Open Source in Business

Written 2019-07-24 by Len Payne in Learning

On July 25th, I will be presenting for the Canadian Undergraduate Computer Science Conference (CUCSC) at one of my alma maters, the University of Windsor. The presentation will be on a topic I think is valuable to current students, namely the implications of using open source technology in business, both pros and cons, and how to manage the balance.

This article is mostly a brain-dump of all the things I think I might talk about.

I will include this link in my presentation, and I will attach the slides on my site for people to download. To dig into the meat of the matter, keep reading.

What is Open Source?

Better people than I have spoken at length about open source. So here’s their words:

Without getting too historical, the basic distinctions are open and closed source. With open source technology, a member of the general public can somehow gain access to see and modify the original source material of a piece of technology. With closed source technology, the general public does not have these rights.

So how does a piece of technology become open source?

It is released publicly, and explicit permission is given for people to use, re-use and modify the technology under certain conditions. Basically: someone shares it.

This concept flies stark in the face of many ideas around intellectual property, valuation and profit that many people and organizations hold dear. If something is valuable, the theory goes that it should not be given away freely.

To avoid a lengthy philosophical debate, let’s just agree that different camps will disagree. I will get into the pros and cons a bit more after some definitions.

Types of Open Source Licenses

The “explicit permission […] under certain conditions” that I mentioned above is what’s called the “License” for the technology. It usually starts something like:

Redistribution and use in source and binary forms, with or without
modification, are permitted provided that the following conditions
are met...

- Preamble for the BSD 3-Clause license

When choosing how to license a new project as an open source initiative, it’s entirely possible to write your own license, but most projects share common licenses. These broadly fall into two camps:

1. Permissive Licensing

The basic idea of a permissive open source license is to allow people to use it without requiring much extra from them. The low bar to entry may be as simple as providing credit where due, and frequently does not even require that unless the modified project is redistributed.

Some of the common licenses in this category are:

If I build a piece of technology and share it with any of these licenses, you can pretty well do whatever you want with it, and in only a few of them would you be required to tell people I was involved at all. That’s free and open source.

And… some feel it’s not fair. So there’s also:

2. Restrictive Licensing

The basic idea of a restrictive open source license is to require anyone who uses the original technology to share any changes they make. This varies, depending on the license, and the exact terms. This basic concept is called “copyleft”.

The most common restrictive, copyleft licenses are:

These vary in their specifics, but broadly require the same basic protections for freedom:

  1. If the software is changed and distributed, those changes are shared publicly.
  2. The publicly shared material is shared under the same or similar licenses.
  3. Any breach of the agreement is punishable through clear legal recourse.

But Len, You Said This Was About Open Source in Business!?!

So here’s the trick. Every business is different. There is only one Red Hat. There’s only one Facebook and only one Microsoft.

And there’s only one Link2Feed, and only one Redis too.

I’m going to try a scatter-shot approach to discuss some pitfalls and some big wins from open source in business. We’ll start with the big dogs.

Red Hat - Preferring Reciprocal Sharing

“The Open Source Company” was recently purchased by IBM. They have operated for over 20 years, have peaked over $1b in revenue, and all of their IP is open source.

So what are they selling, to get that $1b? Services. The software is important, but it is a means to an end. Red Hat exists as a professional services company with a unique ethical bent. They build and support open source technology, but their primary goal is to provide stable technology for enterprise clients.

Many Red Hat technologies are licensed using restrictive licenses, like the GPL, because they believe strongly in the share-and-share-alike mentality.

Facebook - Profiting from Permissive

When Mark Zuckerberg and his team built the initial Facebook platform, they did not go about re-inventing wheels. They built on top of freely available tools like Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (the LAMP stack).

While the core Facebook platform has remained behind closed doors, the team at Facebook have been actively contributing back to those open source tools that they use (ie- the LAMP stack, and others.)

In recent years, Facebook has even taken a strong step to license and make available some of their internal tools, like React.

As a counterpoint to the mandated-sharing above, Facebook prefers the MIT license, which is about as permissive as you can get short of the WTFPL. The main reason that Facebook prefers the permissive license is because it does not require them to share other tools, as a GPL license might.

Redis - Open Source for the Little Guy

As a counterpoint to the big dogs, I’d like to take a look at a smaller project: Redis, which is a fast caching system and key-value store. Basically, a simple database.

Redis, as a project, has been open source since day one, and is offered under a BSD 3-Clause license.

However, as it quickly gained popularity, the original authors realized they could potentially add premium and enterprise features on top as paid bonuses. The flexibility of the BSD license allowed them to build on top without sharing. This business model became Redis (the company).

For a time, Redis enjoyed their status as a growing tech company, but the truth of the matter was that their core service (Redis) was free. So some of the big tech companies, like Amazon, were undercutting Redis on their own product.

In response to this, Redis changed their licenses… a couple times.

As I mentioned above, there’s only one Red Hat. Only one company has taken a fully open sourced technology and made a billion dollars off of building a support system around that free technology. Most companies that choose to share their IP as open source too early will get squashed by the big dogs.

Redis is holding on, and fighting the good fight, but they are definitely reeling from a fight with Amazon that Jeff Bezos probably doesn’t even know is happening.

Bringing it Back Home

Link2Feed is a small company. We use open source software every day. However, we have to be very careful about which open source software we use. Why?

  1. If we use the wrong OSS, it may require us to share our private code.
  2. If we use abandoned/dying projects, we may be left with a security mess.
  3. If everything goes right today, we may still be stuck down the road as the sole supporter of a 3rd party project just to keep our systems afloat.

Like Facebook, we prefer to use products with MIT or Apache licenses. This avoids triggering any reciprocal licensing clauses, and helps us keep the value of our own IP.

Wrapping Up

During the presentation, I plan to give a quick demo/hands-on exercise of contributing to an open source project, and talk about #hacktoberfest.

There are several lists of beginner-friendly projects for a person to peruse, for example this newbie label on phpMyAdmin.

Time permitting, I will walk through an easy issue with the group. Otherwise, I will highlight the story of how I tried to log into the Changelog and wound up contributing to the page’s source code and the upstream tool that caused the initial issue.