What does ‘open’ mean to IT in the cloud era?
Open is an overused and loaded term. Yet, it remains one of the centerpieces of IT strategies in the cloud era.The term “open” when used in the IT context is an old and heavily used word. In an industry where new terms are introduced with incredible frequency, then age, and are discarded like napkins at a BBQ restaurant, the term “open” has surprising longevity. But what does “open” mean in the IT context? And why is it important to IT decision makers?
Dictionary.com offers a robust set of definitions for “open” as a verb, adjective and noun. For IT, I like number 5 under adjective – “relatively free of obstructions to sight, movement, or internal arrangement.” This fits with the most common uses in IT associated with open standards and open source software (OSS) – visibility and access to the creation, enhancement and maintenance of standards and software.
Value proposition of open
Open standards and OSS may provide value to IT in terms of ability to:
– Influence standards to be more aligned with IT needs
– Different software systems to interoperate, integrate and/or run together
– Understand the inner system workings to optimize applications
– Choose among multiple providers picking the best, lowest cost or both
– Enhance portability and reduce switching costs, and
– Self-support in the absence of viable or quality third parties.
Open software comes in different flavors. Three of the most well known are open standards, open source and open core. These differing flavors of open deliver different aspects of the value propositions described at different levels of flexibility.
The earliest of these is open standards which dates to the PC, early networking and UNIX eras of the 1970s and 80s. Open standards are defined by a standards body (de facto) or a vendor and released to and used by other vendors (de jure). Open standards enable the ability of end users to influence standards (1), enable interoperability between different vendors’ offerings (2), may offer some choice between multiple vendors offerings (4), and reduces switching costs (5).
Open source software has its origins in the late 1980s with Richard Stallman’s GNU project. Richard was having trouble with a printer, could not get the vendor to fix it, and did not have access to the device driver code to fix it himself. He created the GNU public license (GPL) to deliver software and freedom to use and have access to that software source code since close source “harmed people” in the way his productivity was harmed by that close source printer driver. The GNU project went on to provide the Linux operating system many of its utilities.
The software industry created a wide variety of open source licenses, but all licensees must make the source code available to be freely used and distributed. Open source may deliver all six of the value propositions described above (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). The development processes used to deliver open source can deliver superior software, particularly at the infrastructure level with user interfaces designed for skilled developers and administrators. Open source attracts communities of technical leaders delivering innovation so much so, that a lot of the industries’ innovation happens in OSS. Pure open source business models are a challenge to monetize with few vendors building a long running and growing business.
Open core refers to a product or offering that is based on OSS but has been enhanced or surrounded by additional closed source software as value add. This may be a single offering that has open source at its core, hence the name, and relicensed under a proprietary license. Or it may be an open source foundation that includes closed source components around it packaged in a subscription using a proprietary license.
Open core products may offer IT influence over the standards used in the software (1), interoperability (2), partial understanding of the inner workings (3) and enhanced portability (5). The development processes used to build open core software may benefit somewhat from the open source model, but are supplemented with closed models. Depending on investment and culture of the vendor, those closed models may offer superior user experiences for business people and other users that are not skilled developers nor administrators. Of course, OSS vendors can make similar investments for non-technical user interfaces too, but these business user experiences generally do not spring from technical OSS communities on their own.
Why should you care?
In the cloud era, concern about being locked-in has grown dramatically. In Kleiner Perkins Internet Trends 2017, Mary Meeker reported that concern about cloud lock-in (the ability to change cloud vendors) grew the most from 2012 to 2016 up from 7% of respondents to 22% of the respondents (Source: Bain Cloud Computing Survey, 2015 (n=347); Morgan Stanley AlphaWiseSurvey of IT Managers (n=304)). Having been trapped in previous IT architectures and license arrangements, IT executives are looking to understand what migration options are available to them before committing more of their IT infrastructure and applications to cloud deployments.
Some cloud vendors deliver proprietary experiences, infrastructure and license agreements in the cloud mixed in with software delivered using these three open approaches. Others focus on open product and services as much as possible. Many of the new innovative cloud, rapid application development, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and data management technologies have their origin in open source. But by the time they are built into a product or service offering, some or much of the benefit of open source may be traded off.
Understanding how to evaluate the openness of cloud offerings and what value propositions including flexibility and freedoms are key to realizing the agility promised by the cloud.