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Open Source is Changing Businesses

Open source
Illustration by Pablo Bisoglio

Some revolutions begin with a bang. But not the open-source revolution. In 1991, Finnish inventor Linus Torvalds was working on a computer project with the sole purpose of providing a challenge for himself. Liking what he saw, Torvalds showed the software that was to become Linux* to other programmers. Soon, many programmers began to contribute, and the open-source community was born.

It’s ironic that the energetic open-source community was created by a man who doesn’t like working with others (bit.ly/2yHQcFd). Torvalds’ Linux OS has revolutionized how developers work and how businesses create new offerings and opportunities. Today, hundreds of thousands of developers contribute to open-source projects globally.

The open-source revolution is enabling rapid change by harnessing the ideas of a thriving community of developers both inside and outside of organizations. Ideas and code can come from anywhere to improve applications and move technology forward. More enterprises are embracing open-source software and OSes for their ability to expand a range of business operations.

The rise of open source has generated innovation—a big theme for today’s business. “Every industry is undergoing a significant innovation transformation,” says Srini Chari, managing partner, Cabot Partners Group. Open source is a channel to get innovation to market. There’s a maxim that says for every smart person that works for your organization, at least 10 or 20 external developers are available to collaborate with you if you open up certain critical aspects of software innovation. “You get a significant amount of bang for the buck if you’re investing in innovation by opening your borders and making collaboration open,” he says.

The community makes it possible to tackle challenges that can’t be solved by working with a single vendor. “Open source affords a way to scale up innovation and to get larger return on investment from innovation,” Chari says. “That’s a benefit not just for the end customers, but also for the entire ecosystem.”

Ready for the Enterprise

Linux is the fastest growing OS and the majority of enterprises have active open-source software projects underway, says Chuck Bryan, Open Source Data Solutions offering manager, IBM Power Systems*. Open source is now ready for the enterprise thanks to the rigorous peer review that all open-source software goes through, along with the maturity of 20-year-old open-source database (OSDB) communities like PostgreSQL, he says.

Further, companies have seen how quickly innovation occurs in the software community. “So much innovation is coming out from the best and brightest that the only way to keep up is to tap into the open-source community,” Bryan adds.

Accelerating Pace

Because the pace of innovation is accelerating due to clients demanding faster cycle times, the entire software development process has sped up. No single company can fund that level of acceleration, so it must be done within a collaborative, open-source framework—and that’s true for every industry, according to Chari.

Collaboration requires data, spurring the rise of big data, analytics and business intelligence. The data universe used to be composed of only transactional structured data. Today, it includes unstructured data, graphics, video and more.

For example, the healthcare industry uses digitized forms and images. That unstructured data needs to be integrated with structured data and then run through analytics to derive business value, Chari explains. To gain insights from the data, OSDBs such as Apache Hadoop and Spark were developed. “Now there’s real-time analytics so you are analyzing the data as it is being generated,” he says.

The ultimate beneficiary of the accelerated pace of innovation is the customer, says Chari. “With more people working on it, there’s a higher probability that you’ll have something disruptive that will change the market and bring value to a large number of people.”

Welcoming Attitude

Early on, IBM saw the benefits of the open-source revolution and has been championing Linux for years. IBM has participated in open-source initiatives as well as leading them, giving momentum to open-source activity.

The OpenPOWER Foundation has opened up the Power Systems architecture, which ramps up innovation by using the collective wisdom of the crowd, Chari says. OpenPOWER is working to address the need to accelerate computing to keep up with the volume of data being produced. “By opening up the architecture and allowing people to be innovative, IBM has come up with some interesting products such as NVIDIA accelerators working with POWER*,” he explains.

Bryan concurs. “The newest and most innovative applications are growing out of the open-source community, which IBM actively participates and nurtures,” he says. With the introduction of POWER8*, IBM opened the POWER architecture to allow the processor and hardware to experience the same innovation and speed that’s happening in the software community. “With OpenPOWER architecture, clients have choice, speed and innovation, just like you have with open-source software,” Bryan says.

The Benefits of POWER

The Power Systems platform provides several benefits for running Linux versus x86 systems. For instance, databases run several operations at the same time. POWER processors have eight threads per core to help customers handle I/O operations, as well as thousands of client connections on mobile and web devices.

The POWER platform also has big pipes for memory and large caches so the data is always in proximity to the processor, removing latency. “We have twice the number of threads, three or four times the cache and three or four times the memory bandwidth than x86,” Bryan says. The open architecture of the Power Systems platform allows clients to run accelerators, graphical processor units or field-programmable gate arrays. “We give better performance to applications and make the cool, new apps run faster and respond more quickly,” he adds.

For instance, MongoDB is a non-relational OSDB that doesn’t use the traditional row and column data format. Instead, it uses a JSON or document format, which allows the developer to incorporate different types of objects as part of the data store. As your application changes, you can embed additional data sources like geospatial or real-time video. New OSDBs like MongoDB enable agile application development with less rigidity.

The POWER architecture can handle new applications as well as assist in modernizing existing applications. One enterprise client was running Magento eCommerce on a combination of PHP and MariaDB, on x86 but was experiencing performance problems. The client also needed to connect to Db2* on its IBM i-based systems. By modernizing the Magento application and moving it and the PHP and MariaDB stack to Linux on POWER, the client was able to improve performance by 2x to 3x and successfully link to its Db2 database, Bryan says.

The capability of the Power Systems platform to work with traditional databases and OSDBs gives clients and developers flexibility in their choice of tools. One telecommunications company is exploiting that flexibility to give its internal developers a smorgasbord of databases to choose from that can be deployed in minutes when developing new applications.

“The heritage of POWER has always been one of data, first with Oracle and Db2 and now with SAP HANA,” says Bryan. “The Power Systems team is aligning with key OSDB communities and ISVs to give clients the best platform in the industry for open-source data-centric applications. Linux and open-source databases deliver 2x or greater value on POWER8 versus x86. Clients may need half the number of servers or can deliver twice the throughput or workloads per server,” he says.

Using the Data

New applications rely on diverse types of data to be processed quickly. For instance, a company might be creating an application using facial recognition to identify criminals, says Bryan. Data will need to be streamed and stored in memory. An OSDB like Hadoop could be employed to search the internet for facial characteristics that meet the search parameters. Spark could be used to handle analytics on the data. Another software package could be used to yield relationship data. In a matter of seconds, you could identify someone and determine if that person is of interest.

Another example is an application developed by MongoDB that associates mapping information with locations. The software, which is already being used in Scandinavia and the U.K., tracks publicly available bicycles that can be rented with special tokens. The app lets you see if bikes are stocked near a subway exit and how many will be available at a specific time of day. “When I was in the U.K. on business, I would build into my time schedule whether I was walking or biking to the next appointment,” Bryan says.

These applications, built around open-source software, are very demanding in terms of data usage, which suits the capabilities of the POWER architecture. New applications like the aforementioned bike example are helping improve quality of life. “I’m seeing amazing applications that people are building because they can take the latest open-source applications, bring them together and use each of the applications for its strengths,” Bryan says.

Competitive Advantage

Innovation is born of collab-oration, but companies still desire an idea that gives them a competitive edge.

Some companies, like those in pharmaceuticals, are spurring innovation through the adoption of a venture capital model, says Chari. A company will fund innovation by offering a set prize, say $1 million, to solve a tough problem. This kind of approach generates lots of ideas from lots of people outside the company. “Usually one of those ideas is something that’s truly disruptive and solves the problem,” he says. That idea then becomes the intellectual property of the sponsoring company.

“You get a significant amount of bang for the buck if you’re investing in innovation by opening your borders and making collaboration open.”
—Srini Chari, managing partner, Cabot Partners Group

These companies want the open-source community to thrive, but they also seek an adjacent technology that nobody else has that solves a unique problem. “That becomes your competitive advantage compared to the other companies in the open-source market,” Chari notes. “Proprietary will always be there but it will coexist with the bigger scale that is afforded by open source.”

Pushing Technology and Business Forward

In the next few years, open source likely will be driven by the need for real-time processing solutions, according to Chari. Open-source software will evolve to provide standardization, which will then cause proprietary applications to be created. “But right now, if you can’t collaborate, you are limited by what you do and that limits what you can do,” he says.

The wisdom of many is generating applications that are pushing technology and business forward. IBM will continue to support open-source innovation—and developers will continue to turn ideas into reality that will benefit us all.

Shirley S. Savage is a Maine-based freelance writer. Shirley can be reached at savage.shirley@comcast.net.

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