Not Business as Usual: Open Source Changes IT Operations

Mitch Wagner
Prime Reading
Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

Organizations that adopt open source find that the old ways of doing IT operations just don't work anymore. They need to make changes.

Open source drives IT shops to be more focused on creativity and providing added value to the business. Additionally, open source changes IT's vendor relationships, as well as how organizations go about recruiting talent. (See Growing Pains: For Organizations Moving to Open Source, It's a Tough Transition.)

Open source encourages developers to think creatively. "In a large organization it's easy to lose the innovation piece," says Gary Cantrell, SVP and CIO at $19 billion electronics engineering, manufacturer and supply chain company Jabil Circuit Inc. (NYSE: JBL). And open source culture encourages developers to think in terms of what's possible, rather than what's available from vendors. (See Jabil Leverages Cloud to Improve Manufacturing .)

Cloud applications -- which are largely based on open source -- encourage productivity and lean operations, Cantrell says. Operational teams looking to build applications previously needed to stand up their own database servers running company data; now they just need the APIs for the database in the cloud. "They don't have to do all the work that they had to do before," Cantrell says. And by using applications and data already available in the cloud, teams become more agile.

Photo by CenturyLink
Photo by CenturyLink

In a telco, open source goes hand-in-hand with the emerging paradigm of network disaggregation, with hardware, operating systems, and network functions coming from different sources, says Travis Ewert, who was CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL) vice president, software defined services and big data, when we interviewed him in mid-2018. He's since left the company and is currently chief operating officer for LightRiver Technologies Inc. , a networking integrator.

Amadeus, which provides reservations services and scheduling for airline and hospitality companies, has adopted an open source model for internal development. "We call it 'inner source,'" says Dietmar Fauser, Amadeus VP of core platforms and middleware. The company uses open source development methodologies, with code repositories on git that are open to anyone at Amadeus, whose staff can comment and contribute to what developers are doing.

Changing the vendor relationship
Traditional vendors drive the technology roadmap themselves, but with open source, the customer can drive the roadmap, Ewert says. Vendors transition away from black box proprietary solutions and instead act more like integrators, bringing together open source and other components into a complete solution. "Someone like a Red Hat does that very well," Ewert says. (See How Open Source Has Turned the Software Industry Upside-Down.)

"Open source gives an enterprise a lot more options in terms of support," says Kirby Files, Masergy Communications Inc. software architect. "Instead of buying an Oracle database and getting Oracle support, you can choose Kafka and choose among multiple organizations to provide the best support."

Additionally, open source changes the way an organization approaches acquisition. With proprietary software, the organization puts out an RFP, collects candidates, evaluates trials and has teams come in to demo the products. With open source, the enterprise turns to communities of support, and tries to find projects with good documentation, and cloud-native scaling, Files says.

Open source reduces vendor leverage over customers, Files says. "It changes the game theory calculations. It reduces some of the leverage that predatory vendors have. If you look at Oracle -- oh, did I just call them predatory? -- they don't have the leverage that they used to have, because people do have a lot of choices now, from NoSQL databases to lightweight MySQL databases to full-on, clustered replacements like PostreSQL. They can't put you over the barrel to quite the same degree as they could before."

Telecom vendors are still catching up with the open source, cooperative ethos, Files says. NETCONF, for example, has been in development for about ten years, but vendors are still slow to adopt that standard, as well as OpenFlow and others. "They are still trying to avoid opening up their hardware platforms to open source software that might benefit their competitors."

Overall, open source makes the vendor-customer relationship more friendly, Files says. "I would suspect open source makes us less hostile towards vendors. The vendors we work with have a stake in making the software we work on better, and are trying to do so. We can either jump in and help them out or shout at them that they're doing a bad job. We generally choose the former. Working with providers like Oracle, all you're left with is the shouting."

Focusing IT on value
"On the business side of the question, [open source] allows you to focus your scarce resources higher in the stack where the valuable and differentiating bits are," says Justin Sheperd, Rackspace distinguished architect and CTO of its OpenStack business, in an email. "This allows you to draw a line in the technology stack, and only invest in the things above the line. For everything below the line, you just consume commodity building [blocks made up of] open source software components." Open source organizations can focus more of their resources on differentiating the company.

Next page: A calculated investment

Sheperd adds, "I think open source software provides IT an avenue out of being only seen as a cost center and a chance to become seen as an innovation center. By consuming open source components, and not having to build everything in house, they can apply more of their resources toward the strategic initiatives of the company."

"At Masergy, we use open source all the time, as a way of taking care of the things that we don't want to be experts on, and focusing on our core competencies," Files says. "We contribute back to the projects that could be a strong part of our platform if they had a little more polish." These include the Wireshark network protocol analyzer, WildFly application server, and Apache Maven for software project management.

Files adds, "For a small company like us, it's the art of leveraging the larger mindshare out there, taking something that's 80% of what we need and adding the last little bit that makes it work. It's our way of leveraging a small software development team to a much more powerful effect."

Giving back
A key part of open source adoption is giving back to the community, which can be difficult for a for-profit business to learn to do. "Open source is really a form of enlightened selfishness. It's not altruism," Files says.

"Business is still business," he says. "We're trading. We're hoping we get ROI on our spending for some time and improving projects to meet our needs. The return is a complete package tailored to what we need."

He adds, "Companies as big as Twitter and Facebook are leading the way in donating huge chunks of code for those that clearly could be used by everyone including their competitors."

Masergy tries to take that same, more open attitude, says Files. "We're not big enough to contribute entire whole-cloth software infrastructure, but we feel like we can do our part to make small changes to existing projects."

"It is a calculated investment that businesses have to make," Files says. "I happen to think that the investment is almost always worth it to engage with the open source products. But certainly there are plenty of companies that are trying to keep their stuff proprietary."

But enterprises still haven't taken full advantage of open source culture; they use open source but themselves admit that they don't contribute as much as they'd like to. (See Taking It Slow: Enterprises Use Open Source, but Are Cautious About Contributing.)

Branding and recruiting talent
Open source can help a company with branding -- building its reputation for technology expertise, says John Graham-Cumming, CTO of Cloudflare Inc. , which provides security and performance services for online businesses.

For example, Yandex, Russia's equivalent of Google, open sourced an analytics tool called ClickHouse. "We threw away our proprietary technology and use that because it works so well," Graham-Cumming says. "The technology is great, but it also makes Yandex look good." It helps build Yandex's brand, and helps them recruit.

And it's not just Yandex. A reputation for open source leadership can help any company recruit talent, Graham-Cumming says.

"Engineers expect to work in open source software and they expect to be involved in it," Graham-Cumming. "They want to share. It gives an opportunity for engineers to show their work, which they normally don't get to do." Normally they only get to share the product, not how they arrived at the product.

"You attract much better engineers if you give them the possibility of working on open source projects, contributing on open source projects, and putting that on their CVs," Amadeus's Fauser says. "This is attracting extremely good people."

"Google's data shows that developers want to spend more time on coding, software design and architecture," says Melody Meckfessel, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) senior director of engineering. "On coding, if there's an open source tool that helps you complete your task faster, you don't have have to start from scratch. That's how you keep them happy and productive -- do not waste their time," she says.

And developers derive satisfaction by influencing the direction of a project.

"That part is inspiring: A sense of identity and belonging to a community," she says.

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