Feature Story

Why Open Source continues to be the foundation for modern IT

The recent Open Source Summit North America once again highlighted the myriad ways open source technologies impact us all.
Sep 16, 2019

This is a guest post by Sean Michael Kerner

Open source technology is no longer an outlier in the modern world, it's the foundation for development and collaboration.

Sitting at the base of the open source movement is the Linux Foundation, which despite having the name Linux in its title, is about much more than just Linux and today is comprised of multiple foundations, each seeking to advance open source technology and development processes. At the recent Open Source Summit North America event held in San Diego, the width and breadth of open source was discussed ranging from gaming to networking, to the movie business ,to initiatives that can literally help save humanity.

"The cool thing is that no matter whether it's networking, Linux kernel projects, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation  projects like Kubernetes,  or the film industry with the Academy Software Foundation (ASWF), you know open source is really pushing innovation beyond software and into all sorts of different areas," Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation said during his keynote address. 

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With the ASWF, Zemlin said that the Linux Foundation spent two years with the film industry and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, convincing them and showing them how to participate, share their intellectual property and collaborate as a community. In the automotive industry, the same kind of activity has taken place with Automotive Grade Linux which a dozen of the top automotive manufacturers in the world now support.  

Zemlin explained that the Linux Foundation started out as a home for Linux, but expanded over time as adjacent communities that use Linux benefited from the open source model. The basic idea is that by using an open source approach for code development and collaboration, it's possible to bring different vendors and developers together to create and enable technologies.

Open Source Networking

Networking is another core area where open source is playing a key role. The LF Networking group (of which Cisco is Platinum member) continues to grow, with open source efforts for Software Defined Networking (SDN), Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and network automation among others.

One of the hottest areas of cloud and networking today is Edge Computing, thanks in no small part to the rollout of 5G and what that enables. Open source is playing a role in Edge Computing too, with the LF Edge effort which brings together multiple projects that aim to enable edge devices.

Among the interesting efforts discussed in a session was San Francisco's open source voting effort. Tony Wasserman, a Professor in the Software Management program at Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley campus detailed the challenges and slowdowns with the San Francisco open source voting project. Wasserman explained that the idea to build an open source voting system was first proposed in 2005. A combination of complexity and politics has caused the effort to be delayed time and again - though Wasserman is now cautiously optimistic that it's now going in the right direction.


Throughout the event and at the co-located Linux Security Summit, open source security was a key theme as well.

Within Linux operating systems there are many layers of security controls, with one of the most important being Linux Security Modules (LSM). There are many different LSMs, with AppArmor and SELinux being two of the most widely used and deployed. Helping to lead SELinux development is Cisco engineer Paul Moore, who explained during a session what the latest innovations are in SELinux. Moore highlighted areas like quality improvements and updated policy toolchain for users.

In recent years, security in open source overall has come under criticism as some have questioned whether having code open makes applications less secure. Gil Yehuda, senior director, open source and technology strategy at Verizon Media, explained in a session how his organization is making use of open source alerts on the GitHub code repository site to keep applications safe. 

Yehuda strongly emphasized that open source is neither more or less secure than proprietary closed source code. Rather in his view, open source has the potential to be more secure, because more people have access to the code and can potentially be engaged enough to identify and fix issues.

Combating climate change

While improving networking, boosting security and fostering collaboration are all typically good things, at a macro-level there is a more pressing need for the future of humanity. That is the need to combat and limit the risks of climate change. In that area too, open source is playing a role.

The LF Energy group is a multi-stakeholder consortium that is looking to use the power of open source in the energy sector. The basic idea being that to help reduce emissions and improve the environment, there needs to be improved efficiency and collaboration for energy generation and distribution.

"So for me, you know, open source is an intellectual property agreement that enables collective action," Shuli Goodman, executive director LF Energy said during her keynote. "And there is no problem that this planet has ever experienced that so deeply and intrinsically needs collaborative action as climate change."

In 2019, open source is not an outlier on the fringe that is used to develop niche technology.

The key takeaway from the Open Source Summit North America is pretty clear, open source is about a lot more than just Linux. Open source is about collaboration and it's about a process that can benefit any industry.


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