Initially developed by Richard Stallman in 1983 and popularized by Linus Torvalds in the early 1990s, open source software has evolved tremendously over the last 37 years. Although it started out as a niche practice, it became more mainstream in the 2000s. Its value was initially verified by Sun Microsystems’ $1 billion acquisition of MySQL in 2008, and more recently by IBM’s purchase of Red Hat for $34 billion last year. Now the most popular open source software, GNU/Linux runs on nearly 70% of web servers and is maintained by more than 15,000 unique programmers around the world. However, there remains an ongoing debate within the tech industry on both the pros and cons of open source software. We’ve taken a look at a couple of each and discussed below.
Pro: Rapid Innovation
Open source software enables ideas and potential applications to be formed within days, or even hours, instead of months or years. It’s similar to the popular toy, Legos. Users don’t have to invent all of the basic elements because the building blocks already exist, they just have to fit them in the right places. Plus, who doesn’t love to envision grand Lego designs?
Pro: You Can Leverage the Expertise of Others
Open source allows people to specialize when writing software for specific applications and to focus on their unique competitive advantages. Previously, users would have to be experts in many diverse software domains just to get a basic program working. Now, open source allows for ideas to take form with rapid experimentation and application assembly without any unnecessary friction. And with the introduction of Apple App and Google Play stores, there are now huge numbers of new developers, many of which rely on open source code in their apps.
Con: Monoculture Environment Creates Risk
Con: Disjointed Code Management
With open source, users don’t have accountability for each piece of code they use. Instead, they have to blindly rely on segments of code to perform as described, and this lack of insight often gets abused. How can you be confident that open source code is doing only what it says it does? The simple answer is you can’t be 100% confident. It’s basically like leaving your front door open and letting anyone into your home and trusting they won’t touch anything. Yet, most people are comfortable with this from a software development point of view. Many who work on rapid assembly of code either don’t know or conduct proper due diligence when leveraging open source. It’s a great tool, but it’s like passing out Ferraris to seven year-olds. With great power comes great responsibility.
Striking a Balance
All things considered, open source software offers endless possibilities and growth opportunities that the industry could capitalize on as it continues to evolve. However, its security must be prioritized in order for it to reach its full potential. Just like a flu shot helps prevent future cases of the virus from spreading by inoculating its host from the inside out, automated cybersecurity products that leave each system functionally identical, but logically unique, can significantly reduce risks by precluding exploits from spreading across multiple devices and networks. If cures to the open source “flu” can get perfected and ultimately adopted by those 15,000 GNU/Linux programmers across the globe, Mr. Stallman and Mr. Torvalds might strike more gold than initially thought.