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IBM’s Jeffrey Borek on the 4 Waves of Open Source

February 10, 2022

February 10, 2022

  • Open source software (OSS) has evolved over the last 20 years through four waves of evolution. It has grown from individual use and development to adoption by hyperscale companies like Amazon, Meta, and eBay.
  • After IBM invested in Linux, the company supported the creation of the Apache Software Foundation and helped write some of its bylaws. In turn, IBM aided in supporting OSS initiatives to drive innovation. 
  • Companies that incorporate open source material want someone to assist them when something goes wrong. Thus, enterprises have monetized this side of the operation.

Industry giant IBM has been a significant player in the evolution of open source software (OSS) development, and Jeffrey Borek has had a front-row seat through it all.

Jeffrey is IBM’s worldwide Program Director for Open Technology & Developer Advocacy. Joining the company 25 years ago under the leadership of Lou Gerstner, he’s witnessed, first hand, every wave of the open source revolution. 

He was with IBM when the company first started investing in Linux at the end of the 20th century. He says the company did this because it saw how other companies were examining open source programs to create a robust development marketplace. Eventually, IBM aided in creating the Apache Software Foundation, a second wave open source nonprofit organization, supporting over 1,000 members with OSS projects. In episode 21 of OpenTeam’s Open Source For Business podcast, Jeffrey delves deeper into IBM’s OSS goals, the four evolutionary stages of the movement, and his predictions for the impending fifthwave of open source.

The 4 Waves of Open Source

Publicly accessible code dates back to the 1980s. Frustrated with the proprietary nature of operating systems at the time, Richard Stallman initiated the GNU Project in 1983. Since then, open source software has dramatically evolved.

Wave 1: Individuals drive the OSS movement 

The dawn of open source focused on individuals. Whether an entrepreneur or a developer, those involved saw the potential of the up and coming software sector. 

“A lot of it in the early days was just individuals and a lot of passion around convictions of what was right,” Jeffrey says. For instance, some believed all software should be free. Meanwhile, others were more pragmatic and believed there was a role for both free and paid programs.

The community-driven element of the early years of OSS is nothing new in the tech world. “Sharing software has been happening as long as there have been computers,” says Jeffrey. 

Wave 2: IBM (and other big names) invest in open source

The second wave occurred whenIBM started to incorporate Linux in 1998. However, Jeffrey says his company wasn’t the only organization that took notice of open source material. The seven to eight-year period was considered a time of growth and knowledge development comparable to collegiate-level research. 

“You want to publish papers and share your knowledge and build the common knowledge base of the area that you’re working in,” he says.

Wave 3: Hyperscalers use open source for infrastructure

Ambitious hyperscale businesses like Facebook (now Meta), Google, and Twitter saw that OSS could provide valuable infrastructure to support company growth. 

The mostly cloud-based companies began to use open source as a way to successfully scale by combining the publicly accessible code with in-house architecture. 

“All of these companies started to build their platforms with conventional enterprise software,” Jeffrey says. But the real game-changer came when businesses looked to open source for solutions.

Rather than investing in proprietary software, the companies opted to leverage OSS as a cost-effective way to build massive digital infrastructures.

With companies profiting off of free code, some companies believe in giving back to the OSS community, while others hold their intellectual property close to their chests. IBM has always embraced a give-and-take approach.

“[IBM] consumes and contributes back to open source in a balanced way to try and ensure that it’s not just taking advantage of the innovation that’s happening out in open source, but effectively contributing back,” says Jeffrey who, along with his team, strives to maintain their reputations as “good members” of the OSS community. 

Wave 4: Open source innovation merges with enterprise resources

The fourth wave, our current reality, has involved traditional enterprise companies adjusting the way they consume OSS. Enterprise businesses are looking to understand how the use of open source affects the ecosystem of the organization and its customers. 

Companies embracing this fourth wave are not necessarily big names, but rather businesses whose mission-critical apps rely on open source software. 

“If you have a mission-critical app that incorporates open source software, you want someone to pick up the phone when things go wrong,” Jeffrey explains. Companies are now looking to maintain a relationship with customers while leveraging non-proprietary code. 

Businesses embracing this new era of open source see the value of putting some of their own software developers directly into open source projects. For example, Capital One has created an in-house team focusing on how to merge the innovative benefits of OSS with the customer service realities of enterprise-scale operations.

On the Horizon: When Is a 5th Wave Coming?

Jeffrey predicts the fifth wave will be all about the influence of open source on industry verticals. 

Common infrastructure (or “the plumbing”) is where most OSS developers have found success. “But does the world need 12 operating systems?” asks Jeffrey. 

As open source moves up the stack, developers now have the opportunity to focus on industry-specific innovations. 

For example, The Linux Foundation recently supported the creation of a sub-organization called LF Energy, focusing primarily on open source solutions for the electrical industry. 

Together, great minds are sharing resources and combining efforts to answer challenging industry-specific questions such as how to buy from multiple vendors and have an interoperable electrical grid. 

The open source community has already found success with this vertically-focused approach to software development through a COVID-19 contact tracing app. The software was the result of collaborative efforts with Apple, Google, and Android. Phones can detect other phones in their vicinity while maintaining the privacy of device owners. “It’s the kind of rapid innovation that I think will start to impact other industry verticals,” says Jeffrey.

Is ‘Software Eating the World?’ And Is OSS Ready To Thrive?

Marc Andreessen’s often quoted mantra may have new relevance in the current era of open source. Today the question could be, Is open source software eating enterprise software?

Jeffrey thinks the answer is yes.

“Give me the name of a new enterprise software company that’s emerged in the last decade,” he says. “There really isn’t anything that comes top of mind in any significant fashion.” 

In a world where everything’s becoming a service, open source has the potential to thrive. But looking for sustainable open source models is still a challenge. 

“Some people have tried to come up with innovative models where you can be an open source coder and get sponsorships…but it doesn’t necessarily provide a robust, comfortable standard of living if you’re working hand-to-mouth like that,” he says. “But companies like IBM support their developers doing work in open source, because it fits into the bigger picture.”

He thinks that independent developers may go by the wayside, but cloud companies, major tech companies, and even mid-size and startups will fill the void, supporting open source efforts within company development teams. 

One small startup that’s already modeling this enterprise-driven OSS landscape is Ireland-based software company, NearForm. The company emerged out of the JavaScript community and uses a model to help clients quickly leverage JavaScript to support business solutions. 

As for IBM’s business model, Jeffrey says the company took an enormous leap when it purchased Red Hat for $34 billion in July of 2019. The goal was to become a big open source player while maintaining a strong presence in the cloud. Jeffrey says OSS continues to evolve and survive. 

And as for his fifth wave prediction? Time will tell.

This article is based on an episode of the Open Source For Businesspodcast by OpenTeams. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts to ensure you gain the newest insights on all things open source. 

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