IBM reflects on open source some 20 years into it

OSCON
OSCON celebrates 20 years of open source at the Convention Center in Portland, Oregon. (FierceTelecom)

PORTLAND, Ore.—Open source might be a relatively new trend in telecom, but it’s been around at least 20 years, and that’s something OSCON 2018 organizers want to make sure attendees here are aware.

The open source convention known as OSCON hosts developers, IT managers, system administrators and just plain geeks who want to learn the latest in blockchain, Kubernetes or other technical arenas and hear inspiring stories about open source. The convention is back in Portland this week after having been held in Austin, Texas, the past two years.

In telecom, operators want their vendors to deliver based on open source platforms. Various initiatives are under way, but not every vendor is rushing to the party. Through the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), for example, operators are developing reference designs so that everyone in the supply chain knows what solutions operators plan to procure and deploy.

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“I think there is innovation to be had there (in telecom) and I think if they work together … that would be amazing,” said O’Reilly Media's Rachel Roumeliotis, VP, content strategy and chair of OSCON, noting the opportunities for innovation that open source offers.

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Reflecting on the state of open source over the past years, “it’s gone from being this very beloved thing within a very small community to actually proving to be a really good way to develop software,” she told FierceTelecom. 

“It’s had its bumps in the road, but I think it’s proven effective for great software. It’s proven effective for enterprise bottom lines and I think what’s so important is the community aspect. That’s how projects become powerful”—by having a community around them with users and companies making contributions to them, she added.

IBM crossed the bridge on open source almost 20 years ago. Chris Ferris, CTO of Open Technology at IBM and chair of the Hyperledger Technical Steering Committee at Hyperledger, has been actively engaged in open standards and open source development since 1999. 

When he joined IBM, “there still was a lot of resistance to open source because of intellectual property—how are we going to monetize something if we don’t own it completely,” he told FierceTelecom.

Over time, the company got more comfortable with the legal aspects related to intellectual property and found some of its answers through Apache and Eclipse.

What people are finding now is a lot of software development is table stakes. There’s no reason for a mobile phone operating system like Android to be proprietary; nobody makes money on the OS. Instead, the money is made on the handset and the ecosystem around it, he noted.

He acknowledged that a lot of companies have struggles with open source and for many of them it starts with legal and intellectual property concerns; it can take a while for the legal staff to get their heads wrapped around it.

Interestingly, sometime over the past six years or so, consumers of open source started contributing back to it. Capital One, an exhibitor here, is a finance company that has a strong ethos in open source. While it’s not Capital One’s core business, it relies on open source to get the job done.

“You’re starting to see that change where customers are consuming open source directly or indirectly and they’re starting to contribute back,” Ferris observed.

Ferris, who cut his teeth, so to speak, in standards early in his career, said the trouble with standards is they take a long time to develop. With open source, which can end up becoming a de facto standard, work can be done much faster and then if an industry so chooses, it can take the results to the appropriate standards bodies like the ITU.