IT Leaders Encouraged to Contribute Enterprise Code to Open-Source Projects

Linux luminaries explain how companies can benefit...including reducing the costs of further development and support...by releasing their in-house customizations to the open-source community.

Open source is no longer a novelty, even within the largest corporations. Today, 53 percent of businesses use open-source software, according to a recent CIO.com survey. However, not enough of those businesses are contributing code back to the open-source community, said Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO of Red Hat, at the Red Hat Summit. And such contributions would benefit the enterprise even more than it would the development community, he explained.

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According to Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation, 75 percent of software is written for in-house use. As Whitehurst pointed out, much of that code is never used—a true waste of resources. "Think how much software is written out there that is behind proprietary walls," Whitehurst said.

Often, a company will create an innovative technology solution, using open-source software such as the Linux operating system, that can be appreciated by other developers and users. Whitehurst sees this as an opportunity to evangelize the power of open source to help businesses work more efficiently.

Zemlin agrees about the importance of getting sophisticated internal developers involved, which he sees as an untapped brain trust. "Getting those people to contribute to the process is critical," he says.

For example, Whitehurst said, the Merge real-time messaging functionality in Linux was originally written by J.P. Morgan for its internal needs. But any enhancements the company would make would fork the OS, requiring the company to re-implement its customizations every time it upgraded its Linux computers. According to Whitehurst, JP Morgan's CIO realized that support costs could be reduced by contributing the source code to the Linux community. Other Linux users would benefit, which would be nice... but more important to JP Morgan, the company wouldn't have to invest its own resources in maintaining an internal application. The Merge code would now be updated and enhanced by Linux developers at large, in addition to any committers on its own staff.

Similarly, Whitehurst said, a Canadian insurance company developed ESB and contributed it to the Linux community. Doing so, he said, built a large community of users.

This isn't exactly uncommon. As reported in CIO.com's survey, half of those who use open source (49 percent) often or sometimes report bugs or contribute their changes back to the open-source community; 11 percent have open-source committers on their staff.

You may expect that companies would be concerned about competitive differentiation, and keeping ones' customizations out of the hands of their industry competitors. That's actually the opposite of what Zemlin has seen. People care about how their code is used in Linux and in other open-source software, he says, and they notice which companies contribute the most code. They see it as individual program recognition as well as demonstrating company domain expertise. When survey results come out, Zemlin says, his phone has rung off the hook with questions like "Why isn't my company more accounted for?"

The most effective ways for enterprises to contribute to open source projects is when their own self interest is involved, according to Zemlin. A company that has to rewrite everything for an in-house legacy application or device driver will often be held back by the reluctance to upgrade. Instead, Zemlin says, "It would be better to submit changes into the [Linux] mainline," he says, creating a sustainable system for which the enterprise no longer has to be the only source of development resources.

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