Open Source

Keith Lofstrom KLIC February, 2004

What is Open Source? Open Source software comes with source code, which may be freely modified and redistributed. Open Source users are permitted to see how their software works, check it for flaws, and hire others to improve it. Open Source software includes "Free Software" but is not limited to it. Open Source is the contribution of thousands, and protects the rights of new contributors to build on that work.

What is the Open Source Initiative? OSI maintains the Open Source Definition, which certifies third-party software licenses as Open Source. There are currently dozens of approved licenses, from the GNU General Public License (GPL) to the Intel Open Source License.

How do I make money on software if I can't sell my code? You can sell your code. Red Hat does it all the time. What you can't do is stop someone else from selling your code as well. You make money by selling services, or printed documentation, or quality certification. You save big money by not having to duplicate the efforts of others, and by the free debugging your users and competitors provide.

How can I get rich doing that? OSI board member Mike Tiemann and his partner John Gilmore sold their Open Source based company, Cygnus Solutions, for more than half a billion dollars. You get rich by solving problems that are worth being solved. There are a lot of problems out there.

Why does Open Source work? Eric Raymond said "many eyes make all bugs shallow". There are millions of software experts in the world, each one with different talents. No company, even Microsoft, can afford to hire that range of talent. Each professional can find different flaws and can make different improvements to software, and the combination of all those talents results in the best product.

Is Linux Open Source? The Linux operating system, originated by Linus Torvalds in 1991, and enhanced by thousands of others, is released under the GPL. The Linux operating system supports hundreds of thousands of programs, ranging from open source to proprietary.

But there are no applications for Open Source! Not true! This document was written with OpenOffice, an open source extension of Sun Microsystem's Star Office suite. Sun opened up their code, and is still selling millions of copies of Star Office. While there are thousands of free applications that run under Linux, there are also proprietary programs ranging from $5 shareware programs to million dollar CAD programs. Oracle, Informix, Word Perfect, and thousands of other programs have been ported to Linux.

Doesn't Open Source cost more to support? Not true again! The average version of Linux just runs on standard Intel hardware, right out of the box, far less expensively than the closed source alternatives. Linux is open, permitting companies to customize software for their own needs. This can be costly, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. This option is not available to closed source software users, limiting their opportunities for internal investment.

For example, my consultancy KLIC is required by some consulting contracts to return or destroy all customer-related data at the end of a job However, it is prudent to perform daily system backups. I have made small modifications to my backup software, allowing me to remove customer data from my backups as well as my working storage. This permits me to comply with the terms of my contracts. Contractors using off-the-shelf closed-source backup tools must either violate their contracts or not maintain backups.

What companies are using Open Source? IBM, HP, Sun, and Intel are heavily committed to Open Source. Thousands of other companies worldwide use Open Source. Because of its security and stability, most major Wall Street investment houses run their operations on Open Source.

Why should my business use Open Source? Control. You choose what is on your machines. You choose your vendors. You choose when and how to upgrade. You avoid debilitating license terms (Read the Microsoft EULA. You would be insane to agree to it). You avoid spyware. You avoid draconian fines from the Business Software Alliance.

What hardware runs Open Source Software? Open Source software is embedded in tiny computers in consumer products, and also runs giant IBM mainframes. HP has used Linux in clusters of thousands of computers. Of course, Linux runs on Intel PC and Apple Powermac hardware. Linux has been ported to dozens of processor types, and is the only operating system that fully supports the 64 bit AMD Opteron.

Isn't Closed Source software secure because it is secret? This is the opposite of the truth. Open Source makes it possible for the bad guys to find weaknesses, but it makes it easy for the good guys to find the weaknesses first, and fix them before they affect people. Open Source is a child of the Internet, and improvements are easy to make and distribute. A bad guy's "improvements" will be quickly identified and the evil doer punished. These securities are not allowed by closed source.

The most secure operating system is OpenBSD, an open source Unix-clone that was designed for security from the ground up. Linux, another Unix-clone, was designed more for usability and broad applicability. Linux not yet as secure as OpenBSD, but because there are so many eyeballs scrutinizing it, it grows more secure daily. Only a handful of worms have ever penetrated Linux - these were caught and killed quickly, compared to the tens of thousands that target the buggy, insecure-by-design Windows OS.

Contrary to some Microsoft apologists, the prevalence of Windows viruses and worms is NOT due to the fact that Linux is not popular; Linux is running most major ecommerce servers, websites, and banks. Linux machines contain trillions of dollars worth of secrets, and connect to enormous bandwidth. If the criminals could break into that, they would. But why attack a Linux steel vault when you can get into a Windows cardboard vault, instead?

Didn't Steve Ballmer of Microsoft call Linux a Cancer? Steve is wrong again! Linux was released August 25, 1991. It is a Virgo. Microsoft was founded in July 1975, making it a Cancer.

Kidding aside, Balmer called Linux a "Cancer" because he claimed Open Source "infects" code. Since cancer isn't infectious, he even got his metaphors backwards. Balmer was referring to was the fact that if you incorporate GPL code into your own, you are agreeing to apply GPL and open source to the combined effort, yours and theirs, and provide source for the whole program. If you don't like that, don't incorporate the GPL code; develop or pay for those code functions someplace else.

If you still want to work WITH open source, but not open source your own code, that is a little foolish but still quite practical. Lots of companies have done this. You can make your core program closed source, and communicate to open sourced modules through pipes and sockets. You can do runtime linking from closed source code to open source system libraries. Your are free to do many things.

What you are not free to do is to steal the hard efforts of thousands of other programmers, and lock it up with secrecy. Since this is a large part of the way Microsoft operates, it is not surprising that they feel threatened by a system that thwarts their thievery and highlights the miserable inefficiencies and innovation-numbing effects of their way of doing business.

Do you guys hate Microsoft? Well, some do. Many of us see Microsoft as a company that operates by threats, lies, and legislation rather than serving customers. Microsoft software is slow, buggy, and bloated, and they have conditioned their customers to expect nothing better. Customers blame themselves when poorly-written Microsoft software doesn't work. The poor design decisions central to Windows are the reason it is horribly insecure, and vulnerable to thousands of viruses. Microsoft is well known for ignoring industry interoperability standards or breaking them, locking in customers and locking out competition. Microsoft enforces their own contracts, and ignores others. In general, Microsoft flouts most standards of professional and business conduct. What is there to like?

Do you guys hate Business and Capitalism? Frankly, some Open Source advocates are vocal in their hatred of business. However, most of us are businessmen. Open Source gives radicals a positive alternative; writing software, rather than attacking business. In time, this teaches socialists the value of honest business dealing and free markets, while reducing the inequities that arouse them. Anger at business will always afflict some of our neighbors; Open Source can help cure that affliction.

Do you have no respect for Intellectual Property? Who owns your mind? You do, but 90% of what you know are ideas and skills that someone else had first. These are your intellectual property now. It is wrong to apply the neologism "Intellectual Property" to a transaction. The transfer of ideas and skills may be regulated by laws, but that does not make an idea or a skill a tangible entity. You can move slaves in a ship like you can move rum or cattle, but that does not justify slavery. The open source movement is based on the free expression of ideas, and uses existing copyright and patent laws to protect openness and sharing.

What about the SCO Lawsuit? SCO is a small company in Utah is suing IBM for 3 billion dollars, claiming that IBM has stolen secrets from SCO and put them in Linux. There is no SCO code in Linux; in fact, SCO incorporates Linux code in their products in violation of the GPL license. Legal battles are unpredictable, though. SCO could win, or their principals and investors could be jailed for fraud.

What about the Open Source Bill in the Oregon House? The state of Oregon spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on hard-to-maintain, expensive, closed source software. In 2003, representative Barnhart of Eugene submitted HB2892 to committee, where it was killed by lobbyists from Microsoft. This short bill required that state agencies consider Open Source software, make choices based on value-for-money, and insure that state documents and data were available in formats based on open, public standards. In other words, public access, reduced expenditure, and open competition. What is there to not like?

Why should a non-technical person care? Because you care about freedom of thought and communication. Freedom is not possible when one government or one company or one style of communication closes off alternatives.

Open Source software is about freedom. The freedom to control your own data, to communicate freely, to protect your home and business against unreasonable search and seizure. Open Source is an expression of a free, competitive marketplace, allowing consumer choice among many alternatives. Open Source is one more way to say that secrecy, fraud, and coercion have no place in politics or business.

Further Reading: Rebel Code by Glyn Moody. The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond. Just for Fun by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond. Copyrights and Copywrongs by Siva Vaidhyanathan. Code by Lawrence Lessig. The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper. The Software Conspiracy by Mark Minasi.