Contrary to popular belief, software is not eating the world. Open source software is eating the world. This was very apparent at the Linux Foundation’s KubeCon + CloudNativeCon event recently in San Diego. Driving this phenomenon is what I call the Foundational era of Open Source.
This Foundational era of Open Source has replaced what I call the Big Brother era that came before it. The Big Brother era itself replaced what I call the Cathedral and Bazaar era of open source.
The Cathedral and Bazaar Era
I first became involved in open source software in the mid-90s. I might have dabbled and used open source software before that as I searched for free tools using WAIS and Gopher. But I really became aware when I founded TriStar Web, an early hosting company. Back then, web server software came in basically three flavors: 1. Netscape Web Server, from the people who brought us the Netscape browser (it was my choice); 2. Microsoft’s Internet Information Server (ISS), which was that era’s version of the Evil Empire; and 3. Apache (I don’t even think there was an Apache Foundation yet), the open source web server that was taking the web by storm. Besides being free, it was a lot more flexible and capable than the other two.
During this time there was, of course, another open source software vying for dominance in the market. Something called Linux developed by a guy named Linus Torvalds was taking on all of the giants that had their own flavors of Unix, while Bill Gates’ Windows was fighting it out against IBM’s OS/2, which he also developed.
Yes, those were heady days for open source software. I call those days the Cathedral and Bazaar days of open source. The Cathedral and Bazaar, of course, refers to the collected essays and then the book of the same name by Eric S Raymond. It, more than anything else, laid out for me the power of open source software and the tensions between the worlds of open source “free as in beer, free as in freedom” versus closed source software.
Let’s be clear, the open source software world would not exist but for the lessons learned, battles fought and wins and losses of this era.
Anarchy, Chaos or Freedom?
In those days you had people such as Dr. Richard Stallman advocating for free, open software that you could use, distribute and modify as you wish. There were intellectual debates over the pros and cons of various open source licenses (Apache, GPL, etc). Most of all, it was very difficult to bring open source software into the enterprise. No support, no training, no SLAs … how was the enterprise to use open source?
Nevertheless, open source prevailed—sometimes on sheer quality, other times on the love of developers who relished in the freedom of open source. It became a force in the tech world. Companies such as Red Hat, Suse and Canonical capitalized on Linux. Other companies tinkered and experimented with models to try and become commercially successful with other open source tools. By and large, it was a rough go, but some did succeed.
In my own case in InfoSec, we had great open source tools including Snort, Nmap and Nessus. The folks at Tenable did stop developing an open source version of Nessus, but they still offered a free version of it. Yes, it was a great time in open source—or so I thought.
The Big Brother Era of Open Source
Sometime in the early 2000s, we passed into what I call the Big Brother era of open source. This was characterized by almost every open source project having a managing or controlling commercial entity dictating its direction and code. While this didn’t happen with Linux, it became the de facto standard.
Companies were spun up by the founders of an open source project and while the project itself remained open, it was owned lock, stock and barrel by the commercial entity. The company would sell training and support and in some cases open core versions of the software with “freemium” modules available for a price. Eventually, SaaS-based, hosted versions of the open source software would be another business model companies used to monetize open source.
Issues regarding who owned the code, who contributed to these projects and where the community fit in often caused conflicts. But by and large, the open source communities counted on the benevolence of the Big Brother to make sure the open source versions of the software remained viable.
In retrospect, though, this era stifled contribution by other entities: Who would want to contribute code to an open source project for the benefit of the controlling entity? Many companies forked their project so they could control their own versions, resulting in the Balkanization of many of these projects, with the community being the big loser.
The Foundational Era of Open Source
Between 2012 and 2015, though, we passed into a new, modern era of open source software that I call the Foundational era of open source. Open source projects were given to community-owned, non-profit foundations to manage and nourish—organizations such as the Linux Foundation, the folks behind Cloud Native Computing Foundation and the Continuous Delivery Foundation; Cloud Foundry Foundation; The Apache Foundation; and the Eclipse Foundation (one of the early entrants, even if IBM did come to dominate it) took over the stewardship of many open source projects.
This has ushered in a truly golden age of open source software that has seen open source become the dominant form of software in the world. The Foundational era of open source has flourished for several reasons. For one, now multiple commercial entities can contribute code without worrying that it is for the exclusive benefit of just one company. What’s more, these foundations have a mix of vendors, practitioners and large enterprise users that really do allow for the democratization of open source at levels not seen before. Also, there is a process of incubation to graduation that these projects are put through that help them evolve and grow.
Not to be underestimated is the new generation of developers who have grown up with open source and only want to work in open software. They are putting their influence into practice. Instead of sneaking open source in the back door, they are knocking down the front door with it.
There are other reasons, but the result is that open source today is now in use at well over 90% of enterprises and it is by far the dominant form of software. It is leading the way in the move to the cloud and in business transformation, and it is literally changing the world.
Long live open source.