The shift in open source: A new kind of platform war

Open source has shifted to become a critical piece of any software company’s business strategy. But why?

The shift in open source: A new kind of platform war
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For many years, open source software seemingly lay at the fringe of the tech industry. A subculture that many didn’t understand and that seemingly threatened the broader industry. It is amazing how much has changed.

Today, open source software, especially Linux, is so pervasive that you probably interact with it every day. From supercomputers to GoPros and nearly every data center in the world, open source software is the default platform.

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Not only does almost every company (and government agency) leverage open source software in some capacity, but even vendors who fought it tooth and nail have finally turned around. Microsoft’s embrace of open source software under Satya Nadella is a great example of the massive change in perception that has been slowly creeping over the industry over the past 20 years.

Few truly understand how open source has shifted to become a critical piece of any software company’s business strategy. This shift touches every sector of technology and is, indeed, transforming entire markets.

Extending core open source software beliefs to build platforms

For many of the early open source pioneers, open source represented a belief system. Those principles drive open source best practices today and have helped inspire a new generation of open source projects that are deeply aligned with the existing market economy and software business models.

Today, the vast majority of companies and individuals participating in open source projects do so because it is the best way for them to achieve their various goals and interests. Open source software foundations (like the one I run) operate in accordance with the business interests of the members: they seek to find areas of common ground, facilitate collaboration across parties whose interests intersect, and help arbitrate disputes to ensure the overall success of their projects.

The role of an open source software foundation is not to try to achieve a world with no interests, but to ensure that no single group’s interests trumps that of everyone else. It is fundamentally about finding zones of agreements and facilitating consensus.

So, why the shift?

The reason so many doubters have changed their mind about open source software lies in a recognition of the importance of platforms. In today’s technology-dominated world, there is nothing more powerful than a platform. Platforms create markets and ecosystems. They are incredibly sticky, and they lead to tremendous value creation. Being on the wrong side of a platform is akin to being on the wrong side of history. It doesn’t matter how good your technology is, how well you market or how large your sales force is—if you’re on the wrong side of a platform, you’re screwed (see Nokia/Blackberry/Windows phone/Amazon Fire, Websphere, Cloudstack, etc.).

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It’s not that companies don’t realize the value of platforms; it’s that it has become prohibitively expensive to win a platform war. Even billions of dollars of investment don’t guarantee a win. It is not surprising, therefore, that almost every major new platform, from Apache Hadoop to OpenStak, that has appeared in the last 15 years has come from an open source project. Open source projects have a number of advantages over proprietary software in their ability to become broad, industry-accepted platforms:

  1. Managed properly, they are not dominated by any one party. (You aren’t afraid that someone else will take most of the gains from your efforts.)
  2. By design, many entities are contributing and building off the code base—and the ultimate consumers are also deeply involved from an early stage.
  3. They have a broad diversity of ideas, with contributors from both the largest companies and small innovative startups.
  4. They are well resourced (e.g. OpenDaylight today has over 600 contributors) with developers who are motivated (see points 2 and 3) by the creative potential of collaboration.
  5. Trial is easy.
  6. Open source projects are able to quickly gain tremendous awareness at a fraction of the cost a corporation would need to spend.

Why are we seeing so many new open source projects being created right now? Because companies have finally realized that it is inefficient to pour tens of millions of dollars into projects to try to build platforms that have a low chance of success. What we are seeing is a rational reaction: spend a moderate amount of resources with others to see if you can, together, establish a standard platform.

Where’s the value? What’s the business model?

The biggest knock against open source is, and has been, that “giving away stuff makes it hard to make money.” No kidding!

There has been a significant shift in how people think about funding/profiting from open source. The first stage saw “open” as a set of beliefs. Amazingly, we still see major technologies being supported by these passionate volunteers, tirelessly toiling for little more than the thanks of the few who know.

After a few years, a new model appeared: the Open + Support model. Since Red Hat showed the world it could make money with this model, hundreds of companies have tried to become the Red Hat of X. Unfortunately, this is really, really hard. It requires a mature, well-understood, relatively complete open source code that delivers much of the solution out of the box that can be profitably wrapped in a light layer of packaging, support and services.

After a while, a third model emerged: the so-called “Open Core.” Open source in this model becomes somewhat of a freemium offering—play with the free stuff, buy the enterprise edition.

Today, however, I believe we’ve entered a new fourth stage: the Open + [Value] model. It recognizes that in many cases, you aren’t going to be able to make money from just the open platform part. Or if you are, you won't make very much (think cost recovery).

Each company in the ecosystem, therefore, has to decide what value they can attach to the open platform. For some, it is an application. It can latch onto the platform or embed the platform as freely licensed OEM technology. But you don’t have to build an application to make money. The flavors of Open + [Value] include: Open + [Hardware], Open + [Application], Open + [Management & Orchestration], Open + [Services], Open + [Automation], Open + [System Integration], etc. Strong Open Source projects create significant market for all of the above. The point is, while everyone would love to own the underlying platform, there’s a ton of money to be made surrounding it. A platform creates an amazingly large and diverse market.

This is what OpenDaylight is doing. OpenDaylight is bringing together the networking industry to create a platform for Open Programmable Networks (SDN, NFV, SD-WAN, etc.). By creating one place for the industry to bring their technology, ideas and use cases, OpenDaylight enables the creation of a common abstraction, a common set of networking microservices, and a common set of southbound interfaces that are being leveraged to serve a broad set of end-user types and use cases.

Already over 22 solutions have been built on OpenDaylight, and its code is deployed in production at major telcos, research institutions, cities and enterprises. Facilitating industrywide collaboration isn’t easy, but it’s what the Linux Foundation has focused on for more than a decade. It is our super power! I urge you to learn more about the Linux Foundation’s Collaborative Projects, especially OpenDaylight, OPNFV, AllSeen Alliance and OIC, Cloud Foundry, CNCF, OCI, CII, Automotive Grade Linux and Node.js.

From networking to IoT to connected cars, collaboration around an open platform model is transforming industries. It's time to lose the old perceptions of open source and see it for what it now is: essential for expanding market opportunities.

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