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What Is Open-Source Software? (+The Benefits and Risks)

July 10, 2019

There’s no “I” in “technology.”

Year after year we are learning, together, about the potential of digital transformation — the benefits, the costs, and the risks.

And nothing embodies the idea of collaborative potential more than open-source software.

In the realm of developers and development software, today’s innovators have the choice to make applications that are closed source — also known as proprietary — or open source. In this blog we’ll explore the phenomenon of open sourcing, how it has changed the course of innovation, and what it means for you, the software user.

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What is open-source software?

When you peek behind the curtain of a software platform, you will find source code in a particular development language. (Popular languages include JavaScript and Python, among many others.) An average product can involve thousands of lines of code, expertly crafted by a team of product engineers.

Curious about coding languages? Start with these learning resources: What is JavaScript? and What is Python?

Coding is both an art and a science. The business applications you use every day are labors of love from dedicated developers, and their source code is this hard work on display.

With open-source tools, users have complete access to this source code. Taking it one step further, users have the freedom to alter this code and redistribute their modified versions to fellow users around the world — or at least within their company. This includes household name products like WordPress and Mozilla Firefox, along with thousands of other tools across the software spectrum.

Open sourcing is like handing out your recipes to diners at your restaurant. It does nothing to take away from the product itself. The reverse is true in many cases: By being transparent with your audience, they have added peace of mind and a sense of connection to the brand. And with regard to software, this means control over capabilities, vulnerabilities and integrations.

Trust is a priceless commodity in the software world. The open-source revolution is indicative of a renewed focus on trust, and with it, collaboration.

The rise of the open-source model

The concept of open-source technology has only been in the mainstream since the early 2000s. Its origins date back to the introduction of Linux in 1991. The respective launches of Ruby on Rails and Hadoop in 2004 and 2006 were watershed moments, with the latter eventually welcoming contributions from companies like Twitter and eBay. It also helped usher in the era of big data software.

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Open source software program stats

Up to this point, tech innovators would keep their cards close to the vest. But these stories shined a light on the potential for inter-company collaboration, and set the tone for the decade to come. Developers can now use others’ code to improve their own offerings, and vice versa.

Fast forward a few years, and open source is everywhere. In 2018, there was an estimated $57 billion of value creation in open-source IPOs, mergers and acquisitions. The Linux Foundation, one of the cornerstones of open sourcing, reports a 432% increase in membership over the past five years.

Free and open source

Many open-source applications are also freely distributed. This is referred to as free and open-source software, or FOSS. Often, vendors only ask for donations to help keep them afloat, along with costs for additional plugins, support and services.

These brands provide a solution they believe in without attaching a price tag or subscription plan to the product. The most successful releases usually generate a profit from a passionate community of users. But the prevalence of zero-cost software goes hand in hand with the transparency of open-source code.

Not only do these features increase a vendor’s chances of reaching a wider audience, but they also offer opportunities to inspire innovation. It is all about paying it forward.

There are twists and turns in the timeline of open-source technology, and there is still a substantial place in B2B for proprietary code. But the spread of free, open-source software is a defining story of the 2000s, leading to the rise of many products and careers. Popular products like Blender and MySQL remain free and open source even with millions of downloads. These success stories helped to fortify the movement and rewrite the rules of software development and usership.

The benefits of open-source software

Open-source code has helped aspiring developers and enterprise companies alike improve their understanding of technology. It is endlessly educational, especially considering the growing importance of coding. This constantly expanding network of ideas is only the beginning of how open-source software can benefit your business.

Machine learning and open source software

For solopreneurs and startups, stretching a budget can be a daily struggle. The accessibility of open-source projects allows users to adopt new technologies without shelling out subscription fees and committing to lengthy contracts. There is a communal, spunky spirit at the heart of open-source software, and it is best embodied in these particular user demographics.

Beyond the low (or non-existent) cost, open-source libraries give teams a head start on building an IT infrastructure or creating a new application. A multitude of practical, proven functionalities are readily available in these libraries. Users can save countless hours and headaches by choosing code from these resources and dropping them into core business platforms or customer-facing solutions.

Thanks to open sourcing, much of this legwork is already done for you. This allows developers to focus on optimization and customization. There will still be cases where companies want to start from scratch on development, but even the world’s largest brands are recognizing the effort saved through open-source code. Depending on the size or complexity of a company’s computer systems, fleshing out core applications may cost thousands in labor, with no promise of success. Tapping into a proven library of available code allows companies to save that capital and redistribute it elsewhere in the operation.

Whether used as starter kits for robust applications or small puzzle pieces to help complete a project, open-source components can be a handy solution for independent developers and enterprise teams alike.

Online communities like GitHub exemplify the collaborative potential of open-source software, giving millions of developers and businesses a place to host, review and access open-source platforms. In 2018, Microsoft purchased the platform for $7.5 billion. This is perhaps the largest example to date of how mainstream open-source code has become, and that established tech giants are buying stock in the future of this community.

The risks of open-source software

Despite its inherent transparency, open-source software is not without risk. As the spread continues, thousands of businesses are implementing this type of code in one way or another. This enables faster implementation times and greater functionalities than systems developed in-house. But these perks are not without their own set of risks.

A study of 1,200 codebases in 2018 revealed that 96% contained some open-source components — and an average of 298 open-source components, up from 257 in 2017. In the industries of energy, financial services, internet and entertainment/gaming, 100% of audited codebases involved open-source code in 2018. (Check out the full breakdown of industries on ZDNet.)

Among those codebases that were studied, 60% contained at least one vulnerability, and more than 40% had vulnerabilities that could be considered critical. The overall number is down from 78% in 2017, which shows an active effort to address the problem. But it is still sizeable enough that businesses need to be discerning about the code they use, and regularly review applications. Using vulnerability management software or vulnerability assessment services can help you identify any causes for concern.

The same study revealed that 43% of codebases contained a bug over 10 years old. This can be read as such: Batches of code released to the public are rarely patched up by their original developers, at least not entirely. So companies adopting this code must employ a layer of security and quality assurance even with a widely popular source code.Another liability to be aware of is licensing conflicts. Around 38% of codebases analyzed in this study contained components with no license to speak of, and 68% had some degree of conflict or ambiguity. When deciding to use some open-source code, particularly within mission-critical systems, your development team should do research about licenses (or lack thereof), and the corresponding risks of enforcement.

The future of open-source software

According to a 2018 study, 53% of all businesses use an open-source software program or plan to develop one. Another study by Stack Overflow, a career development platform for developers, surveyed nearly 100,000 members of its community — the majority of which are professional developers or people who sometimes code as part of their work. Nearly a quarter of these respondents (23%) contribute to open-source software at least once a year. Among enterprise companies, the use of open source code increased by almost 70% between 2017 and 2018, with a majority saying it was very or extremely important to their business.

There is nothing “niche” about this modern tech philosophy. For the foreseeable future, it is poised for ubiquity across global industries. Because of the free nature of most open-source code, the ability to contribute is a luxury for many developers. The continued growth of this community relies heavily on the passion of its contributors, or companies who can lend their efforts without a promise of profit. In its own way, the open-source community is not unlike nonprofit or volunteer work. For those who believe in their mission and the philosophy as a whole, margins are secondary to helping as many others as possible — even if it means a modest living or finding other sources of income.

If you already use open-source software or plan to do so, you should consider donating to the developers. In lieu of contributing your own code, donations will keep the open-source software train chugging along, allowing independent development teams to survive and continue innovating. In these divided times, open sourcing is a bright spot that highlights the fact that we can do more together than we can alone.

Explore some of the powerful applications built around open-source code, and how they might benefit your business. Here are lists of free database software, free CAD software and free HR software systems that are also open source.

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