CIOs still don't get open source

CIOs are clueless about open source in 2016? So it appears, according to a fresh Forrester report

CIOs still don't get open source
Credit: flickr/cogdogblog

This morning, Forrester analyst Lauren Nelson dropped a bombshell: “41 percent of enterprise decision makers say that increasing use of open source is a high or critical priority for 2016.”

In other news, those same decision makers report that they breathe air.

The crazy thing about this finding is that 59 percent of decision makers don’t realize that they, too, will increase their use of open source in 2016 out of dire necessity, even if they don’t recognize it. They’ll embrace Hadoop, Spark, and other big data platforms. They’ll run Linux, buy Android smartphones for their employees, and have open source undergirding nearly every essential workload within their enterprises.

Because in 2016, that’s how business computing works. Unfortunately, this de facto, nonstrategic use of software can't fully unlock open source's value.

Can I have some open source with that?

The Forrester analysts behind a new report, “Open Source Powers Enterprise Digital Transformation,” clearly get this. Writing for the duo, Paul Miller stresses:

Again and again, we encounter executives who do not grasp how much their organization already depends on open source. More importantly, they do not see the key role that open source technologies and thinking will play in enabling their efforts to transform into a customer-obsessed business that really can win, serve, and retain customers.

It’s not clear what rock these decision makers have been hiding under. Cloudera co-founder and chief strategy officer Mike Olson makes it abundantly clear that the key innovations driving enterprise infrastructure is entirely open source at its core:

There's been a stunning and irreversible trend in enterprise infrastructure. If you're operating a data center, you're almost certainly using an open source operating system, database, middleware, and other plumbing. No dominant platform-level software infrastructure has emerged in the last ten years in closed-source, proprietary form.

There are no exceptions to this -- so why are these CIOs and other IT decision makers so slow to give open source the credit it’s due?

Donning the open source invisibility cloak

While we used to fight over and fear open source, today it’s standard operating procedure. More than any other factor, this probably explains the CIO’s blind spot on open source. She’s not calling it out because she thinks of it as Spark or Cassandra or Kafka or Kubernetes, not “open source” per se.

The underlying license isn’t even an afterthought.

Normally, this wouldn’t matter much, except that “free” is an incomplete reason for turning to open source. In fact, CIOs who are grateful to simply download and deploy Spark and other great open source code are largely missing the point. As I’ve argued before, “to truly reap the benefits of open source over the long haul, companies will have to become full-fledged contributors, both in terms of code and community.”

Most recently, I profiled LinkedIn and its efforts to build and engage open source communities. LinkedIn’s vice president of engineering Igor Perisic told me, “Successful open source projects require a significant investment of time to develop, monitor, and nurture … but I believe that they often pay you back this investment many times over.” That payback comes in the form of higher employee satisfaction/retention, as well as accelerated innovation.

It takes work, however, and too many IT decision makers either overlook or, conversely, underappreciate open source. To truly benefit from all this code that increasingly powers every enterprise, you need more than a free download.

CIOs need to look at open source from a strategic standpoint. That means listening to developers on staff to determine which projects have something essential to offer -- and which are leading in technology development. When CIOs understand which projects are hot and for what reason, they can help determine the communities where developers should participate and give back. 

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