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How Microsoft & Remote Working Are Elevating Open Source in the Enterprise

January 25, 2021 Information Management
David Roe
By David Roe

Microsoft’s relationship with open source software has been a complex one. While it has spent a lot of energy in the past knocking open source and its uses in the modern enterprise, there is some evidence to suggest that it is coming around to supporting it again, as what it describes as “remote first” cultures emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Microsoft and Open Source

The most recent manifestation of its changing relationship with open source comes from Sarah Novotny, the open source lead in the Azure office of the CTO. In a blog post about open source, she seems to suggest that open source can offer a lot to digital workplaces that are trying to manage the COVID-19 change.

“2020 fundamentally changed how many companies and teams work — seemingly overnight, remote-first cultures became the new norm and people had to change how they communicate and collaborate,” she wrote. "However, for those of us who have been deeply engaged in open source, remote work has been our norm for many years because open source communities are large, globally distributed, and require effective collaboration from developers around the world."

While it's unclear how far this ethos carries in Microsoft, what is clear is that open source has become more popular since the pandemic pushed remote working to really take off. In GitHub’s 2020 State of the Octoverse report, released in December, the popular code sharing site noted that more than 60 million repositories and more than 1.9 billion contributions were added in the past year. The report noted that much of the growth is happening outside of the United States, with 66% of active users now based outside of North America.

These widely distributed developers, the report showed, already had established remote working practices in place before the broader move to remote work. Even here, though, 2020 challenged companies of all sizes to integrate their open source software experiences and development models in new ways, bringing new learnings as a result.

Open Source Methodology

Justin Rod is CTO of Minneapolis-based Perforce. He believes that Novotny’s blog indicates not just a course variation in Microsoft’s position on open source but represents a major change in direction for the Redmond, Wash.-based company.

“Seeing Microsoft pivot on open source — and pivot is an understatement, let us not forget the 'Linux is a cancer' days — is a testament both to their agility as a company and the strength of the open source movement at large,” he said.

From a wider perspective, open source as a methodology has proven itself to be a larger force than any singular company or entity. Even the Linux Foundation must segment and limit the amount of open source projects that it will throw its weight behind, because the galaxy of software available to promote is so overwhelming.

Remote work, and moreover the conditions in which the entire world had to swiftly embrace remote work, has certainly been easier to navigate for companies that understood how to collaborate using the same methods that open source communities have been relying on for decades. These innovations, borne from the necessities derived by distributed teams of passionate contributors working towards a common goal, can be viably repurposed for business.

In fact, he said, the industry has produced the term ‘inner-source’ to describe business actions that resemble the practices of open source communities in support of their internal and often proprietary goals. “I think you’ll see that a lot of businesses have learned that they can cut costs without sacrificing productivity, but I don’t think that this will be a universal lesson. Software engineers have the luxury of building and using materials that are completely digital, and therefore easy to distribute digitally,” he said.

Related Article: 12 Productivity Tools Baked Into Office 365

Why Open Source, Why Now?

If there has been a steady following for open source over the years, the sudden recent growth in interest and even enterprise acceptance of open source can be traced back to the lockdowns that have been imposed over the past year in response to COVID-19. According to Rhys Davies, product manager at UK-based Canonical, the publisher of Ubuntu, remote working has made people more interested in code tinkering, which in turn has led to more online socializing.

More people are signing up to forums or looking for communities surrounding their hobbies and interests and are involving themselves in these communities, he said. For the tinkerers out there, this has led to a boost in traffic and greater visibility of their pages and discussions. The increase in traffic has led to more contributors, more sign ups and more tutorials.

The size of the open source community has expanded because of this and consequently so has involvement and development in open source tools. Remote work has always been the norm for people working on open source projects.

“Until recently the idea of working on open source from an office, or for a company, was extremely rare,” he said. “Remote work leads this wave of the future as more people will find a home in an open source community that fits their new remote working lives.

A key aspect of this is people’s ability to solve problems through open source software and online communities. These communities enable the sharing of support, advice, ideas, and general encouragement. He added that this simplifies the flow of ideas and means people can share their experiences quicker, as more people working on open source code or ideas will result in quicker turn arounds and better solutions.

The more that big business turns to open source and invests in these tools and platforms, the easier and greater the quality of digital making becomes. Because of this, it’s easier for people to make their own projects and products, and form communities that carry innovative weight.

The Future Of Open Source

However, if Microsoft was truly serious about open source, the company would open source the Windows kernel, Serge Huber, CTO & co-founder of  Geneva-based Jahia, said They already provide access to the source code for specific customers (i.e. governments), but it would be truly fantastic if they open sourced even parts of the Windows kernel.

But Microsoft is not at issue here, he added. Open source is indeed the wave of the future, but maybe in ways that are a bit different than most think. As computer systems are aging, open source software becomes the only guarantee that systems can be maintained over the long term, long after companies have come and gone.

Looking back, he said, there are huge problems with software written in the 1980s. All proprietary software is a huge problem when it comes to maintenance issues, and the only systems that are truly maintainable and evolving (i.e. Linux) are the ones that either have big financial backings (Microsoft Windows) or open source software. Even SunOS, at the time, was used in lots of mission-critical solutions; now it only exists because it has been open sourced.

Open source is critical for infrastructure software. What has changed and still needs to change is how to run a profitable business while writing or participating in open source projects. Usually, the open core model is a resilient one, although cloud providers can make this a little tricky at times.

He cites as an example Elastic. In the beginning it  had an open core model, but due to business issues, lost part of its competitive edge when Amazon started redeveloping the proprietary parts of Elasticsearch.  It is very important that companies leveraging open source have battle-tested business models that are constantly evolving.

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