Keep an eye out for open source

Open source: Less talk, more work

Jonathan Marsh

© Shutterstock / Lucky Team Studio

Open source is clearly established in mainstream enterprises. But just because it has achieved this position doesn’t mean we should rest easy. In this article, Jonathan Marsh explains why it’s important to keep an eye on open source technologies.

A decade ago, we talked a lot more about open source as a major disruptive force in enterprise software. About four times more than we do today, according to a Google Trends search on the term “open source”:

Why the drop? Is open source only a quarter as relevant today? I don’t think so. I believe there are natural reasons why open source is talked about less frequently today, but also some worrying trends as attention declines.

Why we aren’t talking about open source so much these days

First, the good news: Open source is clearly well established in mainstream enterprises. There is little doubt that web-scale architectures are built largely on open source technologies. Linux is a clear leader on the operating system side. Docker, Kubernetes, OpenStack and others are leaders in providing scalable compute infrastructure. Big data technologies have been led by open source projects, such as Apache Hadoop, Apache Spark, and Apache Cassandra. Blockchain is emerging as an open-source-led innovation space. Across all parts of the enterprise stack, there are widely adopted and battle-tested open source options.

Perhaps one reason we aren’t talking about open source so much these days is that it’s become so pervasive. Most enterprises would likely describe their open source use on the “plateau of productivity” phase of Gartner’s hype cycle.

However, lack of attention leads to a downside as well. It makes it easier to forget what a radical value change open source introduced. These values include the ability to:

  • Retain ultimate control of your future, with the unrestricted ability to modify, derive, and evolve the software. In the era of digital transformation, every company becomes a software company, and control over your software evolution is core to maintaining control over your company’s competitive edge.

  • Properly price code in a high-supply market, which establishes a new level of competition in an industry with historically exorbitant costs.

  • Ease adoption with standard royalty-free licensing, allowing the technical cycle of evaluation, development, and deployment to be independent of any commercial licensing and agreement cycle.

  • Encourage the development and wide availability of skills, especially grounded in the academic community.

  • Reduce the power of a vendor to lock in customers to a cycle of commercial and technology changes that may not align with a user’s best interests.

With less attention paid to the details of open source, some software vendors have been able to get a little sloppy with these core values and lure customers into gradually compromising them. Here are some of the more common lures enterprises should be mindful of.

SEE ALSO: Why enterprises are flocking to open source

Enterprise versions

Many vendors adopt the mantle of open source and promote a so-called “community version” that contains core product features under an open source license. This appears to customers to represent openness, but for the vendor, it serves a more limited function as a free trial mechanism. Often, advanced features and support services, which are indispensable for serious enterprise use, are included only for a version with a commercial license. The result is that customers are subtly redirected back into the proprietary license model they sought to escape.

Cloud services

The speed and ease of adoption at a low entry cost typical of public cloud services suggest that it has similar values as open source. Plus, they let you outsource operational details and the difficult architecture issues involving scalability and continuity. Cloud services generally use a lot of open source under the covers, so they can appear irresistible.

But as a whole, cloud systems rely on the economies of scale possible by imposing a “one size fits all” approach. This, along with hiding the technical and operational details, limits your ability to evolve and customize the system. You surrender control of and access to valuable data and metadata about the system that could be a source of competitive advantage and drive innovation. Most cloud services cannot be easily replicated in another environment, so migrating between clouds usually involves a complete rewrite. Clouds become a walled proprietary ecosystem resistant to both evolution and escape.

The unicorn effect — Building a company committed to open source is challenging!

Sometimes customers are enticed by the perception of industry momentum associated with unicorn valuations. The allure of apparent momentum can obscure the compromises that rapid marketing-led growth can make to pure open source values. Building a company uncompromisingly committed to open source is challenging! You have to recognize and even celebrate that some portion of your market will not pay for product support and services. You have to invest heavily in innovation, create compelling opportunities for monetization around instead of within the product, and adopt new marketing and sales approaches. You have to convince investors that you can do all this while generating a healthy return on investment.

Many investors will naturally be nostalgic for the days when proprietary intellectual property guaranteed lock-in and an “easy button” to generate outsize returns. Customers of these vendors should be mindful that unicorn valuations can drive an urgency for short-term revenue growth, poorly aligned with the customer’s goal of building long-term value through iterative innovation supported by open source values.

SEE ALSO: “The Apache Way” — Open source done well

Clearly, temptations abound for vendors to undermine their commitment to open source, and to do their best to downplay these values.

This isn’t to say that all commercial open source offerings are antithetical to open source values. These values are not compromised when paired with additional value-added services available at reasonable fees. For instance, enterprise-grade support services; product maintenance, including constant vulnerability monitoring and remediation; and expertise in the form of consulting services of all types—along with operational and hosting services—all provide value without compromising the purity of the open source ecosystem they support. Even certain cloud services, when based fully and transparently on open source and supported by well-defined mechanisms for migrating to a non-commercial open source deployment, can be a solution consistent with an enterprise’s open source strategy.


Open source’s pervasiveness is a remarkable achievement, representing a true paradigm shift in software innovation and adoption. As the novelty wears off, it’s harder to notice erosion of the values. It’s our responsibility as open source consumers and community members to be mindful of—and demand for our organizations—the unadulterated values that have led to the incredible success of open source in the enterprise.

That’s something worth talking about, and even more importantly, working towards.

Open Source

This article is part of last year’s “All eyes on Open Source” JAX Magazine issue:

Open source skills are a boost for career prospects — if you don’t believe it, it’s time to bring out the big guns.

We invited the Eclipse Foundation, The Apache Software Foundation, Cloud Foundry, Red Hat, Hyperledger and more to show you why open source is important. You’ll surely learn a lot from their experiences!



Jonathan Marsh

Jonathan Marsh is the vice president of strategy and IoT at WSO2.

He has held a range of strategy, business and technical roles within WSO2, Microsoft and other technology firms, and has contributed to open source and open standards including serving on working groups related to XML and web services within the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) international standards organization.

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