Why We’re Celebrating 20 Years of Open Source

One might be excused for being confused.

Dirk Hohndel, VP, Chief Open Source Officer at VMware is smiling for a black and white portrait.

Dirk Hohndel, VP, Chief Open Source Officer at VMware

Didn’t we just celebrate 26 years of Linux? How can open source be only 20?

The 20th anniversary marks the moment when the term “open source” entered our lexicon. In February of 1998, a group of developers came together to describe their ideals for software development, or more precisely, to create a name for the licenses that covered such projects. I think they’d be unhappy if I described this as the creation of a brand. But there are similarities.

These developers started to define criteria for what it meant for a project to be open source.

As is typical for movements that bring together people with different backgrounds, ideals, and goals, there was spirited debate about what terms such as “free software” and “open source” meant, and how they were different or alike. To the people who coined the term, and who subsequently have tried to define it more precisely, those distinctions are very important. However, reflecting back over two decades, I want to focus, instead, on the sizable impact of the open-source community, the amazing suite of technologies they developed, and how they changed the IT industry and impacted the larger economy.

A New Way Forward
The underlying idea of a community working together, developing software, and doing so under a framework of licenses—licenses that encouraged collaboration and enshrined the rights of those who received copies of open-source software—was a fundamental departure from the prevailing approach of the packaged software of the 1990s.

In many ways, the methodology of open source is very similar to the established principles of academic research: publish your findings, based on other people’s findings, and enable others to publish their work as it is based on yours. If you apply those principles to software development, it is similar to what open source enables. That is, using and reusing both code and ideas that have been developed and refined over many years. As a result of this approach, we have seen some incredible changes in the IT industry and in the way software is developed.

The value of open source is visible in Linux, Apache, and MySQL;initial projects that have had a massive impact on both IT infrastructure and the growth of the internet as we know it. Recent successes include both OpenStack and Kubernetes. As much as those projects changed the world, and are considered significant milestones in the history of open source, there is another part of the story that isn’t told as often.

Open Source Is Everywhere
Very few software products today are entirely free of open-source components. I’m sure there are exceptions, but nearly every piece of software that I see is linked against, or includes, a number of common open-source libraries. Whether it’s the implementation of the SSL, a UI framework, or a set of data structures and operations that simplify the handling of XML data,open-source components are everywhere. If you built a reasonably complex application today, purposely avoiding any open-source code, you would soon discover that you are making your life considerably harder for no apparent advantage.

Today’s IT and business leaders, whose businesses leverage software—and that is pretty much all of them—can thank their predecessors in open source for much of what they touch. The DNA runs deep and is non-trivial. Hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of software have been developed by the open-source community. Open-source software has impacted nearly every product, every project, every data center, every interaction that we have with technology today. Companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and many others of the Internet generation would be unthinkable without open source.

So this event, 20 years ago, when people came together to pragmatically design guiding principles for open collaboration between developers, laid the foundation for a much bigger framework of projects and components that are intrinsic to almost everything that we do today.

This event is very much worth celebrating, even above and beyond the celebrations for each of the projects that have been built using that methodology.

The simple fact is this—open source, in itself, as a methodology, as a set of principles, has fundamentally changed the business environment that all of us operate in today.