The Open Source Revolution Is Over the Revolutionaries Won

Mitch Wagner
News Analysis
Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

What happens when the revolutionaries win? After they've stormed the castle, tried on the king's clothes, slept in his bed and drunk the royal wine, then what?

They have to figure out how to actually run things.

The open source revolutionaries stormed the castle recently with two monumental business deals: Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s closing its $7.5 billion GitHub acquisition, and the announcement that IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) plans to acquire Red Hat Inc. (NYSE: RHT) for a staggering $34 billion. (See Microsoft Completes $7.5B GitHub Acquisition and IBM-Red Hat: A Crazy Plan That Might Work.)

But truly the revolution ended before then. Open source is now a mainstream way of working, for both communications service providers and enterprises.

How did we get here, and where do we go from here? To answer those questions, Light Reading talked with about a dozen open source leaders over the past few months, in enterprises, cloud providers, and communications service providers.

Over the next few weeks, we'll bring you stories about the different business models that open source has created, and the different ways that organizations use open source. We'll talk about making the transition to open source. We'll talk about what some see as a devil's bargain -- the transition between free software and open source software, and why that seemingly subtle distinction is a big deal. And we'll talk about a dark side of open source; recent allegations of abuse that resulted in Linux creator Linus Torvalds temporarily quitting his position of leadership in developing the operating system kernel.

Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin sees multiple factors contributing to the ascent of the new paradigm. Open source won the support of mainstream technology leaders such as IBM and Oracle Corp. (Nasdaq: ORCL); Linux became a standard server OS; and Linux was embraced by non-technology companies such as Toyota, financial services companies and entertainment companies, as well as telcos such as AT&T. (See Linux Foundation, AT&T Launch Akraino, Oh the Humanity! AT&T's Airship Open Infrastructure Project Takes Off and DANOS Fuels AT&T's White Box Binge .)

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) was a huge driver, Zemlin says. "Google effectively leveraged open source, specifically Android, to become the largest operating system in the world," he said. The open source Android operating system achieved dominance for mobile handsets.

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"That's when people said maybe there's something here." says Zemlin.

Some organizations adopted open source early on. For example, the telco CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL), with $17.7 billion in revenue last year, was an early open source advocate. "We were putting badges on our outlaws ten years back," says Travis Ewert, who, at the time we interviewed him, was CenturyLink vice president, software defined services and big data. He's since left the company and is currently consulting. "We recognized that we were lacking certain skillsets. The outlaw had the gunslinging skills we needed." (See A Deep Dive Into CenturyLink's Operations Transformation & Roadmap.)

At Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), open source was part of the DNA from the beginning. Twenty years ago, Google's search engine was built on vast arrays of cheap Linux servers, an architectural approach that has since become standard but which Google pioneered. Since then, Google has been a leader in Linux development, as well as producing more than 2,000 open source projects, along with pioneering major open source packages such as TensorFlow for artificial intelligence, Kubernetes for container management, the Chromium web browser, and the Go open source programming language. (See Google Pushes Enterprise Strategy Beyond the Cloud and Kubernetes & the Grand Google Conspiracy.)

Mainstream enterprise companies haven't always been as accepting of open source as Google. But that outlook has changed, says Melody Meckfessel, Google senior director of engineering.

"At some point, you were the crazy person who advocated a new way of doing software. And that has shifted," she says. "In major enterprise software companies, when I talk to CIOs and CTOs, open source is always part of the discussion, because it enables developers to collaborate."

Gary Cantrell, SVP and CIO at $19 billion electronics engineering, manufacturer and supply chain company Jabil Circuit Inc. (NYSE: JBL), has seen that change within his own organization. Four years ago, upper management was skeptical of the value of open source and urged due diligence. "The folks I report in to have changed over the past year. The EVP I report in to now has a much deeper technology understanding than his predecessor did, and he's more aware of open source and the benefits of open source," Cantrell says. "But people still want to do due diligence, make sure software is appropriate for our size and scale, and make sure that when inevitable issues happen, we can support it. Now it's the same type of questions that we would ask of a proprietary solution." (See Jabil Leverages Cloud to Improve Manufacturing .)

Next page: A bumpy transition for some

The transition was easier at some organizations than at others. Dietmar Fauser, VP of core platforms and middleware for Amadeus, says the transition from Unix to open source was smooth, both personally and for the business. (See Amadeus Flies With Open Source.)

Amadeus, with annual revenue of $5.825 billion, principally provides reservation systems and scheduling for travel agencies, as well as inventory management and pricing solutions. Fauser was hired as one of the fist Unix engineers at Amadeus more than 20 years ago. "The initial idea was to move away from the mainframe. It took hold," says Fauser.

Amadeus runs Red Hat Linux, Memcached (a distributed memory caching system), Kubernetes and some OpenStack.

"There is no controversy anymore," Fauser says. "When Linux entered the data center, it became clear that open source was eating the world."

He adds, "The quality is just better. We see that every day."

Microsoft's open source transition was slower and more difficult. In 2001, then-CEO Steve Ballmer called open source a "cancer;" a year later he said it was"Communism."

But over the years, Microsoft's attitude toward open source turned. By January of this year, Mark Russinovich, Microsoft Azure's chief technology officer, was making the case to Light Reading that the company is deeply committed to open source. (See Microsoft Is a 'Deeply Open Source Company,' Says Azure CTO Russinovich.)

Microsoft Azure distinguished engineer John Gossman described the transition a few weeks later. It boils down to: Times change, the market now demands open source, and Microsoft needs to meet that demand. (See How Microsoft Became an Unlikely Open Source Champion.)

Microsoft's John Gossman
Microsoft's John Gossman

Part of what drove the industry change is that the cost of software development just got overwhelming, Zemlin says. "There is too much software written for any one organization to write it themselves," he says. Open source wins on speed-to-market and low cost.

Also, today's business software requires more resources than any one organization can bring to bear. That's driving companies who previously wouldn't dream of adopting open source to take up the model, including AT&T, China Mobile, Bell Canada and Orange, Zemlin says.

Open source drives collaboration outside an individual organization, even among business competitors. "I talk to people who work at these companies and they're happy to get to talk to people who don't work at their company, share ideas openly, and get ideas from other people," Zemlin says. "It influences a culture of idea sharing and transparency."

Also, open source is motivated by genuine demand from users trying to solve real business problems, as opposed to top-down corporate mandates. "The best code is code that people want to use, as opposed to 'my code' or 'my company's code.' That's a positive change for business," Zemlin says.

That doesn't mean competition ends. "Open source proves you can be hypercompetitive and collaborate at the same time," Zemlin says. Facebook and Google compete for ad dollars, but collaborate on open source projects. Similarly, auto companies and financial service companies both collaborate on open source projects and compete for business.

Open source helps organizations innovate faster, CenturyLink's Ewert says. Instead of having to build technology from scratch, organizations can find existing open source solutions and modify them to meet their own specific needs.

And open source reduces costs -- but it's not the primary reason to adopt open source, Ewert says. Faster innovation, which Ewert calls "velocity," is the chief goal of open source.

All of these benefits mean open source adoption is accelerating, says Zemlin. "In 2018, we've been adding new members to the Linux Foundation every day -- a new company or organization joins. The idea of transparency and a non-zero-sum mentality has permanently taken hold in the technology industry."

— Mitch Wagner Follow me on Twitter Visit my LinkedIn profile Visit me on Tumblr Follow me on Facebook Executive Editor, Light Reading

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