OpenSource For You - - For U & Me | Interview - Tony Wasser­man

While hard­ware is ac­quir­ing new forms, soft­ware is adapt­ing to changes in the land­scape. But how do devel­op­ers ben­e­fit from this vi­cious cy­cle of hard­ware and soft­ware changes? Like­wise, what should de­ci­sion mak­ers keep in mind while build­ing new tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tions? Amer­i­can com­puter sci­en­tist Tony Wasser­man an­swers these ques­tions in a con­ver­sa­tion with Jag­meet Singh of OSFY. Wasser­man also shares his views of the growth prospects of open source, based on his ex­pe­ri­ence as a board mem­ber of the Open Source Ini­tia­tive, pro­fes­sor of the soft­ware man­age­ment prac­tice at Carnegie Mel­lon, Sil­i­con Val­ley and as the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the CMU (Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity) Cen­ter for Open Source In­ves­ti­ga­tion. Edited ex­cerpts...

Q How do you see soft­ware evolv­ing in the com­put­ing world?

Soft­ware has al­ready be­come per­va­sive in the de­vel­oped and in the de­vel­op­ing worlds. Over the past decade, we have seen im­por­tant ad­vances in em­bed­ded soft­ware (now called the In­ter­net of Things) and in data man­age­ment and an­a­lyt­ics, which are be­ing ap­plied to ma­chine learn­ing and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. These ad­vances are lead­ing to in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful au­ton­o­mous sys­tems, such as self­driv­ing cars, in­dus­trial and per­sonal ro­bots and surveil­lance sys­tems. Even dig­i­tal cam­eras, which are highly com­put­erised, are now able to in­stall ad­di­tional apps.

While we will still need pro­fes­sional devel­op­ers to cre­ate sys­tem level func­tions and de­vel­op­ment tools, there will be a grow­ing role for ‘low code’ and ‘no code’ tools. The for­mer will be used by soft­ware devel­op­ers and may in­volve con­nect­ing and/or cus­tomis­ing proven soft­ware com­po­nents. The lat­ter will be ac­ces­si­ble to peo­ple with­out for­mal pro­gram­mer train­ing.

Pro­fes­sional devel­op­ers will con­tinue to use so­phis­ti­cated pro­gram­ming lan­guages and de­vel­op­ment en­vi­ron­ments, much as they do to­day, though the pre­ferred lan­guages may evolve over time.

Q What are the ma­jor trends shap­ing up the IT in­dus­try?

The most im­por­tant trends in­volve the con­tin­u­ing de­crease in the cost of com­puter hard­ware, par­tic­u­larly for stor­age, along with the growth of cloud­based com­put­ing ser­vices. Con­sumers have long be­come ac­cus­tomed to us­ing hosted ser­vices and they make ex­ten­sive use of mo­bile de­vices, Chrome­books and tablets that con­nect to re­mote com­put­ing ser­vices. En­ter­prises and gov­ern­ments are be­com­ing more aware of the costs of main­tain­ing their own IT sys­tems, and are

now much more com­fort­able re­ly­ing on third par­ties for their pri­mary com­put­ing re­sources. The use of cloud com­put­ing ser­vices re­duces their over­all com­put­ing costs, in­clud­ing the costs of main­tain­ing and up­grad­ing their own sys­tems and of pre­vent­ing se­cu­rity breaches.

Q What is the ul­ti­mate im­pact of open source in the present soft­ware land­scape?

The soft­ware land­scape has seen a mix of pro­pri­etary and open source soft­ware through­out this cen­tury. In some ar­eas, no­tably data man­age­ment, open source projects have of­fered in­no­va­tive and pow­er­ful so­lu­tions that are more ad­vanced than those from pro­pri­etary ven­dors. Cus­tomers are choos­ing these tech­nolo­gies as much for their fea­tures as for the avail­abil­ity of the source code, which they are not likely to mod­ify. But many cus­tomers are not com­fort­able with the com­mu­nity-based sup­port found in many open source projects and pre­fer to pay for com­mer­cial sup­port from a com­pany that can of­fer guar­an­teed lev­els of ser­vice qual­ity as well as have the abil­ity to make any needed code changes to ad­dress crit­i­cal soft­ware bugs. Open source projects are not likely to drive out pro­pri­etary soft­ware, if only be­cause so many or­gan­i­sa­tions have huge ex­ist­ing in­vest­ments in those prod­ucts. But free and open source soft­ware is likely to con­tinue to be the driv­ing force for col­lab­o­ra­tive projects and new tech­nolo­gies from R&D groups in academia and in­dus­try.

Q What are the vi­tal con­cerns raised by the soft­ware in­dus­try that are be­ing ad­dressed by the Cen­ter for Open Source In­ves­ti­ga­tion (COSI) at Carnegie Mel­lon Univer­sity, Sil­i­con Val­ley?

The Cen­ter for Open Source In­ves­ti­ga­tion (COSI) has a long­stand­ing pri­mary fo­cus on eval­u­a­tion, adop­tion, and the use of open source soft­ware by com­pa­nies, gov­ern­ments and other or­gan­i­sa­tions. A sec­ond im­por­tant area is ed­u­ca­tion about open source soft­ware. The OSSPAL project (orig­i­nally the Busi­ness Readi­ness Rat­ing) is in­tended to help peo­ple find high­qual­ity open source projects, and the newer FLOSSBOK project is aimed at iden­ti­fy­ing the wide range of top­ics re­lated to open source soft­ware, along with sources for more in­for­ma­tion on them. Both projects rely on fi­nan­cial do­na­tions to sup­port their work, and on vol­un­teers to move them for­ward.

Q How do open source devel­op­ments help academia en­hance skills in young tal­ent?

Well-writ­ten open source code pro­vides stu­dents with good ex­am­ples of how to write code in a par­tic­u­lar pro­gram­ming lan­guage and style. Also, as stu­dents try to join ex­ist­ing projects, they can learn about the var­i­ous ap­proaches to col­lab­o­ra­tion and about the tools that are used to track is­sues, man­age the parts of a project, build new ver­sions, and re­lease them to the com­mu­nity.

Over­all, open source de­vel­op­ment helps stu­dents to gain in­sights into the tech­nol­ogy and process of soft­ware de­vel­op­ment, as well as on open source li­cences. They get ex­cited the first time they make a con­tri­bu­tion that is ac­cepted into the project code base, and that serves as a mo­ti­va­tion for con­tin­u­ing to par­tic­i­pate in open source com­mu­ni­ties.

Q What are the ma­jor ob­sta­cles pro­gram­mers face when adapt­ing to the open source cul­ture?

Many open source projects are not very wel­com­ing of new mem­bers. Ini­tial con­tri­bu­tions to such projects are re­jected with harsh crit­i­cism that dis­cour­ages peo­ple from con­tin­u­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion. Some projects have de­vel­oped a ‘toxic cul­ture’ that dis­crim­i­nates against var­i­ous types of peo­ple. Also, projects tend to be mono­lin­gual, for in­stance, only in English or Hindi, so a per­son who is not flu­ent in that lan­guage may find it dif­fi­cult to join the project. Even in more wel­com­ing projects, pro­gram­mers must ad­just to the pos­si­bil­ity that their con­tri­bu­tion may not be ac­cepted by the project com­mit­ters.

Q Is it dif­fi­cult for big or­gan­i­sa­tions to com­pletely rely on FOSS?

Yes. There are some busi­ness ar­eas such as en­ter­prise re­source plan­ning and tax re­port­ing in which pro­pri­etary so­lu­tions are more ad­vanced than FOSS projects. Also, cer­tain pro­pri­etary ap­pli­ca­tions are the de facto stan­dard for some com­mon tasks. These ap­pli­ca­tions in­clude Adobe Pho­to­shop, which has a dom­i­nant po­si­tion for im­age ma­nip­u­la­tion and a vast com­mu­nity of cus­tomers who have been trained in its use. While there are in­deed some FOSS al­ter­na­tives to Pho­to­shop avail­able eas­ily, they are widely re­garded as not hav­ing the power of­fered by the pro­pri­etary so­lu­tion.

In short, there is no rea­son for an or­gan­i­sa­tion to rely com­pletely on one type of so­lu­tion. Or­gan­i­sa­tions should in­stead be look­ing for the best so­lu­tion for a spe­cific need. It may be pro­pri­etary, open source, or a com­bi­na­tion of the two. Sim­i­larly, the so­lu­tion may run on the or­gan­i­sa­tion's own sys­tems, in the cloud, or as a hy­brid of the two.

Q Do you think there are still se­cu­rity con­cerns re­lated to adopt­ing open source?

Yes, this is the case even though var­i­ous stud­ies show that open source is at least as se­cure as pro­pri­etary soft­ware, and ma­jor se­cu­rity breaches have of­ten oc­curred in pro­pri­etary sys­tems. The fear is not ra­tio­nal, but most or­gan­i­sa­tions are

nat­u­rally re­sis­tant to change. Thus, it is a slow process to get or­gan­i­sa­tions to adopt open source for a busi­ness-crit­i­cal sys­tem, and se­cu­rity is­sues are only one fac­tor caus­ing the de­lay.

Q How can open source adop­tion help com­pa­nies im­prove their prof­itabil­ity?

Many stud­ies have shown that the to­tal cost of own­er­ship (TCO) for open source soft­ware is much lower than that of pro­pri­etary soft­ware. But as com­pa­nies move more and more of their com­put­ing to the cloud, the TCO dif­fer­ence is re­duced, so the fi­nan­cial im­pact of adopt­ing open source is less than it once was. In­creased prof­itabil­ity is a mi­nor, but valu­able, rea­son for choos­ing open source soft­ware.

Q Do you see fed­eral-level adop­tion hav­ing a pos­i­tive ef­fect on over­all open source de­ploy­ments?

Yes. Suc­cess sto­ries in the use of any open source prod­uct (not just soft­ware) en­cour­age peo­ple to see if they might ben­e­fit from fol­low­ing the same idea. In some coun­tries, no­tably Brazil, the gov­ern­ment not only uses open source soft­ware but has also de­vel­oped a body of ‘pub­lic soft­ware’ that can be used by oth­ers, and re­quires its sup­pli­ers to de­liver their so­lu­tions as open source soft­ware. The US gov­ern­ment has in­creased its open source ef­forts across most fed­eral de­part­ments and makes some of its open source code avail­able through code.gov. Ef­forts such as these show that open source soft­ware projects can be suc­cess­ful and de­liver value to the com­mu­nity.

Q Lastly, what is the role of or­gan­i­sa­tions like Open Source Ini­tia­tive and Linux Foun­da­tion in tak­ing open source to new heights?

The Linux Foun­da­tion has greatly im­proved its out­reach and now serves as the um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tion for a large num­ber of open source projects. Be­yond that, it has or­gan­ised the Open Source Sum­mit in the US and Eu­rope, both of which draw large au­di­ences that in­clude many peo­ple with very lit­tle open source ex­pe­ri­ence. The Open Source Ini­tia­tive (OSI) con­tin­ues to fo­cus on li­cence ap­provals, but has also es­tab­lished in­di­vid­ual and af­fil­i­ate mem­ber­ship pro­grammes aimed at build­ing its own com­mu­nity. How­ever, the OSI is rel­a­tively small and works pri­mar­ily within the ex­ist­ing open source com­mu­nity, so it does not have the over­all im­pact of some other or­gan­i­sa­tions. The OSI and the Linux Foun­da­tion have the strong­est in­flu­ence in North Amer­ica and must be com­ple­mented by sim­i­lar or­gan­i­sa­tions else­where around the world. Such groups, taken to­gether, can help to pro­mote the value of open source soft­ware.

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