Open Source Software

Open Source Software (OSS) stands for software (programs, applications, packages…) whose source code is available to the users and can be shared and modified. It is commonly mistaken as free of charge software, but it is not necessarily the case. I believe that OSS is an extremely interesting concept, and that it can easily reach and appeal to people completely unrelated to programming. Thus, I will try to explain what OSS is and why it is different from gratis software.

OSS main goals are allowing free access to code around the world, without discrimination of any kind and encouraging voluntary collaboration. Therefore, OSS is more about a philosophy than a statement about the cost of the program. To this end, there are many organizations and foundations whose main goal is to protect and help open source projects, some relevant examples are Open Source Initiative, Apache Foundation, Free software foundation, Linux Foundation or Mozilla Foundation. That is because OSS is not only sharing the source code. To safeguard the open source philosophy, additional requirements must be met. In addition to the availability of source code, there is some consensus on considering the following requirements as the identifying aspects of OSS: freedom of use, edition and distribution.

Freedom of use

OSS must allow its users to use it as they see fit. Its use can not be restricted to a specific application. This allows the user to run the program for any purpose they see fit, even if the program is not designed with that specific goal in mind. Therefore, it encourages the user to think for itself, free of the constrictions that may otherwise have be imposed by the owner of the software.

Freedom of edition

OSS must allow modifications on the original program. Thus, any user can fix bugs of the program itself or it can tweak it to its specific needs. This encourages voluntary contributions de facto because, why should someone who has received the program for free and fixed a bug not port the fix back to the original program? This also generates a network of interconnected programs, who build one on top of each other. What starts as some minor tweaks can end up being a more specific version of the original program tailored to some particular needs. The original program benefits from bug fixes that the tweaked version may do, while the tweaked version benefits from the whole original program in a win win scenario.

Freedom of distribution

Freedom of distribution encompasses both freedom to distribute the original code (either for free or by a fee), and freedom to distribute modified versions of the program. However, this distribution is still subjected to a license. What changes from proprietary software are the conditions on the distribution imposed by this license. OSS distribution must always provide the source code as well as an open source license, that guarantees that the code can be both sold or given away by redistributors.

All of them combined

The open source philosophy provides a framework for voluntary collaboration that allows OSS to be really competitive high quality software while still allowing OSS companies to sustain themselves via donations or selling consulting and support services.

The apex of OSS philosophy benefits are supercomputers. All top 10 supercomputers in the world use Linux as its operating system. Moreover, they are also an example of OSS economic value. Let’s take the most powerful supercomputer in the world, Summit at the OAK Ridge Laboratory. Its operating system is Red Hat Enterprise Linux, based on Linux and open source itself. However, Red Hat sells services and troubleshooting support, generating a revenue of $3.4 billion in 2018. Moreover, IBM is to buy Red Hat for $34 billion.

Another example, closer to my home, is the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, whose supercomputer Mare Nostrum IV runs on SUSE Linux Enterprise Server. This operating system is also open source, distributed and developed by SUSE, who offers similar support services to Red Hat. In this case, SUSE was bought in 2018 for $2.5 billion. Here are SUSE’s last release Documentation and License

OSS is a relatively new way of programming and producing software which advocates for collaboration between programmers and between programmers and users, instead of the competition based model of proprietary software. It has become a vital part of all software, even of the proprietary one, which has moved most technological giants to contribute to OSS: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple or Microsoft (yes, OSS has the power to influence the whole Big Five) are some clear examples. OSS is here to change the way things work, showing that transparency, collaboration and freedom are the way to go.