Many of the world's most powerful companies use open source for a variety of tasks but SMBs have been slow to adopt it.
Open source technology is now widely used by industry leaders like Oracle and Microsoft, which have deployed it for many years because the technology makes organizations more efficient and provides an environment that is highly customizable, adaptable, and scalable.
With big tech players like Amazon and IBM focused on open source as an enabler of strong cloud solutions, it may seem like the technology is limited to the big leagues, yet small to midsize businesses are slowly starting to throw their hats in the open source ring.
Many are realizing that open source enables them to compete at the level of larger tech companies and enable the flexibility, interoperability and cost savings that these solutions provide.
Smaller companies are entering the market looking to prove themselves and innovation is key to their success, but it can be difficult to adopt open source technology for a variety of reasons.
Dietmar Rietsch, CEO and founder of software company Pimcore, noted there was initial reluctance because SMBs think there is some kind of risk involved or have other concerns.
"Open source has multiple benefits for small businesses and we think that every business will come to the realization that they need to create their own digital platform based on open source technology," Rietsch said.
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"It provides flexibility, adaptability and independence from software developers. For small businesses, which are often specialized, they want to be the technology leaders in their area of expertise or in the specialized market niche where they have a foothold," he added. "If you want to be the top company, you need to work really on the forefront of technological innovation. It's happening in open source."
TechRepublic spoke with a few experts about the common barriers small to midsize businesses are facing and overcoming when it comes to using open source technology.
Finding the tech talent
One of the biggest barriers to adoption is finding the appropriate talent who can handle this kind of work.
Sachin Gupta, CEO of enterprise software solutions company HackerEarth, said the first issue many owners face is that a lot of open source projects are based on tech stacks that are relatively new. Attracting skilled workers on the latest tech stacks is hard enough for large enterprises that have the capacity to pay large salaries, and the problem is exacerbated further for SMBs.
"Having said that, for a small- and medium-sized business it's less challenging to adopt an open source solution if it is fairly mature, built on a tech stack for which skills are commonly available and has a lot of active contributors. For instance, react native, bootstrap, tensorflow, docker etc. are open source projects that are very mature, have a lot of active contributors and supported by some very large organizations," Gupta said.
Rietsch suggested working with a digital agency or consultant who can help explain the benefits or downsides of using open source for specific projects.
One of the benefits of open source is the ability to work independent of software providers, but smaller enterprises will still need someone on hand to help manage projects and make sure they are secure.
Picking the right projects
Gupta noted that picking the right projects can be difficult because enterprises have to ensure that the code base is stable and that it will continue to evolve through active community contributions.
"A quick hack for this is to check out the number of contributors to the project on Github, a contributor count of ~1,000 is pretty good. Also look at who owns the project, if it's owned by the big tech companies then it's likely to be well supported. Picking popular projects ensures there are no support problems but it still does not solve the problem of limited talent," Gupta said.
"There are two things one can do. The first is to adopt lightweight solutions like bootstrap for CSS. Understanding a framework like bootstrap is fairly easy and any decent frontend developer can pick up and understand bootstrap in a couple of days," Gupta said.
"The other thing to do is to pick up projects that are old and very popular like git, apache spark, hadoop etc. Since these projects have been around for a long time they are bound to be not only stable but also have a larger pool of talent available, hence making it easier to hire. Another thing to check is how well-documented the project is."
He added that small businesses should try to stay away from relatively young open source projects that don't have the critical mass of contributors or a community and haven't seen mass adoption, even if these projects are super hot and trending. One can use solutions that have been around for some time, are fairly popular, are well supported, have very strong documentation and built on commonly used tech stacks, he said.
Heikki Nousiainen, chief technology officer at cloud technology startup Aiven, said that with open source, a small to midsize business can start small with certain projects and try out things. If the project is successful, then it can be grown and maintained with options for how to run these services and how to store as well as process the data.
In 2018, Deloitte, Datawheel and University of Toulouse Chair of Artificial and Natural Intelligence Toulouse Institute (ANITI) and co-founder of Datawheel, César Hidalgo, joined forces to understand and visualize the trajectory of open source technology, creating a tool to inform important technology decisions called Open Source Compass.
The website gives enterprises detailed information on the more than 30 million developers working on over 96 million software projects worldwide. The team of open source and domain specialists, data scientists, data visualization pioneers and technology leaders across a range of industries created a portal to help business leaders look for new technologies and identify innovation opportunities, detect potential risks as well as provide insights into talent.
Scott Buchholz, chief technology officer for Deloitte Government and Public Services Practice, explained that they saw many of their customers and clients looking for a more structured way to evaluate some of the open source choices that they're making in terms of selecting software and other things.
For many small businesses, it can be nearly impossible to sift through the millions of open source projects and developers available on the internet.
"What we're trying to do is help people make enterprise decisions in a more efficient and effective way with respect to open source projects. Smaller organizations are probably using it to help simplify the process of picking things, but they tend to be a little more nimble in their decision making process," Buchholz said.
"In looking at open source technology and trying to get a grip on the sheer quantity of information that's out there regarding specific technologies, that it can oftentimes be difficult to get a handle on and so this was an opportunity for us to really build a platform that turns that data into knowledge and something that can be useful to inform technology decisions."
Ann Baxter Perrin, senior research executive with Deloitte Services LP, added that with 100 million repositories and 30 million developers, trying to ascertain what to do is really very challenging, especially for small businesses. Open Source Compass helps to try and make sense of what otherwise is very difficult data to understand.
"There are sites out there that will give you general statistics on open source but nothing that digs into specific domains and the projects of those domains and dominant languages, and where things are growing and stagnating and where things are happening geographically around the world," Baxter Perrin said.
"We really felt like these were some of the key questions that CTOs and CIOs were really trying to get their arms around as they look to open source as potentially integrated into their tech stack."
Operational problems and lack of help
Both Nousiainen and Gupta highlighted the fact that open source projects can be more difficult because the help might not be there in case of any problems.
"Unlike proprietary software where you have support available, open source projects without proper documentation can be a big pain to debug. Any project that has been around for some time and is popular is bound to have good documentation," Gupta said.
Buchholz noted that to explore different open source options, enterprises will need to know which projects exist, what the level of contribution or community enthusiasm is that exists around them because that tends to be a proxy over time as to the degree of support enterprises will get.
Rietsch suggested leveraging what is already there and widely used in the open source community.
Nousiainen added that operating open source projects or services can be quite complex and help may be hard to find depending on the project. If projects are being manned by inexperienced developers, they may fall to the wayside and present security issues as well if they are not constantly updated and patched.
"If things break, it requires quite a lot of specialized knowledge to figure out what is going on and then fix the items. That long-term access to your own data and not being beholden by any licensing restrictions is a really strong value but at the same time, it requires a bit of expertise," Nousiainen said. "Some open source technology may not always be as polished as the products that are ready to consume."
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