Why open source has never been stronger

There has perhaps never been so much angst over whether open source software development is sustainable, and yet there has never been better signs that we’re in the golden age of open source. Or about the cusp. Here and there a open source company may struggle to earn a buck, but as a community of communities, open source hasn’t been fitter. There are a few good indicators for this.

The clouds have parted
The first is that the cloudsyes, most of them–are available sourcing vital building blocks which expose their surgeries. Google rightly gets credit for moving first on this with jobs like Kubernetes and TensorFlow, but others have followed suit. By way of example, Microsoft Azure released Azure Functions, which”extends the existing Azure program platform with capabilities to implement code triggered by events happening in virtually any Azure or third-party service as well as on-premises systems”

Azure Functions is a significant open source release, so that CNCF executive director Dan Kohn initially supposed the Azure Functions”SDK is open source, but I do not believe the underlying functions are.” In other words, Kohn assumed the on-ramp into Azure was open source, but not the code that could enable a developer to conduct serverless installation on bare metal. That premise, however, was wrong, also Kohn corrected himself:”This is open source and can be conducted on any environment (including bare metal).”

Boom.

More recently, AWS released Firecracker, a lightweight, open source virtualization technology for running multi-tenant container workloads that emerged from AWS’ serverless products (Lambda and Fargate). At a textbook example of how open source is supposed to operate, Firecracker was originated from the Google-spawned crosvm but spawned its upgrade in the kind of Weave Ignite, which made Firecracker a lot simpler to manage.

These are only a couple of examples of the interesting open source projects emerging from the public clouds. (Across the sea, Alibaba has been open sourcing its chip architecture, among other items.) More remains to be achieved, but these provide hope that the public clouds are not to bury open source, but rather to raise it.

Enterprises are creating waves
Perhaps even more tellingly, mainstream businesses will also be getting religion on open source. Within a few years ago, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst declared an open source emergency of sorts:

The vast majority of applications written today is written in business rather than for resale. And the great majority of that is not actually used. The waste in IT program growth is extraordinary…. Ultimately, for open source to provide value to every one our customers worldwide, we will need to receive our customers not only as users of open source products but truly participated in open source and getting involved in the development community.

Since that announcement, things have gotten better. While it remains true that many enterprises aren’t deeply engaged in the open source development community, that is changing. In 2017, just 32.7percent of programmers responding to Stack Overflow’s developer survey said they contribute to open source projects. By 2019, that number had jumped to 65%:

The data is somewhat problematic, as the questions asked in the 2 years were different; in 2017 they didn’t inquire how frequently programmers contribute, as Lawrence Hecht has highlighted. Most developers that contribute to open source do so episodically, and less than once a month.

Even so, it is not hard to believe that the more companies make serious about becoming software companies, the longer they’re likely to promote their developers to get involved with the open source communities upon which they depend. At the corporate level, such involvement might look easier for new-school enterprises like Lyft, that are roiling old industries by open sourcing code and information to assist foster their disruption.

“But obviously the brand new children do this,” you say.

Well, it’s not just the upstarts. Old-school enterprises like Home Depot host code on GitHub, while financial services companies like Capital One move even farther, sponsoring open source events to help foster community around their proliferating projects. Or for an even more dramatic example of old-school embracing new lessons, consider that the Los Angeles Department of Transportation spawned the Open Mobility Foundation, using open source applications designed to help handle the scooters, bikes, drones, rideshare, and autonomous vehicles zipping around cities.

So, again, not everybody is doing this. Not yet. But much more organizations are involved in open source today than were back in 2008, when Whitehurst made his plea for greater enterprise participation. This involvement is occurring both at the elite level (public clouds) and in more mainstream ways, ushering in a golden era of open source.