Why the tech world’s heavyweights are betting on open source

Conventional wisdom has it that big business is the antithesis of open source. How can you be an industry-leading multinational corporation that’s publicly traded if you think it’s okay to show the world what’s going on under the hood? How can you maintain enterprise-level brand mystique if you don’t have the shroud of mystery to hide behind? Fortunately, tech reality is far more nuanced than all that.

Open source has come a long way since developers first started setting their code free for ideological reasons back in the mid-1980s. The OpenSSL fiascos of 2014’s Heartbleed security breach prove just how many of the big players in tech rely on the freely available and fully transparent work of others. And yet the heavyweights don’t seem to be turning their back on open source as a result. In fact, they’re doubling down.

Increasing open source incubation

The examples of big guys betting their futures on open source are dramatic and numerous.

Microsoft has expanded its horizons and now cooperates with the open source community to promote interoperability, making it easier for customers to develop mixed IT environments. This is a revolutionary move for an organization that’s often identified as the quintessential proprietary software company.

Engineers at Facebook have released a programming language called Hack, with the goal of replacing the problems of PHP, and they’ve opened it up to the open source community for help in improving it. This is a bold move, because it allows Facebook’s competitors to use the language as well.

Google sponsors an open source coding competition for students aged 13-17. This project is expensive to run, and it even includes a trip to Google headquarters for 20 winners, their parents and their mentors. These aspiring programmers may or may not ever come to work for Google, but they are pretty likely to contribute to the open source community in the long term.

And then there’s the consortium of heavyweights throwing money at open source in an attempt to right the wrongs of Heartbleed for the long term. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Cisco, Dell, VMWare and a number of other big technology companies have each pledged $100,000 per year over the next three years to an organization called the Core Infrastructure Initiative, with the goal of giving a boost to underfunded open-source projects. The fledgling organization also aims to find solutions for some of the security issues that exist online today and prevent security breaches like the famous Heartbleed.

So why the enormous support for open source, even among the top dogs? We’ve identified several key reasons.

Open source is the basis of much of today’s technology

The first, and most obvious, reason these companies support open source is that they rely on open-source technology themselves.

Google, for instance, is largely based on open code. According to the Google Developers website, the company has produced over 900 open-source projects, with a total of over 20 million lines of code. Many of Google’s engineers work full-time on open-source projects, while others use their famous 20% time (to work on “personal projects”) on open code. Google has also supported open -ource projects at universities and held coding seminars during the summers.

Almost all of Facebook’s servers run open-source software. When Mark Zuckerberg first created the site it was based on free software and it still relies on Linux, Apache, PHP and MySQL. Code which is written in-house for Facebook’s internal use is later released to the public. Facebook also sponsors the ASF (Apache Software Foundation), which focuses on fostering open source adoption and providing structure for open source communities.

Open source gives the user control

The main difference between proprietary software and open-source software is in who has control over it. Proprietary software is controlled by its developers, but open source is controlled by the users. When tech companies or individuals use open source, they are free to distribute the software, change the code and distribute amended versions.

Each user creates exactly the program he wants – not the one an anonymous developer thought he wanted. This means that there are countless versions of high-quality open source programs to choose from. The primary reason that enterprises use open-source products is their high level of quality.

More competition

The existence of open source has also been a boon to proprietary programs, since they have been forced to improve in order to compete. Internet Explorer, for example, was stagnant for a long time, until Firefox came along and blew it out of the water. Microsoft had no choice but to improve IE, so users would be willing to stick with it.

New blood

Young people can break into programming more easily with open source. Allowing students to tinker with open source brings new blood to old, established projects and lets new, innovative ideas easily become reality.

Better security

Security is generally improved by open source. Bugs and security breaches exist in all programs, but in proprietary software, only the developers know about them. In open source, multiple eyes are looking at the same code, so problems are often detected quickly. They are also likely to be fixed almost immediately, whereas private developers often take months to find time to deal with problems.

Fewer hardware upgrades

Another advantage of open source is that it can run with older hardware. Businesses that use proprietary programs built by companies like Microsoft and Apple must upgrade their hardware according to timetables determined by the developers. Open source, on the other hand, allows for more flexibility, and upgrades can be taken care of when the time is right.

Improved support

Support for open-source software is generally available on an extremely high level. Communities of users support each other on forums, wikis, mailing lists etc., often without asking for anything in return. Some of the larger open-source apps also offer paid support, and these are still much less expensive than proprietary software companies’ support plans.

Over to you

The heavy hitters in the tech industry clearly recognize that the future of computing lies in open-source code. It’s possible that proprietary software will eventually go the way of printed encyclopedias. In a nutshell, that’s why they support open source communities and developers who make the world of open source richer and better.