OpenSource For You


- 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 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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