In defense of open technology

Open source is wonderful. Because of collaborative efforts of several individuals, open source has had huge ramifications in the software world.

I came across this wonderful article and it requires a thorough analysis of the key issues it has raised.

Here’s to get a quick perspective on how it is usually invisible:

When you stream the latest Netflix show, you fire up servers on Amazon Web Services, most of which run on Linux. When an F-16 fighter takes off, three Kubernetes clusters run to keep the jet’s software running. When you visit a website, any website, chances are it’s run on Node.js. These foundational technologies—Linux, Kubernetes, Node.js—and many others that silently permeate our lives have one thing in common: open source.

Hardware development costs are usually prohibitive. The idea is to sell a product by creating a demand and hence marketing costs eat into the development costs. For similar reasons, I have previously looked at ideas on hardware (and advocated for a limited cloud based approach) but have the servers co-located in the premises itself.

Here’s the perspective:

Open source is not limited to software, but also impacts hardware development. RISC-V, first introduced in 2010 at UC Berkeley, is an open source chip design instruction set architecture—which tells a chip how to do basic computation, like addition, subtraction, multiplication, etc. RISC-V is gaining traction in the hardware manufacturing space throughout the world, because it lowers barriers to entry and increases chip development speed. OpenRAN, an open source 5G networking stack that started gaining momentum in 2016, is also gaining more attention and has already been embraced by the UK and Japanese governments.

I think the most obvious (and often overlooked) advantage of having open source is that they do not lock you in vendor specific implementation of a product. If you dedicate the resources, you can create your own custom versions as some software licenses don’t encumber you. This is in contrast to something like iOS or Windows, where you “legally consent” to “rent the software” and you can’t own something that you paid for. Besides, ongoing subscriptions for a product make it prohibitively expensive to rill out the newer upgrades.

Open source technology allows for vendor-neutrality. Whether you’re a country or a company, if you use open source, you’re not locked in to another company’s technical stack, road map, or licensing agreements. After Linux was first created in 1991, it was widely adopted by large companies like Dell and IBM as a vendor-neutral alternative to Microsoft’s Windows operating system. In the future, chip designers won’t be locked into Intel or ARM with RISC-V. With OpenRAN, 5G network builders won’t be forced to buy from Huawei, Nokia, or Ericsson.

While I don’t agree with the geopolitics of the article, here’s nevertheless an interesting tidbit:

 In the meantime, open source can play a pivotal role in fighting COVID-19. It’s already happening organically with Linux Foundation Public Health (LFPH), a global collaborative effort leveraging open source apps built on top of the Google Apple Exposure Notification system to make Covid-19 exposure notification more accessible. Instead of shuttling around the world telling others to not use Huawei, the White House should work closely with allies to embrace and foster OpenRAN, a promising but still immature technology.

Not sure if the author’s recommendations are completely valid. Most of the successful projects from China are reverse engineered. They have mirrored everything in the west and by insulating their technology sector from the world competition, in effect, has created only paper tigers. Therefore, I find it surprising that China or state-owned entities should find a mention in discussion. I do not deny their home market share but they wouldn’t be anything without state sponsored subsidies.

These issues have to be kept in mind before we make large investments in existing solution or software.