How to Engage With Open Source: A Strategic Approach

If software is the vehicle driving the digital transformation of business, open source software is the fuel. Open source technologies are widely understood to be one of the keys for speeding innovation for businesses large and small. The open source community allows enterprises to take advantage of the collective power of individuals, partners, and global development communities. For this reason, open source is often called community or collaborative R&D.

A recent survey by Black Duck Software of C-level executives and IT directors found that 78 percent of respondents said they now run part or all of their operations using open source software (OSS). Furthermore, the survey revealed that OSS is now the default option for software development, with more than 66 percent of respondents saying they consider OSS before any other options. Still, many myths persist about what exactly open source is, the right way to engage with the open source community, and how or when to deploy it into production.         

A Guide to Engaging With Open Source

For enterprises considering engaging the open source community—whether through use of existing open source code, contributions to existing projects, or creation of new projects—an intelligent, strategic approach is paramount to deriving the most business value from their choice. Open source technologies have “specific, long-term impact on the architecture of the enterprise IT environment,” says Dirk Hohndel, VMware vice president and chief open source officer, “so understanding the options and how best to proceed is critical to success.”

A strategic approach to engaging with open source includes the following steps.

  1. Identify the business goals. Choosing to deploy and use open source software is a strategic decision, from tools to applications to operating systems. According to the Black Duck Software survey, more than 65 percent use OSS to speed application development, and 55 percent rely on open source to run their production infrastructure.
  2. Understand that open source is not free. “Many enterprises look at open source and think ‘free,’” says Hohndel, “but if they start with that premise they should stop now.” The reality is that with open source costs don’t disappear, but instead shift from predominantly CapEx investment to OpEx. To move open source solutions into production, and certify that they are enterprise-ready, requires significant engineering expertise—a not insignificant operational cost. As VMware Executive Vice President and CTO, Ray O’Farrell, deadpans, “Some assembly may be required.”
  3. Evaluate core competencies. Key to taking a strategic approach is coming to a realistic understanding of an enterprise IT team’s expertise, resources, and capabilities. Do they have the available bandwidth and background to immerse themselves in an open source project? Where does the organization  want to build its team’s core competency? If it doesn’t have the skill set in house, will it be able to hire to meet these new requirements?
  4. Determine if it’s worth the investment. After coming to a realistic assessment of its IT team’s capabilities, the company’s strategic intent, and IT’s ability to adequately staff and support, the enterprise needs to decide whether open source is worth the investment in resources and long-term commitment. If the answer is yes, the business will need to prepare for building an open source culture, and choose one of two paths forward: independent engagement or vendor-supported distribution.

Independent Engagement

A business can choose to pursue an open source strategy “in house,” with no external help from organizations, but this option does come with challenges. Once the enterprise has refined its own open source solution, it alone will have the knowledge to understand the many customized changes it has made to the original open source software. It is a long-term commitment to support (e.g., patches, bug fixes, upgrades) and management that may have significant budget impact as costs shift more permanently from CapEx to OpEx.

Despite these challenges, many companies choose this path to invent new products, services, and business models. The results are clear to see. Early digital businesses like Netflix and ING are thriving. Thanks to the company’s open source strategy, Tesla has become a leader that is pointing the way to the future of transportation. GE is transforming itself from an industrial giant into a software company, and in the process, making its open source code, Predix, available to other organizations.

Vendor-Supported Distribution

The second option is a vendor-supported distribution model, or “distro,” in which a software vendor transforms the open source solution into an enterprise-grade, production-ready solution:   one that is sold like other proprietary software. In doing so, that vendor provides assurances of quality, reliability, and security, and assumes the responsibility to create, manage, and support the open source solution for the enterprise.

“IT departments already struggle with the competing requests for rapid innovation, stable and secure production environments, and the constant drum beat to reduce costs,” says Hohndel. “Adding the development and deployment of open source projects into that mix can add significant risks. The idea of running upstream open source projects in production is most likely a non-starter for most non-tech, and even for most technology companies.” On the other hand, he adds, “Careful roll-out of enterprise-ready and developer-ready solutions based on open source projects can make this process a much more appealing option.”

Distro solutions, such as those offered by vendors like VMware, Red Hat, and IBM, ensure that the open source solutions are enterprise-ready for the customer environment. They provide the long-term peace of mind and budget certainty of knowing that these solutions will remain, despite the many new contributions from the open source community, updated in a way that understands the needs of enterprise customers for a stable IT environment.

Use. Contribute. Create.

Every enterprise is different, but the invitation to the open source party is open to all. Knowing how to engage is the key to taking advantage of the innovation and collaboration that is driving enterprise software and the digital transformation of businesses today. The collective innovative energy of a community of collaborators knows no boundaries. Anything is possible.   

The VMware Open Source Program Office will be at this year’s VMworld U.S. and VMworld Europe running several great sessions. One not to miss will be Dirk Hohndel’s breakout session, “Open Source at VMware: A Key Ingredient to Our Success and Yours.” And look for the VMware open source team at the Open Source Summit in September.