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Open source has already won over developers. What’s next?

A decade or two ago, enterprise IT was dominated by proprietary software companies that often dismissed open source as a fringe movement, many raising concerns around its security and reliability. A perfect example is Microsoft’s former CEO, Steve Ballmer, calling Linux a “cancer” back in 2001. 

Today, many of those very same open source “haters” have done a full 180, and are now some of open source’s greatest supporters. Why? Open source software is now dominating enterprise IT for a few different reasons: 

First, the rise of public cloud computing has helped open source spread globally to massive amounts of developers. Second, developers have gained more say in what technologies their organizations adopt. What once were top-down CIO decisions are now bottom-up developer groundswells. Often, big, organizational choices are made by developers simply selecting what technology they love working with most (that’s exactly how it should be). Almost always, developers choose an open source technology. According to a Gitlab survey, 98% of developers use open source tools because the software evolves faster, the code is trustworthy and auditable, and developers have the freedom to adapt the software on their own terms.

Finally, open source is taking over categories once dominated by proprietary software. According to a survey from Red Hat, 68% of respondents indicated an increase in adoption of open source software within their organization. Lower total cost of ownership, better security, and access to the latest innovations were cited as the top three reasons for choosing open source over proprietary alternatives. 

Quick, What’s Our Open Source Strategy?

Many proprietary software companies now realize that having an open source strategy is central to their own survival. In fact, according to a survey from The New Stack and The Linux Foundation, 53% of companies have existing open source programs in their organization, or plan to implement one. Frankly, I’m surprised this percentage isn’t larger. I imagine a lot of closed-door meetings where CEOs, CTOs and CMOs are wringing their hands about how to engage the developer community.

To be fair, I think proprietary software companies participating in open source is a good thing, but a lot of the commitments they make about utilizing open source technology can feel pretty shallow to developers if they’re not serious enough.

For example, some software companies open source small, limited portions of their proprietary code in efforts to attract more developers. That strategy can backfire if developers feel as if they’re somehow sneakily locked into a proprietary ecosystem. If the software isn’t truly flexible, adaptable, and extensible, developers may find themselves a victim of a marketing strategy, rather than a part of a true open source project. Platforms that don’t provide extensibility through open APIs suffer most in this scenario.

On the other hand, for some large proprietary software companies, open source can function as a successful, massive R&D lab. Kubernetes, an open source container orchestration system, is a good example of this dynamic in action. Google reaps the benefits of having software developers all over the world contributing to the Kubernetes code base, and in the interim, Google can bolster their proprietary cloud offering to support Kubernetes as adoption takes off. It’s a win-win for everyone. 

Open’s Real Edge

No matter how you slice it, companies like Acquia that are born out of open source communities have an advantage over proprietary software companies with an open source strategy. True open source companies already know how to work with developer communities, and are pros at supporting enterprise adoption of open source. By building proprietary IP on top of open source, open source companies have a unique value proposition to sell to enterprises. And remember, since developers are making many of their decisions based on open source, many of these technologies already have a strong foothold in enterprise, lowering the barrier of entry for the associated open source company.

Beyond developers and enterprise IT, open source is working its way into other areas, especially marketing. Sure, CMOs might care less about open source software under the hood, but they do want rapid innovation at a low cost. That’s exactly the reason why open source won in IT and it’s why open source will eventually win in other areas as well. As open source creeps into nearly every business discipline, the relationship between developers and business users will become much more closely linked. Marketers will find that developers can solve their problems quickly and effectively with the flexibility and freedom of open source products, and developers will feel less restricted by proprietary constraints of the past.

Business users often see the impact of open source more obviously via open APIs and extensibility to other solutions. For example, a marketer should have the flexibility to move data between platforms and integrate software from other vendors into their existing stack. That’s not always possible today. The success of products like Twilio and Sendgrid are perfect examples of how well-documented, extensible APIs have spread adoption like wildfire. Developers drive the actual implementation, and business users are happy because the software just works with their preferred technology stack. Another win-win.

The Endgame: Open or Bust

As more companies opt for open, we’ll see an even greater shift in enterprise IT. Gone are the days of proprietary, closed-source software stacks and vendor lock-in. The new business strategy in town will be open, whether that means going all-in on open source or adopting open APIs and extensible, open platforms. Organizations that want to appeal to both developers and business users will do both, and do them well. 

Data portability will also be crucial to the open technology movement in the future. Compliance regulations like GDPR have already laid the groundwork for such changes on the consumer side. Business users will want the ability to easily move their data between platforms, or delete certain data from their software with clarity and freedom. The more transparent vendors get about their open data practices today, the better off they’ll be in the future.

 Even though a decade ago, organizations may have questioned the value of open source, today, they’re realizing it’s already won. Open source and “open” technology is the preferred choice of developers, and it’s making its way up the chain to business users everywhere. Tech companies that are playing it close to the proprietary vest need to shift their strategy, or face becoming completely obsolete.

By Tom Wentworth