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Open Source Myths and Software as a Renewable Resource

This is the first installment in a two-part series on open source software (OSS) for enterprise IT. The second installment features an open source success story in the New York Senate.

“The leading innovation in software development today is actually happening in the open source community.”

Adam Clater, Red Hat, Inc.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a talk on open source software for enterprise IT organizations. Held at the World Bank – an organization that has been using open source technology for years – the panel featured a lively discussion from both public and private sector practitioners.

The panel’s moderator was Richard Boly, Consultant at the World Bank (formerly the Director of the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy).

The panel featured:

John Scott: Founder, AirGap LLC., Military Open Source Working Group (Mil-OSS)

Adam Clater: Solution Architect Manager, U.S. Civilian and National Security, Red Hat

Ben Balter: Github (former White House Presidential Innovation Fellow)

Andrew Hoppin: Partner at DrupalSquad and New Amsterdam Ideas (former CIO of the New York State Senate)

First of all, what is open source?

According to John Scott, open source software (OSS) is software distributed under a copyright license with terms and conditions associated with using the underlying source code. Scott, who drafted the U.S. Department of Defense policy for use of open source software, provided a snipped of that policy to further clarify the point:

“Software for which the human-readable source code is available for use, study, re-use, modification, enhancement, and redistribution by the users of that software.”

Scott contrasted OSS with other types of products used by the U.S. military, namely proprietary commercial off the shelf (COTS) and closed government off the shelf (GOTS). In Scott’s opinion, open source is the best place to foster organizational learning about source code and more generally, about the different types of coding out there. From a software development standpoint, there is an educational aspect to open source with regards to both promoting understanding and building autonomy.

However, despite the trend towards open source adoption, Scott reminded the audience that myths and misconceptions about OSS persist. He highlighted a few.

Myth #1: If you make any changes you have to share them with the entire world.

In reality, organizations are not obligated to share changes or modifications made to the source code. Of course, it may make sense to share these alterations upstream with the development community, especially since you will undoubtedly be spending money on changes, updates and modifications, so it is best to leverage the entire OSS community. But you are not obligated to do so. The exception to this rule is if and when you decide to distribute your code downstream (to a third party). This keeps the software ‘open’ as opposed to maintaining your changes as ‘proprietary.’

Myth #2: Only people from the basement do open source software.

Today, governments and large enterprises are using and contributing to the OSS community. The list of countries is impressive: Germany, UK, Denmark, Brazil, Canada, Korea, Japan, and the United States. Some of the biggest tech giants have made OSS central to their operations, like Google, Facebook and Amazon. “A lot of closed source companies are fighting a rearguard action, trying to keep a hold of their market share,” Scott explained. However, many times governments or large organizations are discovering that they can’t find the exact product they need off the shelf. Instead, OSS provides an opportunity to modify the product to specific requirements and situations.

Myth #3: Open source software is not secure.

It is entirely false to think of any code as secure. However, OSS provides you with the advantage of having the source code in your possession. Scott argued that this was a key explanation for the appeal of OSS in the U.S. military. You can actually go to the source code, see what is going on and not just assure yourself of your security, but you can make modifications if necessary.

Software as a Renewable Resource

Having debunked a number of OSS myths, Scott was quick to follow up by contending that OSS also presents an opportunity to rethink software stewardship. “It must be thought of as a living thing you have to keep,” Scott said. A software portfolio must be actively maintained and nurtured, and it must be able to evolve as quickly as the organization’s needs. The opposite of this approach is purchasing a solution and locking oneself into one vendor and one technology. “Organizations spend a lot of money on software development, and much of that intellectual property is going out the window” Scott maintained. Managing your IP portfolio is especially key to nurturing a sustainable software ecosystem across the organization.

Additional open source resources:

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