How OSS Fuels Enterprise Innovation

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In my experience, “open source” and “innovation” go hand in hand. But I’d also argue that finding novel ways to significantly reduce the costs of operating enterprise-grade OSS can push this innovation even further.

Data from a recent survey* by my employer DataStax backs me up. More than two-thirds of executives and technical practitioners told us their companies were increasing the use of OSS. But there were striking differences in how hard companies are “leaning in” to OSS. The number of respondents who said they “strongly agree” (the highest box score) that their use of OSS was on the rise was:

  • twice as high among those experiencing a faster pace of innovation as a result of adapting to COVID-19 than not;
  • nearly three times as high among those reporting the most versus least progress on data strategy; and
  • more than three times as high at organizations attributing more than 20% of revenue to data and analytics versus 5% or less.

There seems to be a strong correlation, in other words, between a commitment to OSS and success as an innovative, data-driven enterprise.

I had a chance to talk with a couple of forward-leaning chief digital officers (CDOs) about how they make strategic use of OSS. They emphasized three things consistent with this data:

Frictionless learning. One affirmatively encourages her staff to seek out new open source tools. This has benefits beyond building skills to solve new problems (or old problems in new ways). Open source project communities provide signals that help the organization sense trends based on what a tool’s affinities are to existing technologies, what has standout momentum, and who is contributing to a project.

Permissionless innovation. OSS enables teams to experiment or build proofs of concept with fully featured software, at no financial cost. One stated with enthusiasm, “My team loves to bring me POCs built with open source.”  This shifts the process away from “endless debate” and toward getting to green on the next funded project (or failure with learning) and “shipping code” (itself a learning process).

Faster execution. Both CDOs I spoke with were crystal clear that even when they were ready and willing to formally invest, building with OSS first was the fast path to value.

“You build with OSS first, and if it works, then you talk to a vendor,” was how one summed it up. Steering clear of procurement hurdles has always been an OSS superpower much appreciated by development teams. But as an employee of a company whose business is built on OSS, I was also struck by the conditions for partnership this approach offers.

Having successfully completed an OSS-based project, the organization knows they have delivered something of value to the business. They likely have a good idea of what it would cost to operate and maintain it on their own. It creates a clear solution space within which the product and engineering teams can ideate and innovate.

I find this to be an inspirational context for the results of a new study by GigaOm on the comparative total cost of ownership (TCO) of self-managed Apache Cassandra and a fully managed and serverless Cassandra database-as-a-service.

GigaOm found that serverless Cassandra reduces TCO by 76% over three years. This isn’t an accident: In a serverless database architecture, storage is decoupled from compute, creating, in effect, pay-as-you-go, on-demand data. Among other things, this addresses the cost of “provision to peak” that most cloud database solutions require.

By expanding the cases where Cassandra-as-a-service makes good economic sense, this can feed the cycle of innovation at companies using OSS to drive growth.

Ideally, the staff who are most skilled in finding ways OSS (such as Cassandra) can solve new problems (or old problems in new ways) turn their time and attention to the next innovation opportunity with minimal (or no) encumbrance maintaining the last success.

To me, it’s an archetypal case of the symbiosis between OSS users and vendors: If we solve horizontal challenges every user of the software faces, they are freed to focus on the next novel use of it in their domain of expertise.

On that score, Cassandra’s track record is strong—and today I think serverless database services like DataStax Astra are helping it take a step forward.

*DataStax and ClearPath Strategies surveyed 515 executives and technical practitioners in U.S. companies in October, 2020.

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