The Gift Culture Behind Open Source Software

By Danny Windham

As we finalize preparations for Astricon, our annual Asterisk Users Conference, it seems appropriate to discuss how open source software has evolved and its increasing adoption by the business world. In fact, if you’re headed to Astricon next week, you’ll get to hear from our keynote speaker, Bill Ledingham, the CTO and EVP of Engineering at Black Duck Software. Black Duck is considered the industry leader in helping companies secure and manage their use of open source software.  In his keynote, Bill will take a closer look at: “Macro trends to micro services: How OSS is reshaping the development and deployment of applications and services.” 

To get the discussion started early, I want to share an excerpt from the article, “The Business of Open Source,” which originally appeared in CIOReview. In the article I provide my take on how and why OSS has been able to thrive in recent years. This version of the article also includes ‘bonus content’ which reveals the true heart of any open source project – the developers – and offers a theory on why the developer community is so giving of their time to OSS. 

The Business of Open Source Software

The business of open sourceAlthough open source software (OSS) has been around for decades, only within the past several years has there been a surge in its acceptance within the business world. Today, open source is perceived as a viable business alternative to commercial solutions, and is used by 64 percent of companies. The background of how and why the open source model has matured is also key to understanding why organizations of all sizes continue to not only adopt OSS but to also actively support and contribute to open source projects.

In its infancy, OSS was often viewed by businesses as something created by hackers for nefarious purposes. It was seen as a threat to intellectual property rights and commercial profitability, and was considered simply too risky for ‘legitimate’ applications. One of the main reasons for this distrust was the abundance of OSS license abuses, and the lack of enforcement on violations. Over time, however, legalities became more defined and enforced, and this helped lead to more commercial efforts around OSS projects.

During this same time period (the last 25 years), the most prominent open source project to date was born- Linux. Despite businesses being leery of the open source model, Linux not only grew, it also achieved name recognition as a viable alternative to its commercial competitors and was embraced by large enterprises. With a broad software base and an extensive developer community to contribute to the code, the Linux project’s success served as an example to help other open source projects gain legitimacy. As more developers began contributing to open source projects, and IT managers became comfortable with implementing it in an enterprise environment (even preferring to use OSS), business decision-makers were increasingly exposed to the world of open source. The result? It became clear that, with suitable resources, the OSS model was a valid path forward for any organization.

The Gift Culture, and Beyond

The ability for any OSS project to thrive is largely dependent upon the community of developers contributing to the project. In the early days of OSS, enterprise leaders often questioned not only the quality of the OSS community’s technical resources, but also wondered why someone would contribute to a project – for free.  If you’re not familiar with the open source community, it can be confusing as to why developers so freely give time and resources to a project without any seeming payout, especially when you consider that OSS projects are attracting top developer talent from around the world..

The philosophy behind a developer’s involvement with these projects serves as another reason why this culture has grown so much in popularity. In Eric S. Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” which contrasts closed source and open source software models, open source developers are compared to individuals living within a gift culture. Individuals living in a gift culture gain power and prestige based on the resources they are able to accumulate and, in turn, give back to their community. In the same sense, developers contributing to the open source community gain prestige and recognition among their peers for the work, which can include writing code, identifying bugs and fixing them, assisting in updates, adding extensions, etc.

The commitment to an OSS project is further rooted in the application of the software itself and how it impacts a developer’s everyday life – in other words, how they are benefitting from it. Take Asterisk for example. Created and maintained by Digium, Asterisk is the world’s most popular open source telephony project. In its early days, Asterisk was used by everyone from hobbyists creating phone systems in their basements to enterprise organizations wanting to run thousands of employees on their communications systems. If the individual who was putting up a phone system in his basement wanted to connect Asterisk to his lighting control system, and no interface between the two existed, he could take it upon himself to create it because it would directly benefit him.

Another phenomenon of the open source community is that it can build developer loyalty, allowing developers to feel a sense of pride and ownership in the end product. In a sense, that “ownership” translates into the developers becoming protective of the project, further ensuring its sustainability. The open source community is a collaborative environment in which innovative software is being created by very talented people- and individuals and businesses of all sizes are benefitting from this unique collective of curious, ingenious minds.

Benefitting the Enterprise

Enterprises have similar reasons for getting involved in open source, but on a much larger scale.  The large organizations that build infrastructure via OSS actually become invested in the projects running well, and task hiring managers with recruiting dedicated OSS project leads. In general, OSS projects come with more responsibility for the end user than a commercial offering does, since vendors usually claim the responsibility associated with supporting customers. However, enterprises that already have in-house OSS expertise can utilize those resources and benefit from these solutions in several ways, including initial cost savings and the ability to customize the solution to the specific needs of the business. Also, in most cases, OSS projects have been better vetted than software that has been freshly written, which can save on resources as well.

While cost savings and customization have been the driving forces behind OSS entering the business world, perhaps a more important, omnipotent component is the power of peer review. In the commercial software space, there is some peer review that occurs when developers write a program, but it doesn’t come close to the number of expert eyes scanning an open source project. This high level of visibility serves as the perfect tool for thousands of developers to identify and fix defects or vulnerabilities within the code. When thousands of talented developers come together to collaborate and improve upon code, the product becomes better. The value of peer review is a big part of why open source has thrived and ultimately become accepted in the enterprise. The legitimacy of this type of global code contribution is increasingly gaining authority within the more traditional side of the business world.

Where is open source headed? To find out my take, read the rest of the article at – or join me at Astricon 2016.

Astricon 2016 keynote

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About the Author

Danny Windham

Danny Windham joined Digium in February, 2007 as CEO. In this role, Windham was responsible for setting corporate strategy and executing day to day business operations.Prior to joining Digium, Windham served as president and chief operating officer of ADTRAN, a global provider of networking and communications equipment. Windham joined ADTRAN in 1989 following ADTRAN's successful acquisition of Processing Telecom Technologies, a company Windham co-founded in 1986. Prior to becoming president/COO in 2005, Windham served as the senior vice president and general manager of the Enterprise Networks Division.Windham holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Mississippi State University where he was named a Distinguished Engineering Fellow in 2001 and also holds an MBA from Florida Tech.

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