software evolves and build relationships with other developers.
It's nice to think that standards are set by groups of intelligent though-leaders, choosing the best possible path forward for an industry. In practice, however, what often happens is the emergence of de-facto standards based on popular products, like, say, Microsoft Word's .doc format. A successful open source project can provide the same function, without the associated risk of vendor lock-in. "Many times it’s easier to implement a standard as a result of adoption of real products," says Citrix' Hinkle. "Apache Web Server is a good example of massive adoption and an accessible platform that drove the adoption of many web standards in the earlier days of the Internet."
In many areas, open source software is no longer trailing behind proprietary platforms but is instead leading the way. Cloud, mobile, Big Data and the Internet of Things all feature many high-profile open source projects that are driving the evolution of these platforms. Not to mention the Web itself, much of it built on the open stack of Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. Even in the latest hot tech news topic -- virtual reality -- there are several competing open source virtual environment platforms, including OpenSim, Open Wonderland, and Open Qwaq.
Price also continues to be factor. In this year’s Black Duck survey, 68 percent of respondents said that open source helped improve efficiency and reduce costs.
Of course, open source is not the same as free. Vendors can still charge for the software, for particular versions of the software, for support, or for custom development work. In addition, a company might need to spend internal resources on adapting or integrating open source software. But it’s no longer the leading factor. “It’s about more than just cost-cutting or any of the traditional reasons to simply use open source software,” says Lou Shipley (pictured, left), President and CEO, Black Duck. “Open source has proven its quality and security, and reached a point of widespread democratization and proliferation.”