The following is the entire text of an interview – whose synthesis is in video here – given in February 2014 by Gabriele Ruffatti, director of Engineering’s Open Source Competence Centre, about the Open Source experience of Engineering, 10 years since the launch of SpagoWorld. You can find the Italian version here.
Open Source Software: is it still relevant?
Open source has just turned 16 years if we make its date of founding coincide with that of the Open Source Initiative which, in 1998, established the definition of Open Source and created the list of “approved” licences. This took place on the basis of the premises established years before by the Free Software Foundation (founded by Richard Stallman in 1985), which had given rise to the concept of free software and, as a result, to the well-known GNU GPL license. Although free/open source software was thus born about twenty years ago, its peak of popularity came at the beginning of the 2000s, when it gave a concrete launch to new business opportunities.
Today, if we access the sites of the main open source software vendors, we have difficulty in finding any trace of this term. Worldwide events and conferences are still being held on open source, but increasingly one speaks more generically about open (open world, open solutions) or open innovation. It is therefore legitimate to wonder whether it is still relevant to talk about open source.
What is meant by open source
Let’s take a step backwards and see what we mean by open source. The term open source defines a method of software distribution. In practice, it is a license agreement between the producer (which we can also call the developer) and the user which, rather than protecting the property rights of those who have developed it and restricting the rights of those who use it, voluntarily privileges the latter, thus creating the conditions for the software itself to grow, change and improve over time through collaborative development. The four fundamental freedoms protected by the GNU GPL license, and subsequently incorporated in the Open Source Definition, are the freedom to use the programs for any purpose, to study them and adapt them to one’s needs, to improve them and to distribute the improvements.
Starting from this initial concept, which proposed this paradigm as a way to affirm individual freedom, sometimes also accompanied by attitudes of an ideological nature, a practice of flexibility was developed, made possible by the reduction of barriers to access to technology permitted precisely by open source licenses. This has given rise to practices of collaboration and knowledge sharing, and has also created new business opportunities based on the production of software in an open and competitive market.
Innovation and quality
I don’t want to belittle the importance of asserting and protecting, thanks also to free software, individual freedom and, above all, to transfer this freedom to others, offering everyone the opportunity to be able to independently manage their own development. But what still brings us today to talk about open source is how much this phenomenon has produced over time. Today open source is characterized by a high rate of innovation and high quality, given the rapid evolution to which it is the subject through its model of development. It is no coincidence that open source solutions are leaders in all fields of Information Technology with a high rate of innovation, such as mobiles, cloud computing, big data and the future internet, where software technology enables the interaction between objects and between humans and objects. More generally, today open source is the basis of all developments of new software products
A procedure for collaborative development
Open source has promoted and consolidated a procedure for collaborative development which, from the initial model described in the “Cathedral and the Bazaar” – reference to the title of the famous book by Eric Raymond – has also evolved into forms of co-opetition – a neologism identifying the simultaneous presence of cooperation and competition – where the main market leaders share development costs and find common ground for standardizing requirements and collaborating in the identification and development the best basic features of an application. At the same time, each uses that common base to differentiate their own product proposal, adding distinctive features or special interfaces. An obvious example is the GENIVI Alliance for the production of infotainment solutions for the automotive market, whose solutions are based on the Linux operating system, and which involves more than 170 different kinds of companies distributed worldwide.
Sustainability: open source for lasting developments
Collaboration also means ensuring a solid base for the duration of solutions over time. The aim of the Eclipse Foundation’s PolarSys project is not only to create open source tools for developing embedded systems for the aerospace industry, for defense, security, energy, healthcare, telecommunications and transport, but also to ensure that they have sustainability over time, with life cycles that exceed 50 years – a geological era in the IT world – and with a duration that a single company would find difficulty in ensuring. One among many, the manufacturer of Airbus aircraft is a partner in this project.
From all this, it is now clear why the development and adoption of open source software is a fact that is increasingly “taken for granted” in the world of Information Technology, and one increasingly speaks about “open innovation”, looking at the results that this produces.
Production of value
Open source is software, it is technology, and technology is only a means to develop applications. Today, the pervasiveness and importance of computer applications is such that it is easy to understand how software is a means to create value. Companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter, whose economic value and the value that they could further generate are the subject of much discussion, would not exist, at least in their present form, without open source.
These companies use open source software and are happy to contribute to the development of new projects, the results of which are used for their operations which often take place in cloud mode or through the sale of services, using the Software as a Service approach, or through specific applications that meet specific market needs. These companies do not derive value from the sale of software and services based on open source, but from what differentiates them in the market, and this is made possible through open source.
The value of big data
Let’s take another example: the context known as Big Data. For a long time, debate centred on what were the identifying elements, starting from the 3Vs that “define” big data: Volume, Velocity, Variety. In addition to considerations about the importance of being able to handle large volumes of data, or to provide fast information answers in real-time or nearly real-time mode, or to be able to automatically interpret very different data that sometimes include multiple meanings, a new V emerged in the debate, one that I consider the most important: Value. This comes from the capacity of big data processes and technologies to extract value from information to produce value for users and society.
Today we talk about public service applications for transportation, for healthcare, for smart contexts (smart cities, smart spaces, smart energy), and all these new services work and express their value thanks to big data technologies. And it is precisely here that open source plays a decisive role: collaboration, the possibility of control and widespread development promote innovation. One name among many: Hadoop.
Engineering and open source
Engineering is a leader in Information Technology with a complete range of consulting, services and products. But I can say with good reason that its DNA, and this is what I have been involved with in recent years, is that of system integrator. And, for a system integrator, open source is an important – I would say almost necessary – opportunity to enable it to best do the job that it knows: implement solutions that best meet the requirements of its customers. For this you need to know the market and the available technologies, know how to adapt quickly to new contexts, be independent and neutral with respect to vendors and solutions, and have a high degree of freedom of movement and rapidity of decision-making. In other words: “the challenge for a system integrator is the preparation of excellence”.
It was therefore natural for Engineering to have always used open source software, starting from the products developed in the Research and Development laboratories.
Ten years of SpagoWorld
The turning point began ten years ago, in 2004, when Engineering, one of the few major European system integrators – and now virtually the only one – decided not only to use, but also to develop open source software. I still remember the press conference in which – together with friends Mimmo Cosenza and Stefano Maffulli, two Italians with a great reputation in open source – we announced the release of a corporate asset: the Spago framework. An Italian name that refers to something that binds (in fact, spago means ‘string’ in Italian) without forcing, for integrating solutions and establishing an ecosystem. And for gourmets, spago (colloquial Italian term for “spaghetti”) is a hint of Italian cuisine as it is known worldwide!
But why the choice of developing open source projects? Once again, because only by “doing” do you really learn: if you want to learn about open source you have to “get your hands dirty”, develop, release, enter the international community, understand how to integrate, share and resolve conflicts, and solve the complexity of licenses and related legal issues.
An international presence
So this is where Engineering launched the SpagoWorld initiative, helped found OW2, the only global open source association with a European stamp, joined the Eclipse Foundation, has contributed to Apache projects, and entered into contact with the new governance initiative of the Open Source Initiative. In short, it is present wherever open source is done.
SpagoWorld has created four projects in OW2 and two in Eclipse, and has stimulated initiatives in various fields, from architectures to services, location intelligence and big data.
One among many, today SpagoBI is a project that continues to help evolve the only suite for Business Intelligence and Big Data that is completely open source and with a high-level international reputation. I can proudly say that a piece of Engineering – the SpagoBI Competence Centre – today ranks on a par with the most popular American open source vendors.
The Open Source Competence Centre
For this whole experience, a specific Competence Centre has been active in Engineering which is capable of mobilizing a staff of more than 100 with international experience in the development and coordination of open source projects. The professional skills are different and allow us to propose a varied, comprehensive and integrated range of services, projects and products across the entire software stack: basic infrastructure, middleware and applications. The main skills concern the development of solutions in the most different application areas, knowledge of the market for open source products, legal expertise, service selection and the introduction into companies of open source solutions and components, integration services, technical and professional support services, migration services, assessment, benchmarking and risk management.
These services are highly appreciated by public bodies and companies which often do not know who to turn to for support and maintenance of open source solutions, or that want to extend the support provided by a single vendor guaranteeing a specific solution to someone who can take charge of the support of an entire integrated application stack.
A pre-adaptive attitude
I recall the reflections stimulated some years ago by prof. Luciano Pilotti of the University of Milan, when together we discussed pre-adaptive systems.
In recent years, among those involved in innovation, a way of working has spread that has been reinforced, also thanks to participation in the open source context. A way that concerns open collaboration, the exchange of knowledge, but also an attitude that is, in fact, pre-adaptive. By this I mean “watching what happens”, not merely waiting for the events to be able to adapt readily when these take place, but in a proactive way, building an organizational context that is able to generate a pool of potential without knowing when it will be used, but very clearly how it will be used; knowing full well that a “turnaround” could be necessary if the “wind blows in a different direction”. For this it is necessary to look to the future with eyes and mind wide open, being aware that it is crucial to both invest in network relationships and contribute to nourishing one’s own ecosystem. There is also a need to develop specialized and multi-disciplinary skills that are complementary to knowledge, making it possible to acquire a way of thinking that it is ready to seize and bring out future changes. This is the necessary step to take to walk into the future and seize the opportunities offered by innovation.
The future of open source in Engineering
It is not easy to predict what will be the future of open source in Engineering because this is related to the evolution of information technology in general. Even accepting the risk of facing the issue – insofar as some indications can be glimpsed – the argument would lead us too far.
Certainly in the short term, attention to open source skills, our own products such as SpagoBI and their exploitation will be important aspects for Engineering, in which we will continue to invest.
Let me conclude with some words that I wrote earlier this year in the “white paper” of 2014.
The first are “beauty” and “love”
I see beauty in software, in who develops it and what it produces. The beauty of what is not seen, beyond what is seen. The beauty of what is lived every day!
Love on the other hand, involves understanding identity, and knowing ourselves, knowing, welcoming and giving … value.
Love, beauty, but also talent and much passion.
These ingredients have been the lifeblood of the real open source communities.
For this reason, I expect a bright future both for open source in Engineering and for what will be the result.