Open source has never been stronger

Open source has never been stronger

With cloud companies open-sourcing their innovations, and enterprises increasing participation, open source sustainability is at an all-time high

Credit: Dreamstime

There has perhaps never been so much angst over whether open source software development is sustainable, and yet there has never been clearer evidence that we’re in the golden age of open source.

Or on the cusp. Here and there an open source company might struggle to make a buck, but as a community of communities, open source has never been healthier. There are a few good indicators for this.

The clouds have parted

The first is that the clouds—yes, all of them—are open sourcing essential building blocks that expose their operations. Google rightly gets credit for moving first on this with projects like Kubernetes and TensorFlow, but the others have followed suit.

For example, Microsoft Azure released Azure Functions, which “extends the existing Azure application platform with capabilities to implement code triggered by events occurring in virtually any Azure or third-party service as well as on-premises systems.”

Azure Functions is a significant open source release, so much so that CNCF executive director Dan Kohn initially assumed that the Azure Functions “SDK is open source, but I don’t think the underlying functions are.”

In other words, Kohn assumed the on-ramp to Azure was open source, but not the code that could enable a developer to run serverless setup on bare metal. That assumption, however, was wrong, and Kohn corrected himself: “This is open source and can be run on any environment (including bare metal).”


More recently, AWS released Firecracker, a lightweight, open source virtualisation technology for running multi-tenant container workloads that emerged from AWS’ serverless products (Lambda and Fargate).

In a textbook example of how open source is supposed to work, Firecracker was derived from the Google-spawned crosvm but then spawned its own upgrade in the form of Weave Ignite, which made Firecracker much easier to manage.

These are just a few examples of the interesting open source projects emerging from the public clouds. (Across the ocean, Alibaba has been open sourcing its chip architecture, among other things.) More remains to be done, but these offer hope that the public clouds come not to bury open source, but rather to raise it.

Enterprises are making waves

Perhaps even more tellingly, mainstream enterprises are also getting religion on open source. Over a decade ago, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst declared an open source emergency of sorts:

The vast majority of software written today is written in enterprise and not for resale. And the vast majority of that is never actually used. The waste in IT software development is extraordinary.... Ultimately, for open source to provide value to all of our customers worldwide, we need to get our customers not only as users of open source products but truly engaged in open source and taking part in the development community.

Since that declaration, things have gotten better. While it remains true that most enterprises aren’t deeply engaged in the open source development community, that’s changing. In 2017, just 32.7 per cent of developers responding to Stack Overflow’s developer survey said they contribute to open source projects. By 2019, that number had jumped to 65 per cent:

stack overflow contribute open source Stack Overflow

The data is somewhat problematic, as the questions asked in the two years were different; in 2017 they didn’t ask how often developers contribute, as Lawrence Hecht has highlighted. Most developers who contribute to open source do so episodically, and less than once per month.

Even so, it’s not hard to believe that the more companies get serious about becoming software companies, the more they’re going to encourage their developers to get involved in the open source communities upon which they depend. At the corporate level, such involvement might seem easier for new-school enterprises like Lyft, which are roiling old industries by open sourcing code and data to help foster their disruption.

“But of course the new kids are doing that,” you say.

Well, it’s not just the upstarts. Old-school enterprises like Home Depot host code on GitHub, while financial services companies like Capital One go even further, sponsoring open source events to help foster community around their proliferating projects.

Or for an even more dramatic example of old-school embracing new lessons, consider that the Los Angeles Department of Transportation spawned the Open Mobility Foundation, with open source software designed to help manage the scooters, bikes, drones, rideshare, and autonomous vehicles zipping around cities.

So, again, not everybody is doing it. Not yet. But far more organisations are involved in open source today than were back in 2008, when Whitehurst made his plea for greater enterprise involvement. Such involvement is happening both at the elite level (public clouds) and in more mainstream ways, ushering in a golden era of open source.

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