Red Hat panel: Open source is the future, but only if it can expand beyond developers

A panel of experts at last week's Red Hat Summit discussed the status quo and future of the open source movement. Learn their insights on the topic.

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An open source panel which convened at Red Hat Summit in Boston last week consisted of the following key personnel:

Tim Yeaton, EVP and CMO, Red Hat
Leigh Day, VP, Corporate Communications, Red Hat
Nick Hopman, senior director, Emerging Technology Practices in US Sales, Red Hat
Josh Patterson, director, Field Engineering, Skymind

These executives discussed the open source movement and how it relates to Red Hat endeavors, producing some interesting insights worth sharing.

Nick Hopman stated the technological and delivery model for open source technology is an "overnight success that started in the eighties." The concept has roots in the university system where open source licenses promoted sharing. "Over the last ten years we've seen a metamorphosis. Every major technology that enterprises are likely to bet on - cloud, artificial intelligence, mobility - has a lot of its current innovation happening upstream in the open source community," he stated. "The small university-centric collaboration model is now a fountain of innovation."

Red Hat considers the enterprise software business model to be on the wane since it's hard to innovate at the pace of open source communities. Hopman sought to clarify that "we use the broad term 'open source' in many situations because even though we know it relates to software it's also tied to innovations in other communities like health care and AI; concepts which are being embraced in other industries besides software."

However, there are still some challenges facing open source. It was pointed out that open source does not have entirely positive examples among a non-developer user base. For instance, it was opined that there is not currently a dominant and successful open source ERP or OpenOffice package.

Hopman agreed developers have been the driving force of open source and observed that the collaborative innovation model of open source does have a tendency to work best when the collaborators are technologists and not users. "At the infrastructural level a lot of companies have come to realize they can only do so much alone, but when combining efforts extraordinary things happen. Agile has its root in open source collaboration for example," he stated.

Another challenge open source faces involves making sure it is used for good rather than destructive purposes. As with many technologies, open source is in and of itself neutral; neither benign nor malign. In the past, open source fared poorly in the consumer space since consumers don't often need diverse customizable options but rather static elements (a predictable user interface, for example). People must now be confident in open source and the security it can provide. Individual open source communities tend to use organically defined rules for better standardization as well as reusable code, which can help ensure software does what it's supposed to do.

Hopman stated: "the choice of the open source license has certain specifications; a governance model for instance, whereby if I modify code I have to give it back." Developers commonly get their open source code from standard online repositories like GitHub. Many sets of eyes are able to examine code both when it's uploaded and downloaded to ensure it's safe for use. This differs from traditional "closed source" applications where the content may be hidden or off-limits.

The collaborative nature of open source ensures it can be inspected and declared competent for use. Red Hat employees traditionally authored less than a quarter of the source code they shipped; someone else was paid to write about 80% of it which is why the governance model was the key to operating a safe and reliable community. The community and the collaboration also has to evolve organically. There are two million identifiable open source projects on the internet and few are commercially supported.

Red Hat is working to promote open source to new audiences through endeavors involving subjective information and training. In the first case, Red Hat offers an Open Source Stories program intended to address that topic and promote open source to the masses. The site contains informations such as case studies and videos about some remarkable projects involving open source across industries such as 3D printing and healthcare -- a topic which is important to everyone. For instance, one award winning story focuses on two patients who open sourced their brain tumors; one patient actually diagnosed himself. Since people are curious about self driving vehicles, Red Hat put together an interesting film called Road to AI which they recommend for people to get more information about the concept.

Regarding the training aspect behind Red Hat's open source strategy, they offer a method for customers to accelerate their journey in a technical platform and see what it's like to work in an open source community by designing, testing, and deploying apps. This is made possible through their Open Innovation Labs program, touted as a "concentrated view of Red Hat." Labs are 4-12 weeks on average and located in London, Boston (this one is tied in with engineering and EBC) Mountain View, CA and Singapore.

Josh Patterson closed with: "You're trying to transform your business; work with us there to solve problems; we can help with that. Hopefully you'll take away some of those nuggets of the culture and how you can drive change. Our space gives us a distinct platform to conduct meetups and show what Red Hat is."

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By Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.