Enterprise vendors increasingly dominate the open source software scene

The open source revolution, chugging along for two decades now, is still going strong -- and is now a huge industry, led by large, non-open-source vendors.

Everyone has been enamored with cloud computing in recent years, but it's another software revolution that has made cloud so ubiquitous and accessible -- open source software. The interesting news is that the open source revolution, chugging along for two decades now, is still going strong -- to the point where it's now a huge industry, led by large, non-open-source vendors. 

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Photo: NASA

Much of open source may be free and community based, but it also now represents a gigantic slice of the industry in terms of revenue. The open source services industry is set to exceed $17 billion in 2019, and expected to reach nearly $33 billion by 2022, a recent report by CB Insights shows. Add to that the billions being invested in recent acquisitions -- Red Hat was acquired by IBM for $34 billion, and GitHub itself was acquired by Microsoft for $7.5 billion, Open-source-based providers such as MongoDB (worth $8 billion) and Elastic ($7.5 billion) also point to more growth in the open source service space. .

The consultancy's analysis of GitHub participation also finds Microsoft to be the largest contributor of talent and expertise to the open source space. 

Much of the open source action is happening at the enterprise level. A majority of organizations, 68%, have increased their use of enterprise open source and another 59% plan to continue that growth, a survey of 950 executives conducted by Red Hat shows.  The most prominent role for open source solutions is in IT infrastructure modernization. A majority, 53%, are employing open source for this purpose, while 43% employ it in application integration. Another 42% say using open source solutions is part of their digital transformation strategy.  

The CB Insights team calculates that more than 30 million developers now contribute to community-based platforms such as GitHub. At least eight of the 10 most popular GitHub projects "are products of big tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and IBM (Ansible)," they note. "However, only a fraction of project contributions come from their respective employees."

The leading vendors contributing developer time to GitHub open source projects include the following:

  • Microsoft 7,700 contributors 
  • Google 5,500 
  • Red Hat 3,300 
  • Intel 2,200 
  • Facebook 1,700   

Ironically, the CB Insights authors add, Microsoft, Google, Intel, and Facebook are not even open source companies. They also point to the role of independent contributors to many corporate-underwritten projects. "For example, Microsoft's Visual Studio Code project has over 19,000 contributors in total. It is the most popular GitHub project by a significant margin." Another project, Google's popular machine-learning library TensorFlow, benefits from a "large, engaged community, resulting in contributions from many independent developers."   

Within customer enterprises, cost savings, innovation and security rank among the top benefits of using open source solutions, the Red Hat survey shows. "While they may wish they didn't have to, IT decision makers almost always have to closely examine the cost of solutions," writes Gordon Haff, author of the report. "Enterprise open source has long excelled in cost savings, so it's not surprising to see low total cost of ownership identified as an important open source benefit (33%). But when you look just a bit further down the list of benefits, you also see innovation (29%), better security (29%), and higher quality (26%)." 

Despite the prevalence of enterprise open source, residual concerns still exist, the Red Hat report finds. Security is still cited as an open source concern (38%). "Some of that fear likely stems from general security concerns, since hacks and data breaches seem to be daily news," Haff writes. "This concern may also reflect how unmanaged open source code-found across the web or brought in through dependencies-can introduce vulnerabilities in both open source and proprietary solutions. However, using trusted sources for enterprise open source software, with automated tools to quickly uncover and remediate security problems, can significantly reduce the potential for security issues."  

The CB Insights team also identified additional challenges that face the wider open source community. "Cloud giants benefit immensely from the other popular projects hosted on GitHub," they state. "As a result, independent, open source software providers have become increasingly guarded as cloud providers reap the benefits of their contributions. In recent years, cloud providers have copied the source code of popular projects, made minimal changes (if any), rebranded the software, and offered it to customers as a proprietary service."  In response, many open source services "are adopting new licenses that limit abuse from commercial service providers, while also allowing for continued virality." For example, last year, Redis Labs, a database management systems company, added RSAL to its permissive license, Apache 2.0. Redis itself remained open source, but certain aspects of the company would remain off limits to those who monetized its services without contributing."

A balance must be struck -- open source needs to retain its community character, but as it replaces commercial enterprise systems, needs to be responsive to market forces.