Understanding Open Source
Open-source software is freely available to anyone to download, use and modify under the terms of an open-source licence. Its creation and ongoing development is steered by a community of users and developers cooperating and collaborating to achieve their technology goals.
Questioning the notion of “free software” and wondering how such a model can possibly be sustainable? There is ample evidence to the contrary. The longevity of open-source projects such as the Linux operating system and its many forks, the Apache web server, the MySQL and PostgresSQL databases, OpenOffice (now LibreOffice) and various languages such as Perl and PHP, shows that some of the most successful software products that businesses rely on for their mission-critical applications are open-source.
Beginning with the pioneers of open-source, such as Richard Stallman in the 80s and Linus Torvalds in the 90s, the motivation to contribute to open-source software no doubt covers a range of human instincts from altruism to the purely pragmatic desire of a sponsor to get things done and even extending to the competitive business instincts of multinational company executives.
To understand why all this activity makes sense it is necessary to understand how open-source encourages all participants to act with enlightened self-interest. It should be no surprise to learn that (as with much human behaviour) motivations vary but also coincide and prompt individuals and businesses to cooperate in a common cause.
Open-source projects now have a long history involving some of the IT industry’s biggest companies. Apache LibreOffice was originally created by a German company for Amstrad computers in the 1980s. Sun Microsystems acquired the company in 1999 because it wanted to save the very considerable cost of Microsoft Office and Windows licences for its 42,000 employees. They then eventually released a free open-source fork of the code as OpenOffice. After Sun was acquired by Oracle in 2010, the commercial version of the product was discontinued and Oracle contributed the code to the Apache Software Foundation.
Oracle also owns MySQL which it acquired along with Sun Microsystems. It continues to maintain and make MySQL available as open-source software, however it also offers paid editions in the form of its MySQL Enterprise products that support additional features, such as database clustering.
What all these open-source success stories have in common is that the value of the product does not rest on traditional property ownership and the selling price of software. Value lies in creating a healthy business ecosystem that is able to rapidly develop a high quality, low entry-cost product that is not expensive to support and maintain and that will attract the critical mass of supporters and users required to become self-sustaining. It is this ecosystem that forms around the product that provides an economy for the provision of all kinds of services. These are taken up by businesses that find it more cost-effective to buy in the associated services, rather than fully support the product within their own organisation.
Open-source library systems
The Koha library management system was created in 1999 by a New Zealand developer for the Horowhenua Library Trust which required a specific product with a low ongoing cost structure. Horowhenua realised that the best way to achieve this as well as contribute back to society was to make Koha available to the world under an open-source licence. As a result the Koha project has clearly filled a niche and its user base grows rapidly, along with its feature set.
An open-source product such Koha or the DSpace digital repository is under continuous development by a community of developers around the world.
A common impetus for the development of new features in Koha are libraries fortunate enough to have a development budget and a desire to improve their service level. Libraries often commission a developer to build an enhancement they require for specific business reasons. Again, it is in the sponsor’s self interest that the development work they pay for is shared with everybody and becomes a permanent part of the product. In this way open-source markets encourage a virtuous circle of cooperation based on competitive self-interest but not descending into cut-throat competition.
Commercial service providers can be a significant contributor to that development because they want to satisfy their customers’ expectations and build up their reputation for good service. At the same time it is very much in a developer’s interest to have their enhancements adopted by the community and integrated into the mainstream product. In this way their new feature becomes part of the product that is supported by the community. To hold on to the feature as closed-source would commit a developer to a product lifetime of maintaining their own code while the host package changes around it with every new release.
Hosting service providers (like Prosentient Systems) are another component of the open-source ecosystem. They are in touch with a wide user base and have a good idea of what features their customers would like to be added or improved. As these service providers often have technical capabilities and wish to meet the expectations of customers existing and potential, they will undertake development of software components themselves and freely contribute these back to the community. If the new feature is considered worthwhile by the community and passes the quality assurance process overseen by the release manager, it is accepted for incorporation in an upcoming feature or bug-fix release, as the case may be.
Not all development is done by companies or from commercial self interest. Many individuals also give selflessly of their time because they are passionate about libraries, enjoy the intellectual challenge of software programming and obtain a sense of satisfaction from being a member of a genuine community of like-minded people. Many developers have contributed to Koha over a number of years and they continue to do so. As Koha has matured and its installed base has grown so has the number of developers supporting the application.
Cost and risk
Being free, open-source software has a low cost of entry, but also a low ongoing cost of ownership since there are no recurring licence fees or charges for mandatory upgrades. For a large organisation which is already equipped with the facilities and skills to host and manage its own computer facilities, it makes sense to leverage that strength and pay only for the more highly specialised expertise that cannot be easily maintained in-house. For smaller organisations with limitted technical resources, outsourcing the hosting of the open-source product is a worthwhile proposition.
However, there are even more important reasons than initial cost-effectiveness for choosing open-source. In acquiring a proprietary library system a purchaser is making a long term, significant commitment. This commitment effectively locks the purchaser into one supplier and one proprietary product, the internals of which are opaque to them - and this can represent a risk.
If the product does not live up to expectation, if it is not developed to maintain competitiveness in a changing business landscape, if the service provided by the vendor is not adequate, the ‘essential upgrades’ too expensive to maintain over time, if the vendor goes out of business or is taken over by another company - in these circumstances it can be difficult and expensive for the purchaser to extract themselves without wearing a significant loss.
Many of Prosentient clients have been in such a situation and found it difficult to extract themselves and their data without the cooperation of the proprietary vendor.
The philosophies underpinning open source software therefore have close associations with the philosophy of open standards that are vital for successful exchange, re-use and preservation of documents and data. Open standards are those that, by virtue of their transparency and accepted nature, offer a degree of protection against obsolescence and inaccessibility.
Importantly for mitigating these risks, open-source software is not a black box. In the event that a product is approaching end of life at some point in the future, developers and end-users can continue to access the resources with more certainty than will be the case for proprietary assets with missing digital jigsaw pieces.
With an open-source solution the software is not purchased - only the associated services are purchased if they cannot be more efficiently provided in-house. If these purchased services turn out to be inadequate there are always many options available to the library, from bringing the services in-house to choosing an alternative service provider.
- Fact #1: The first instance of open source sharing wasn’t related to software at all!
It dates back to even before the first computer was developed. In 1911, revolutionary automaker Henry Ford was instrumental in launching the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association. This association launched an open source initiative that witnessed major US auto manufacturers sharing technology patents openly without seeking any monetary benefits in return.