The Lunar Society of the 1790s is in many ways the very essence of open source community. Getting the very best ideas, working together, reacting and sharing together in real time. One major difference, though, is that the Lunar Society was very exclusive by nature, while today’s open source community is not. It is truly open. We live in a vastly more complex and expansive world than Birmingham in the 1790s; the power of the opportunities today is global, and mostly still forming.

With billions of devices running autonomously, computing, sensing, and predicting zettabytes of data, there are endless possibilities for what business ideas and technologies will thrive on the intelligent edge. Only an open source strategy can work in this environment: millions of people, ten of millions of ideas, maybe billions of combinations of code.

Open source for the intelligent edge

An effective intelligent edge will require a robust infrastructure that can handle low latency, high availability, and bandwidth demands. This infrastructure will include three key components: a cloud platform for running applications, analytics to monitor the health of the platform and services, and an orchestration layer to deploy and manage services across a distributed network.

There are five basic ways for companies to obtain this infrastructure: build it themselves from scratch, buy a proprietary solution from a vendor, build it starting with open source, buy a vendor-supported open source solution, or use infrastructure as a service (IaaS).

In a recent survey we administered across 500 respondents in France, Germany, Spain, the UK, and the U.S., a relatively small percentage selected “build your own from scratch,” and a few more selected “vendor proprietary.” The majority selected an option where open source plays a role, whether in IaaS, do-it-yourself (DIY), or vendor-supported options. IaaS was the #1 choice for all three elements (cloud platform, analytics, and orchestration). The rest were split between one of the other flavors of open source (DIY or vendor-supported).

It seems most people aren’t interested in building and/or managing their infrastructure themselves. 34% of business in the U.S. cite “lack of internal skills or knowledge” and “bandwidth constraints on people’s time” as the biggest barriers to adopting intelligent edge technologies, followed closely by “additional investments in associated technologies are unclear” and “lack of internal business support or request.” Open source options give these companies the benefits of the solution without having to shoulder the burden all on their own.

If building and supporting your own infrastructure is core to your business, then building from scratch might make sense — but even then, chances are you may still use open source components. With 180,000 open source projects available with 1,400 unique licenses, it just doesn’t make sense not to use open source to some degree.

Two key reasons why open source is so pervasive

The popularity of open source is not surprising. For one thing, you get to tap into a technological hive mind. There is some debate, and many variables, but estimates put the number of open source developers worldwide somewhere north of 20 million. Open source communities attract a wide variety of people who are interested in participating in a particular piece of technology, with communities and projects running the gamut in terms of size and scope, depending on the focus and maturity of the project.

The common thread is the community of people who are contributing and reviewing code in an effort to make the project better. Generally speaking, the more applicable the code is to a variety of use cases and needs, the more participation you might see in the community. So with open source projects you get to leverage some of the smartest people on the planet, and they don’t have to be on your company payroll.

The second reason for such widespread usage of open source — related to the first — is the fact that you don’t have to do it all yourself. It’s a pretty common scenario for a development organization to use open source code as a component of a larger solution. By leveraging that open source component they can save hundreds if not thousands of work hours by not having to develop or be the sole maintainer of that piece of code. It also allows the organization to focus on their value-add.

Not just a groovy codefest

Open source derives its success from community, and just like in any community, some boundaries and agreed-upon rules to play by are necessary in order to thrive. It’s one thing to download a piece of open source code for use in a personal project. It’s another to use open source code as a critical component of your company’s operations or as a product you provide to your customers. Just because you can get open source code “for free” doesn’t mean you won’t make an investment.

Open source projects need focus, attention, and nurturing. In order to get the full value from the community one must be an active member of that community — or pay someone to be an active member of the community on your behalf. Being active requires an investment of time and resources to give a voice and listen to other voices on a steering committee, discuss priority features to work on next, participate in marketing activities designed to encourage more participants, contribute quality code, review code from others, and more. Leaning in is strongly encouraged.

Open source technology offers a tremendous opportunity for collective creativity and innovation. When like-minded people gather together for a focused intellectual purpose, it’s energizing to the individual and can be hugely beneficial to the organization. Whether the open source code is part of an IaaS, a component of something you build, or part of a vendor-supported solution, it is a tremendous asset you can use to push your company’s value-add forward to better meet your customer’s needs.