5 key trends in open source

InfoWorld's Best of Open Source Software Awards shows how dependent we've become on open source for everyday infrastructure and for today's rapid-fire tech development

5 key trends in open source

InfoWorld's annual Best of Open Source Software Awards, affectionately known as the Bossies, presents an opportunity to step back and look at the big picture -- one that this year included over 90 winners in six categories. All of them were handpicked by InfoWorld writers and contributors who gave their thumbs-up based on real-world IT and/or programming experience:

Bossie Awards 2015: The best open source applications
Bossie Awards 2015: The best open source application development tools
Bossie Awards 2015: The best open source big data tools
Bossie Awards 2015: The best open source data center and cloud software
Bossie Awards 2015: The best open source desktop and mobile software
Bossie Awards 2015: The best open source networking and security software

As you browse through the Bossies, one thing that will strike you is how essential so much of open source software has become to modern computing, particularly in application development and IT infrastructure.

Yet senior managers tend to have only a superficial idea of open source's crucial role -- Linux, Hadoop, OpenStack, and a handful of other high-profile projects aside. Nor do they often realize how much or how frequently both dev and ops download, evaluate, and put into production open source software.

So even with open source's precipitous rise in importance, the trends within it remain relatively obscure to the world at large. Thanks to the collective wisdom of InfoWorld's contributors and various interviewees who've shared their use cases, I can offer a few observations about what's actually happening:

1. Open source is ground zero for technology development. Once software vendors would open source software that, to put it kindly, wasn't worth monetizing anymore. Now open source has become the preferred way of germinating hot new technology, particularly for startups. Docker and Hadoop -- and in particular their exploding ecosystems -- are the most obvious examples of this, not to mention the parade of NoSQL and NewSQL databases.

2. The cloud is eating open source applications. Browse through the "best open source applications" section of the Bossies, and you'll see that many have a SaaS or hosted option. Makes sense -- even Microsoft Office 365 is a semi-cloud offering and its chief rival is clearly Google Apps. These days, many IT departments would like to avoid installing and maintaining applications locally when possible.

3. Big Internet companies are huge open source contributors. You probably know that Google came up with MapReduce and Yahoo cooked up Hadoop. Maybe you also know that Google developed the most popular JavaScript framework, AngularJS, and contributed cgroups to the Linux kernel, which eventually became Docker -- today's open source darling. But did you know that eBay, Facebook, LinkedIn, Netflix, and Twitter have each originated dozens of open source projects? Facebook, for example, is responsible for both Cassandra, one of the leading NoSQL databases, and React, a wildly popular JavaScript library.

4. GitHub is the center of the universe. The world's leading code repository and versioning system, offered as a cloud service, now hosts 27 million projects. Sure, you'll find most of the high-profile open source projects here -- and/or at Apache. But the point is that GitHub has changed software development forever by answering a simple question: Why code it yourself if someone else has already done it and is willing to share under a liberal open source license? Odds are, you can find something close to what you need on GitHub.

5. Security has become a major sore point. Last year was a tough one for open source security. We all know the Heartbleed saga: A flaw in OpenSSL stood unaddressed for two years, and once discovered threw admins everywhere into a panic. Six months later, we were confronted with the nasty Shellshock bug, which had lurked in the open source Bash project since 1989. The rising importance and ubiquity of open source solutions make them big fat targets, so the industry has been forced to collaboratively fund projects like OpenSSL that were woefully underresourced.

Open source's technology leadership, along with an exponential increase in the sheer number of projects, leads to a final, somewhat ironic observation: It's still tough to be an independent vendor of open source software. Those few vendors who stick to the traditional pay-for-support-only model tend to struggle, whereas an increasing number of "commercial open source" companies offer multi-tiered subscriptions that recall the proprietary world. In the latter case, less capable community versions sometimes remind you of old-fashioned "free trial" software.

This situation is further complicated by the fact that some of open source's best customers -- the ones who employ open source software at scale -- are also the worst. They don't want to pay for the enterprise versions or support options vendors offer. Instead, like Walmart, they'd prefer to invest in the talent to maintain the community version on their own.

No matter. Nothing is going to stop the open source juggernaut. As a puffed-up VC might put it, the code-sharing economy has achieved its network effect. That awesome engine of collective creativity is transforming the entire technology industry.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.