Guest editorial by Neela Jacques
Is ‘open’ the ‘organic’ of the IT Industry? Or is it the ‘natural’ of the IT industry? What’s the difference? Everything
‘Natural’ in the United States is a vague term completely devoid of meaning. You don’t have to buy different seed, stop using pesticides, or frankly, do anything different.
‘Organic’ is different. It actually stands for something. Use of the term is regulated by the FDA. But it wasn’t always that way. It started first with farmers who decided that there was something that mattered more than the rat race of ever more pesticides. How did they enforce the use of the term? They began to craft guidelines that became rules, then certification organizations sprung up, and finally the FDA stepped in.
I am starting to see we have the same problem in IT these farmers had 20 years ago.
Many see that we are stuck in an antiquated model. Some vendors patent every little feature (one-click purchasing is patented, so is “swipe to unlock,” believe it or not), actively sue each other, and create closed proprietary ecosystems that lock customers in. Some create proprietary APIs only they can use and sue former employees who try to create interoperable products that leverage those APIs.
Many feel that all of this has to change. In the same way as organic farmers were once thought as Communist hippies, open source advocates have been accused of at least the first part. But today Whole Foods is a force to be reckoned with and Walmart has an extensive selection of organic food.
Why do I tell you all this? Because I fear that ‘open’ may get ‘natural-ed’. As with the unenlightened farmers before them, it is far easier for a vendor to market their software as ‘open’ than truly invest in changing the way they do business. Fortunately I am seeing this question being asked over and over again: “Is XY vendor/standard/open source project truly open?” What’s brought this up most recently is the launch of OpFlex and the Group Policy projects in OpenDaylight and Congress project in OpenStack.
First let’s talk about what ‘open’ is not. Open is not merely publishing an API, it’s not submitting your proprietary way of doing things to a standards body, nor is it throwing some code on GitHub. These things aren’t enough.
Open isn’t about fundamentally changing the equation for the end user. What end users of technology are looking for is the ability to select technology from multiple vendors and have it work together. The ability to not be dependent on a single vendor and to switch non-disruptively if a vendor chooses to go in a different direction.
So what is ‘open’? First of all it’s something everyone can see, everyone can access, the community can change and anyone can build on. It’s not easy, it’s hard. Good open source is open. How do you know good open source? Look at the community. If there is diversity, meritocracy and a high level of activity it’s probably ‘open’. Hadoop, MySQL, Linux, and OpenStack all make the grade. Cloud Foundry is getting there; Open vSwitch has really come a long way.
Open source works when some people propose something and others who are not affiliated with the original contributor(s) can change/influence the proposal. Are standards ‘open’? Generally yes, but not always. If someone shows up within a standards body and gets their tech rubber-stamped, that’s not open. A standard is open if others can and do challenge parts of it, make suggestions, make it better and it becomes something that’s broadly embraced.
Beware of the item on your grocery store shelf with a picture of a lovely green field, the word ‘natural’ plastered all over it and an ingredient list that looks like my son’s science experiment. Don’t just take at face value vendors who insist that they’re being ‘open’. Ask them what they are doing to really encourage interoperability, to standardize and reduce duplication of un-differentiated elements of the stack, and to truly participate in open collaboration with others in the industry.
Neela Jacques is Executive Director at OpenDaylight Project