LinuxCon: Open Source is an Ecosystem, not a Zero Sum Game

Linux and open source development is not a zero sum game. This was the explicit message from Ubuntu Technical Architect Allison Randal’s keynote speech at LinuxCon, but the sentiment had been articulated in a number of ways all week long from everyone here. The processes by which a company makes great open source software improve the world for everyone.

“Free software is a fundamentally superior model for developing software,” Randal repeated several times. In addition to the classic Linus’ Law (“given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”), Randal put forward the claim that human beings long to be part of something greater than themselves, and free software development satisfies that in spades.

According to Randal, the future of technological innovation is not stealing limited resources away from one another, but creating new resources — and new opportunities to create new resources — together in a rich ecosystem. The term “ecosystem” came up several times in my chat with Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Chairman Emeritus of IBM Academy of Technology and Dan Frye, Vice President of IBM Open Systems Development. Frye made it clear that IBM’s efforts with Linux are to be a “solutions company” as opposed to a product company. IBM doesn’t make their own Linux distribution, but they work hard to contribute to the kernel and other key open projects that bring value to IBM’s customers.

It’s all about collaboration, and working together with other open source participants. Sometimes this means collaborating with direct competitors, but IBM “gets it” that this collaboration on open source creates new resources for everyone, and they’re not in a cut throat competition for a finite number of customer dollars. Certainly they compete strenuously in a variety of markets, and sometimes they compete strenuously against the companies with whom they’re simultaneously collaborating on open source. But it’s not a zero sum game.

Wladawsky-Berger continued the “solutions company” explanation by pointing out that a skyscraper is never built by a single company. Legions of small companies with specific expertise work together under the guidance of a project manager to coordinate and execute their specific tasks in the right order. This is ultimately how IBM envisions themselves, as a leader in the open source ecosystem working to enable new workloads for their customers.

There are many ways to thrive within the open source ecosystem. Whether its an unwavering dedication to kernel excellence (a la Linus Torvalds and Greg Kroah-Hartman) or a dedication to producing viable, usable tools for everyone to use to avoid reinventing the wheel. The Yocto project is working on this for the embedded space, just as SUSE, under the fresh leadership of Attachmate, is making available their Open Build Service to help people roll packages for multiple distributions. SUSE is also sharing their SUSE Studio to allow ISVs and companies to develop and maintain their own Linux build for use in appliances and “golden master” images. You don’t have to be a SUSE customer to use these tools.

But all of this collaboration doesn’t always happen naturally. Companies are still beholden to shareholders and their bottom line, after all. So sometimes it takes a neutral third party to get the interested parties together, provide neutral ground for discussion and shepherd the communications channels. That’s where the Linux Foundation comes into play. They provide much of the framework and stewardship of the communication between competitors that result in unparalleled technical advancement across so many industries.

“Free software is a fundamentally superior model for developing software,” said Allison Randal. Eucalyptus Systems’ Marten Mickos took it one step farther: “Any company with an IT strategy needs an open source strategy.” It’s important to recognize –and embrace! — the larger ecosystem of Linux and open source software, and to find a way to collaborate within it to increase the number of available resources for which to compete.