We’ve seen it in fashion, music, and design. Trends become popular, then fall out of favor, and then re-emerge years later with a wash and brush-up and a new fervor.
Now it’s happening in software.
Sixty years ago, software from companies like Remington Rand, IBM, and Digital Equipment Corporation was open-source. It had to be. If you didn’t supply the source code with your software, companies wouldn’t buy it and university computer labs wouldn’t even consider it. They needed it to do the bug fixes, the patches, and the workarounds to ensure the software worked with their own hardware setup.
Then proprietary, closed software came along with the promise of stable releases, ongoing development, support, training, and the comfort that if something did go wrong, there was someone to call (someone to blame, even).
There was frustration, too. A certain Bill Gates, General Partner of a tiny company called Micro-Soft, wrote an open letter to personal computer hobbyists in 1976 expressing dismay that they were using a software program that his company had developed, Altair BASIC, without having paid for it. (Interestingly, another young tech startup immediately added a line to the adverts promoting its new Apple-1 computer that read: “And…Yes, Folks, Apple Basic is Free!”)
In the following decades, proprietary software moved from the garage to the boardroom, the size of programs grew from the 2,000 lines of code in Altair BASIC to the 1.3 million lines of code in Visual Basic 14, and the mainstream software business turned its back on open source.
It had to. When Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Monte Davidoff wrote Altair BASIC in 1976, they had a maximum of 4,000 bytes to play with (they managed it with 174 bytes to spare). Then, memory increased in size and fell in price year by year. Software companies realized that they could do more and consumers began to expect more. Complex business applications and elaborate computer games appeared with upgrades, support packages, and a wealth of new and novel features.
How could open source fit into the picture? Someone had to pay for the pizza.
That Was Then; This Is Now
Strange how history repeats itself. The 2016 Future of Open Source survey sponsored by Black Duck and North Bridge revealed corporate open source use increased in 65% of the companies surveyed, compared with 60% the previous year.
It goes further. The drivers for using open source are moving from practical issues like access to source code and reducing TCO to strategic advantages like gaining competitive features and breaking free from vendor lock-in. 65% of respondents in the survey are now leveraging open source software to speed application development and 55% are using it in their production infrastructure.
There’s no doubt open source brings advantages: no upfront costs, no ongoing support fees, no waiting for a small but important feature to be added. You can update the software yourself, rely on an army of enthusiastic advocates to develop other features, and be in control of your own destiny.
It also, however, brings its own baggage. No support fees means no safety net. Update the software and you’re obliged to maintain it. The knowledge of how your particular system works often resides in the tribal memory of a few key individuals. And, as the survey also reveals, half of the companies have no policies or procedures in place for selecting, approving, or tracking open-source code, raising governance and security concerns.
What on Earth Is Going On?
Truth is, behind the scenes, open source has never gone away. It’s been quietly humming along with a whole raft of software being created and supported by developers willing to give their time and efforts for free in return for working on a project they value.
Sometimes, the software appears as an offshoot of a major shift or development in another area. When Amazon created its highly available key-value store, Dynamo, for example, NoSQL was born and a host of similar NoSQL databases emerged like MongoDB, Redis, and Cassandra, all of them open-source.
Other times, the spur can be a reaction to a move in the opposite direction. When free use of the distributed revision control software BitKeeper was withdrawn, it prompted Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux Kernel, to develop his own. Git was born and is now the de facto standard source code version control system.
Think OpenStack, Docker, Drupal, LibreOffice, Linux, Ubuntu, and PostgreSQL; they’re all part of the revolution too. Alongside thousands of other programs, they’re free, open-source, and are becoming an accepted element in the enterprise technology space.
The big difference is, the companies behind open source aren’t making money from the traditional sale up-front model, or even the SaaS model. Instead, they offer free non-commercial editions and make their money by charging for enterprise editions with added features, training, and support.
That’s not the end of the story. Not by far. The continuing success and growth of open source has prompted companies in the proprietary space to look over the wall and, in many cases, jump over it. They’ve realized something: there’s a new game in town.
Welcome to Hybrid Source
Hybrid source is the result. It’s recognition that open-source software can be stable software, offering the resilience, support, and features enterprises need, up to a point.
It’s the up-to-a-point bit where hybrid source steps in to fill the gap between the freedom open source offers, and the reassurance closed source provides.
Hybrid-source software is closed-source software that works inside or alongside open source software. It resolves an issue, makes something easier, or adds a handy new feature and increases usability.
We’re not talking about open=source companies like MongoDB selling enterprise packages. We saw earlier how they need a commercial offering to pay for the ongoing development of their free software.
Instead, we’re talking about companies in the traditional closed source space seeing opportunities in open source to develop paid-for software. They’re popping up everywhere and, already, three general rules have emerged.
- Hybrid source brings an advantage to open-source software with a closed-source offering.
- It includes a free non-commercial edition to give everyone the advantage.
- It extends the advantage deeper into the enterprise space for a fee.
Note the money comes after the hard work has been done and after free copies of the software are already out there in the wild. This is playing the long game and, if it’s played well, there are rewards to be gained, thanks to two factors.
Firstly, unlike open-source companies, developers of hybrid source software aren’t committed to maintaining a large, ever-changing code base. Their tools work with the code base but they’re closed source, smaller, and a lot easier to look after.
Secondly, they play the open source game by offering free versions of their software for non-commercial use. It gets the software into the hands of users at no cost and when corporate users want more functionality, they’re willing to pay because the open-source software it works with is free, anyway.
Take MongoChef, the multi-platform data browser and editor for MongoDB from Berlin-based startup, 3T. 3T was founded by three NoSQL enthusiasts who wanted MongoDB users to have access to the same kind of development tools available to relational database users.
As Cofounder Thomas Zahn says, “Coming as a developer from a traditional RDBMS to a NoSQL database like MongoDB can be a truly liberating experience. It can also be frustrating because there aren’t many tools to help you with editing, searching, importing and exporting, management and connectivity. We wanted to resolve that with a commercial product, but give individual users the opportunity to enjoy the same advantages with a non-commercial edition."
Similar views are expressed by David Atkinson, Head of Product Strategy at Redgate Software. Redgate recently released community editions of its MySQL database tools. Alongside the paid-for enterprise editions, MySQL Compare and MySQL Data Compare are now available free for non-commercial use. The company also sponsored Ed Elliott to build SQL Cover, an open-source SQL Code Coverage tool, and is actively looking for more opportunities in the open-source space.
David Atkinson comments, “In the open-source space, there are a lot of single users and other users in the education and charity sectors who need professional tools but don’t have the budget to pay for them. Launching community editions of our MySQL tools makes sense because it widens our user base and gets us more feedback for ongoing development, and if users move to the SQL platform, they’ll find the same tools waiting for them.”
And the Final Word Goes To …
Remember Micro-Soft, that tiny company from 1976? In November 2014, its larger descendent Microsoft changed its stance. It open-sourced its .NET software framework and, tellingly, released a free community edition of its integrated development environment, Visual Studio.
Looks like everyone is opening the door to open source.