Just 10 short years ago, Linux was considered an upstart, challenging the embedded players. Open-source software was evolving around the world, but very few projects beyond the Apache Web server had penetrated big business. Fast-forward to today, and Red Hat is in the S&P 500, the Apache Web server accounts for well over half of all Web servers, and even Java has gone GPL. Call it the triumph of the open.
Now, 30 years after the GNU General Public License was first conceived and 20 years after Linux kicked off, big business has come to understand the power of big community. Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, said, “It has fundamentally changed the way people live every day.
“Let me give you an example: Bill Gates changed the world with a simple vision of a PC on every desktop running Microsoft software. And the PC did change the way people interact in their daily lives. Linux has gone even beyond that.
“It’s not just powering desktops, but it’s a part of the fundamental economy of the globe. It runs 75% of global equity trades. It is a fundamental component of the global economy. Wall Street and Linux are inextricably linked. It runs air traffic control systems, trains, Google, Amazon, eBay and Facebook. It’s in your phone. It’s in your TV. I mean, it’s changed the world so fundamentally, and people aren’t even aware it exists, which I think is one of the most elegant things about Linux.”
But open source and Linux aren’t just about doing the heavy lifting. They’re also about driving down costs. “It has driven billions of dollars of cost out of the IT industry,” said Zemlin. “It has enabled services that are a part of everyone’s daily lives. It has changed fundamentally the way people think about developing software. It has proven the collaborative model is better.”
That’s because it all comes down to the people. Open-source software is, in a way, less about the software itself, and more about the collaboration of everyone involved in using and building that software. Standards and processes are still extremely important, but at the end of the day, it’s the people writing the software and their interactions with each other that make open-source projects move forward.
People like Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, who said that the power of open source is evident in every aspect of Eclipse and its ecosystem. “It’s one of the challenges we’ve got at Eclipse as an organization: We’ve got so many different technologies and talk to so many different types of companies across the product life cycle, from early adopters to late, from engineering in automotive or aerospace. That’s a very wide spread of companies leveraging Eclipse,” he said. With all those stakeholders, Eclipse has to make a lot of people happy for different reasons.
Cutting those costs
Zemlin said that Linux has some of those same problems, but good engineering and proper adherence to goals ensure projects remain focused on the strengths of Linux.
“I think it’s more of an industry shift, where you’re seeing this massive adoption of Linux as the underlying fabric of a lot of different computing,” he said. “All of the fundamental advantages Linux had in terms of the availability of the source code, the low cost, the fact that you can own this stuff and build your own things on top of it, have turned out to be truly fundamental advantages.”
And those advantages also save everyone involved in the development process time. Rather than worry about reinventing the wheel, or building out custom environments, Linux and other open-source projects are still malleable enough to be molded into the nooks and crannies of any project.
“In Silicon Valley, there is not a startup today that uses proprietary software to build their company,” said Zemlin. “In the hottest segment of the market today, it’s not Web 2.0 any more, it’s the new wave of social media companies like Groupon. Go to any of those companies, and they all build their technology using open source. It’s Linux. It’s open-source databases. It’s Apache Web servers. It’s all open source. They’re doing that not just because the stuff is high quality, and provides high availability and fast throughput, but also because it’s cheap for them to build.
“I was one of the founders of a company called Corio. When we went public, the No. 1 risk statement on our sheets was that we didn’t own the software. We hosted it, but it was built on proprietary software. I ask if Google could be the company they are today if they used .NET? Maybe not. There’s this fundamental advantage Linux has for people to own their code.”
And with the arrival of the cloud, even more cost can be driven out of a business. “What’s interesting in Silicon Valley is that in addition to all these companies building on open source, they’re not just not buying software, they’re not buying hardware either,” said Zemlin. “They’re launching using cloud services from Amazon and other providers. That’s reduced the amount of risk and the amount of capital required. I guess if you’re interested in old workloads and using MS Office, you’d say Windows is doing pretty well. And I wouldn’t deny they are, but if you’re into any new kind of workload, or into green-field deployments, it’s all Linux.”
Open-source software isn’t just for servers and desktops anymore. It’s taken hold in the smartphone market, too. “If you go into other segments, like mobile, the same fundamental advantage holds true,” said Zemlin.
“In the consumer electronics world, it’s even more compelling. You’ve got this two-fold pressure in the world of TV makers, or phone manufacturers, or DVD makers, which is that you not only are needing to spend more money creating these devices, it’s also a cost that is largely derivative of software. Take the top 10 smartphones on the market today, turn off screens, lay them side-by-side and tell me which is which. You’ll have 10 blank screens in a candy-bar form factor. You can’t tell an iPhone from a Droid until you turn it on and see the software is very different.
“When the software becomes the primary differentiator of these devices, the software component becomes very expensive. In addition to that price pressure in terms of building, these things are only on the market for 12 months. That gives these guys a lot less time to make money off of these things.
“They’ve decided that instead of making money off the hardware, I’m going to offer products and services on top of that. The only platform that allows you to control your own destiny is Linux, because it’s open source. We have these fundamental structural advantages in the market due to the license cost and due to the critical mass that Linux has in terms of this broad architectural support. Once it’s taken on that critical mass combined with these advantages, it becomes something that’s very, very difficult to compete with, if you’re a proprietary software company.
“Microsoft… It’s evident they truly struggle. In the markets they seem to care about and try hard to win, Linux seems to be doing a pretty good job competing.”
Java in the open
Eclipse’s Milinkovich said that open source isn’t just about starting from scratch, either. Many companies have opened their technology to the public, and in some cases, that technology has been gifted through acquisition. Such was the case with Instantiations’ WindowBuilder Pro, the popular Java GUI design tool. WindowBuilder Pro is now an open-source project under the Eclipse Foundation.
“I knew as long as Instantiations was around, this wasn’t their business model,” said Milinkovich. “Literally the day I heard Google was buying them, I was on the phone saying, ‘OK, how can we make this happen?’ It was the first time Google had open-sourced a significant asset at Eclipse.”
Milinkovich went on to say that despite being proprietary for years, WindowBuilder Pro’s move into open source was a big step for developers.
“WindowBuilder has been around for a really long time,” he said. “I remember using it when I was a Smalltalk programmer. That technology has been around for a long time. They had several hundred thousand paying customers when they were Instantiations. This is not something that’s starting; it’s stable, it’s mature, it’s well-known amongst Java developers.”
After all these years of validated open-source development, Java has finally joined the open-source movement. “Under Sun, the code wasn’t moving forward,” said Milinkovich. “One of the things about Oracle’s stewardship of Java is that it takes time to get going, but they are actively investing in moving Java forward.
“Sun was using the deadlock at the JCP as a convenient excuse to save on a lot of engineering resources. The pace of innovation in the Java platform is going to get a lot better. Java as a language…some innovation is now going to happen there. They’ll add modularity, but there’s a lot of things Java needs to do to innovate to be more relevant to today’s world, such as be much better and more relevant to Web developers.”
And after years of elbow-throwing, it would seem that Java’s move into open source will even calm the unrest between some Java projects and the keepers of the language. Sun, for example, voted against passing OSGi as a standard into the Java codebase, while Eclipse and the rest of the JCP voted in favor of the move. Now, OSGi is anticipated to be a part of the future modularity Java SE 8 promises.
“I made it really clear in Eclipse’s vote on the Java 8 JSR that if there wasn’t room for OSGi to play within the modularity story for Java 8, that we would be voting against it,” said Milinkovich. “There is work going on around bridging that gap with conversations among the technology guys. In my view it’s a no-brainer. There is a lot of stuff being built on top of OSGi right now, and it’s in nobody’s interest to break that in Java 8.”
Despite the new openness of Java, the software is still under contention from the one area in which open source is still vulnerable: software patent litigation. Oracle opened a suit against Google last year, alleging that Google’s use of Apache’s open-source Harmony libraries in its Android smartphone platform violates Oracle’s patents on Java. While the OpenJDK is available under the GPL, the litigation in the Oracle-Google case focuses on implementations of versions of Java that predate the OpenJDK.
Still, said Geir Magnusson, founder of the Harmony project and a board member at Apache, there’s a lot of activity within Harmony, even though he has since left the project to focus on his day job. “There are a lot of people who are still really invested in Java. That doesn’t change, and Harmony is still the class library for Android, and there are a lot of Android phones out there.”
For the next 20 years of Linux, the version numbers will be changing in a new way. For almost 10 years, Linux has been on the 2.6.x branch of the kernel. But this spring, Linus Torvalds decided to end that tradition and to brand the kernels after 184.108.40.206 as “3.0.” On the outside, this move seemed to indicate some evolution for the platform, but in reality, it’s just a number. And the next revision of the kernel will also be just a number: 3.1.
With these version number changes, you’d expect that Linux had entered some sort of wild teenage period, where changes are made with reckless abandon. But you would be wrong. The kernel marches on with the same deliberate and thoughtful pace it has always had.
The kernel itself will still be moving forward, said Zemlin. “In terms of challenges for Linux, there will…always be a challenge to have the best possible kernel you can get. I can tell you, the guy who maintains the Linux kernel is the most competitive guy on that front,” he said.
“We have the good fortune of being able to work with thousands of the brightest people in the IT industry to make that happen. It’s one we’ve met handily. Anything we can do to simplify the consumption of Linux, whether that’s from a vendor perspective or simplifying Linux in terms of making new things, we want to help.”
The cutting edge
Twenty years ago, the most cutting-edge open-source project on the planet was either an operating system or a compiler. Today, the moniker “most cutting edge” is almost impossible to quantify. Tools like Selenium, continuous integration servers like Jenkins, and HPC tools like OpenCL, have all offered cutting-edge solutions to development problems. Open-source projects around the world are pushing the state of technology forward with every checked-in patch. Some of these projects are even rethinking the entire foundation of the data center.
Dahl started out trying Python and Ruby for this task, but “he found they weren’t satisfactory,” Hughes-Croucher said. “The predominant reason is there is a lot of heritage in server-side programming already, so when he wanted to use some other library or access a database or do something that involved input/output, the existing heritage of those languages didn’t work very well with an event-driven system, because all the libraries were blocking.
“The event-driven system requires that it can continue doing other work while it’s waiting for that other task to be completed. I don’t have to wait for the database process to be complete. People had built all this infrastructure that didn’t work this way.
Open source keeps cutting-edge development like Node.js from being cloistered. Instead of spending time working on an idea behind closed doors, open-source development models allow these ideas to immediately take flight and find users around the globe, thus ensuring all stakeholders will have a say in how the project evolves. The Apache Foundation’s open-source projects have become the very lifeblood of many enterprises for just this reason. From the Web server to message queues, Bernard Golden, CEO of NavicaSoft, said the combination of the Apache software projects and the Apache Software License have made its retinue of tools very compelling to enterprises.
“The license the ASF uses does not bring them into conflict with commercial companies,” he said. “There’s no, ‘You’re ruining our business by giving away free software or making a derivative work.’ There’s no sense that it’s some vendor. It’s us. It’s whoever is participating. They’ve brought together disparate companies, companies that are actually competitors. And the people in it are pretty nice; they’re not polarizing people like some members of the free software community. They’re too nice. There’s nobody who goes, ‘They really screwed us.’
“Looking at actual practice, companies are embracing open source and using it a lot. It doesn’t seem like the threat of patents or trademark issues are hanging over them. Most open-source projects come from an individual or a small group of people…attracted to the idea of, ‘I want go work with Microsoft because I’ve got to be protected against patent infringement.’ They’re probably going to go to a group they’re more familiar with, such as SourceForge.”