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This ain't Kansas: The arrival of enterprise open source

What was once the at the fringes, coveted by bedroom coders, is now a staple of the modern enterprise. Why is open source suddenly everyone's favourite?

Steve Ballmer, the erstwhile former leader of Microsoft, once called open source a cancer. He would never live this down, as open source enthusiasts love to bring it up in the light of Microsoft, today, being one of open source’s big supporters.

Ballmer himself has even changed his mind. But this isn’t unique or shocking. So-called proprietary vendors have been flocking to open source. Companies such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise, IBM and Oracle have serious investments in the field. One of IBM’s most recent initiatives committed over 3 500 developers and researchers to work on Apache Spark projects. The question is no longer whether open source has arrived, but what are we all doing with it?

Welcome to Mode 2

A number of years ago, Gartner coined the ‘bimodal’ approach – the concept of keeping feet in both camps – the ‘older’ on-premises client-server architecture and the newer datacentres that drive high-scale services.

‘Mode 2’ is that second world: build on flexible virtualisation, malleable networks, elastic storage and easy consumption. Scale is the doctrine of Mode 2, both in capacity and price. Don’t own what you can rent and when in doubt, experiment.

Mode 2 came in vogue because of the new technology giants. Facebook and Google are considered the originators of largescale Mode 2 systems, tying thousands of seemingly-underpowered machines together, pooling their resources with virtual software instances, and then waxing and waning as demand shifts. The muscle of this new doctrine became evident as the likes of Netflix and Dropbox showed that agility and scale not only mattered, but were a damn sight cheaper than anyone had ever thought.

Soon enough ‘disruption’ became the doom call of the day, because these new technologies do indeed disrupt things. None of it could have happened, though, without open source.

Get it done now

Proprietary systems grew out of the client-server era, a means to use the new muscle of significantly cheaper CPU cycles.

Tracking a mouse cursor was now easy, so what else could be done? Slowly a world of software that tapped all that power emerged.

Compared to the mainframes of the past, these were revolutionary.

Mode 2 is the next revolution. Power is a given and speed is the new mantra. Yet proprietary systems are not naturally aligned with this approach, says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation: “Companies have realised that the collaborative development model of open source leads to more and better code that’s delivered faster and cheaper than proprietary alternatives.

There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel and build your own solution when one already exists, where you and your competitors can take advantage of each other’s expertise and then put your focus on the part that differentiates you.”

Let’s say you want a change to your system’s software. In the proprietary world, that means making a feature request and hoping enough other users ask for the same thing, then have it roll out through an update after a lot of quality assurance. Alternatively, you could pay handsomely to have it done sooner.
In open source, you engage the relevant community and get the change made. Then it’s put through the same community, now a gauntlet to ensure QA. The turnaround time is much faster, sitting well with the Mode 2 ethos of speed, not to mention less pressure on internal development resources.

But Mode 2 and open source are not slaves to impatience. Instead it’s a question of complexity: modern technologies are not simple. A hotbed of developers, all poking at bits and bytes, are much better at addressing the cat’s cradle of code that fuel fast-evolving technologies. This is why open source has become so prominent in the cloud: if you want evolving systems for data analytics, DevOps and software-defined networks, you need the hot fire that burns underneath open source’s boiler.

Mode everything

Adoption of open source systems appears to be very broad. Financial institutions, traditionally the more insular and cagey of technology adopters, are apparently big enthusiasts for analytics – and open source matches their appetites.

But it would be a mistake to still assume the old adversarial lines between open source and proprietary. As mentioned at the start, major proprietary vendors have serious claims in modern open source. This is because you can use both. Matthew Lee, regional manager of SUSE South Africa, compares it to hammers: “Sometimes customers don’t require a big play. So there’s not one hammer that hits the whole stack. It's a number of little hammers. You’re not boiling the ocean or buying one big SKU.”

Open source is nothing more than a development methodology which uses the many to achieve results quickly. Proprietary embraces open source to bring some of that into its own corral. One isn’t replacing the other, but instead they’re becoming two sides of the same coin.

It has helped open source that a lot of it is being consumed almost unknowingly. When a company hosts a workload with a third party, it may not necessarily know or care what that stack operates on. But chances are it’s open source.

As companies mature around fine-tuning their own workloads through coding (hence the whole ‘every company is a software company’ marketing line) they take a more direct interest in open source. Containers, the current hot topic in cloud and DevOps circles, are a perfect example. These enable the easy
creation and maintenance of isolated software environments – and are almost exclusively an open source phenomena.

Open source has come of age because it’s a driving force behind the creation of the Mode 2 world. This wasn’t by accident, but through a concerted effort by vendors and developers to make the technologies more viable and acceptable. Banish the vision of the closet programmer, throwing shade on Microsoft.

Those who sign the cheques for business technology don’t care – they just want the job to get done. And open source has been bringing home the bread.

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