by CIO Staff

The State of Open-Source Software in July 2003

Jul 01, 20034 mins
Open Source

When Linus Torvalds sat down in 1991 to write a version of Unix that would run on Intel chips, he probably didn’t think too much about creating a whole new way to develop and maintain software. Yet the act of opening the code to anyone interested and willing to make a contribution has had a revolutionary impact.

The concept of software as a public good wasn’t invented by Linus (that honor probably goes to Richard Stallman with the publication of the GNU Manifesto in 1985), nor was Linux the first open-source Unix (that would be Minix, developed by Andrew Tanenbaum in 1987). However, the creation of a practical and effective process by which source code is shared on a noncommercial basis essentially came from his efforts. It’s also clear that his willingness to maintain the essence of the open-source process through his active participation has been critical in expanding and maintaining the community.

Fast-forward to 2001. Linux is in the core strategy of most major vendors (including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Oracle and Sun Microsystems) and is increasingly the platform of choice for many server applications. Open-source development products (JBoss, FreeSQL, Tomcat) are widely available and in some cases (such as Apache) widely used. There are at least 30 Linux distributions available. Microsoft is even acting as though it’s at least mildly concerned.

So has open source come of age? Are we beyond the idealist and early adopter stage? Should corporate users be looking seriously at open-source processes and products alongside vendor-owned solutions? First some issues to consider.

To cast the open-source discussion as “free” verses “paid” software is inaccurate. Open-source software is free in the sense of “free speech” (which carries with it the connotations of certain rights and obligations), not “free ride” (which implies something for nothing). In reality, both approaches result in cost to the customer; the difference is in where users first incur?and then recover?their costs. The reality in a competitive market is that users should, and most often do, make their decisions based on the total cost of operation and the return that they can expect on their investment.

Second, a lot of the intellectual property in Linux is actually owned by companies that never officially agreed to make it available under an open-source license. Most obvious here is The SCO Group, which is suing IBM (and threatening to sue everyone else who either distributes or uses Linux) over trade secret infringements. But there are others, including Microsoft, that could do the same if they chose.

Third, “open source” is no more a guarantee of intrinsic quality than “vendor source.” By my count, Red Hat issued more critical patches to its Linux distribution in 2002 than did Microsoft for the Windows 2000 Server.

Finally, some behaviors in the open-source community surfaced because of the SCO suit that should give us all pause. The most successful open-source movement prior to Linux was the hacker movement?not exactly the kind of folks that corporate decision-makers want associated with their platform software. Some of these folks (reportedly from the fringes of the open-source community) surfaced last week and shut down the SCO website with a targeted denial-of-service attack that used knowledge of Linux’s innerworkings to improve its effectiveness.

Mainstream adopters are generally risk-adverse and like well-established ideas and the products they generate. I firmly believe there is a place for all sorts of options in the technology marketplace, including Linux and other open-source software. Encouraging independent developers is an important part of the innovation process in the software industry; and widely shared, adequately protected intellectual property is a powerful incentive for innovation. Is open source mature yet? Probably not?but it’s certainly getting closer.

John Parkinson is a senior vice president and chief technologist for Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.