After spending two days at the Red Hat Summit last week, I started thinking about the power of open source software and how it has transformed the software industry. When I was writing my new book, Smart or Lucky, How Technology Leaders Turn Change into Success, I analyzed the success and failures of companies that attempted to cement their offerings as a standard in the market. In the 1980 and 1990s companies like Microsoft were able to establish their platforms as a de facto standard. Fast forward another couple of decades and it is becoming clear that open source has changed the rules of the game.
This transition did not happen over night. In the early days of open source it was hard to get a customer to take the movement seriously. Customers were afraid of being stuck with orphaned software that was hard to manage and left to the whims of developers. In those days customers had a right to be worried. All open source offerings were not created equal. There were many instances of companies with failing software products that attempted to keep products alive by offering these products to the open source community. Many of these efforts lasted a few short and painful months before the products went to the forgotten product graveyard. More recently companies like Sun Microsystems, before its acquisition by Oracle, proclaimed that portions of the Java language and its Solaris operating system would become open source. Ironically one of Sun’s early triumphs was its ability take to take one of its most important assets in the late 1980s – its network file system – and put it into the public domain. While this bold action, as I talk about in Chapter 1 of my new book, had very positive yet a short term impact on Sun’s fortunes. The company was not able to sustain its early success.
But things started to change when software companies like Red Hat with strong commercial approach to managing and maintaining the Linux operating system, JBoss middleware, and now cloud computing software began actively collaborating with well-respected standards organizations. Organizations with strong leadership like the Apache Foundation, the Open Group, the OMG, the Eclipse Foundation, and the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF) have partnered closely with vendors ranging from IBM to VMware to support the requirements for interoperability.
The most important consequence of the growing importance and legitimacy of open source is that it levels the playing field. In reality, it is a lot harder for a single company to corner a market based simply on convincing partners and customers to standardize on a single system. Now I am not naive, it is still possible for a company to gain dominance in a market segment with a proprietary approach. For example, while Apple uses a Linux based operating system, its software is proprietary. Apple’s loyal customers accept this because of the perceived elegance of the solution. In essence, you can only corner a market when you offer customers something that solves a problem or changes the customer experience in a significant way.
Cloud computing adds an interesting dimension to the open source approach. As cloud computing matures more customers will demand interoperability both at the API level, the data level, and at the applications level. So, I was particularly interested in Red Hat’s latest efforts related to cloud computing open source. The company is focused on two initiatives: Cloud Forms and Open Shift. Cloud Forms is intended as an Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) initiative to help customers implement a private or hybrid cloud from a lifecycle perspective. This initiative focuses on portability, virtualization, and integration with public cloud services. Open Shift is focused on focused on Platform as a Service (PaaS). Therefore, it is designed to provide an open development platform to support a variety of language options including Java, Ruby, and Python. It is too early to determine whether this effort will become widely adopted by customers. But it is indeed a step in the right directions. The fact that Red Hat is working closely with the Apache foundation is a good step in the right direction. As with any open source initiative it will require that a broad community of developers work on expanding and deepening the implementation of this approach so it will take time and a lot of effort. The downside of this open development process is that it takes a long time for efforts like Cloud Forms and Open Shift to mature to the point where they are ready for the average commercial corporation. However, the benefit of an open source development effort is the power and wisdom of thousands of contributors.