The future of open source in 2023

Rear view of software developers is sitting serious analyzing data on the computer screen
© Wutthichai Luemuang

Ann Schlemmer, CEO of Percona, discusses the future of open source in 2023, including why platforms will matter more

Open source is a way for communities to build software and make it available to others. It supports many of the applications, services, and devices that we all use every day.

Developers love open source software, and businesses value the innovation that it supports.

For example, in the 2022 State of Open Source report, OpenLogic found that 77% of organisations were more reliant on open source software than they were twelve months ago, while Red Hat’s 2022 State of Enterprise Open Source report found 80% of companies expect to increase their use of enterprise this software for emerging technologies. The future of open source is now.

So why might open source be at risk, and what comes next for companies that want to stick to that open vision? Where will this leave the communities that support open source? And how will trends like platform engineering affect the take-up of open source?

Why is open source at risk?

The big reason why developers like using open source is that they can get started easier and faster. Rather than needing to secure a budget and work with a proprietary vendor to access a product, open source projects are available to anyone.

This speed and agility helps developers work on problems faster. In turn, this makes building those digital services for citizens or customers easier. Developers also like the ability to look at the code and understand it themselves.

However, this approach is now potentially at risk. To understand why, we have to look at the wider picture around open source and sustainability.

Every open source project is as successful as the community that it supports. These communities rely on individuals and businesses that have to be sustainable too. This means money. While there are many individuals involved in open source, according to the Open Source Contributor Index, the majority of contributions come from developers employed by enterprise software companies like Microsoft, Google, Intel, IBM and Red Hat.

These companies have multiple revenue streams, and don’t just work around a specific open source project. Smaller companies involved in open source would traditionally sell their time and skills around a project through support and services contracts. That model is now under threat.

Cloud computing providers have taken advantage of open source and built their own service offerings as well. For developers this is a great option – they are likely already using the cloud to run their applications, so why not take advantage of this? While the big technology vendors may not be affected – they may even provide these services – the smaller companies in the market are.

It is important to stress that this approach is fully compliant with the Open Source Initiative (OSI) licences, where there is no restriction on what companies can use open source for. While open source companies may not like their revenues being taken by cloud providers, they can’t use licences to stop this taking place and be open source.

For the business behind a project, changing the software license may make sense. It protects what they see as ‘their’ revenues and keeps them operational. But it goes against the interests of users and the community as a whole. Instead, open source companies can offer their own cloud service to be competitive.

Building new business models around open source

Alongside this, there are new models being created. Rather than focusing solely on services that are linked to a specific cloud, open source companies can create products or platforms that embed their skills and expertise and then offer this to a wider potential audience. Using open source tools, companies can build their own platforms and provide more automation.

This platform approach offers a different route that should deliver what enterprises and developers want. It provides that simple cloud user experience, but without being tied to a specific operator. It also makes that same approach available to companies that don’t want to move to cloud, as they can deploy into their own private environments.

Turning services and experience into products that enterprises are willing to buy makes open source available to more prospects and provides that sustainable business model too. It offers a direct way to support those involved around open source projects, while also delivering the same kind of developer experience and support that enterprise teams expect today.

The future of open source is platforms engineering

This idea of creating platforms fits with the direction that enterprise software development teams want to take. Software developers use a set of tools, technologies, and open source projects in their applications. Platform engineering takes this further to provide those tools in a self-service environment for developers to implement faster.

This is currently a niche approach employed in the technology sector, but Gartner predicts that 80% of software engineering organisations will establish platform teams by 2026, and that 75% of these will provide developer self-service portals for those teams to work with.

For the future of open source, this platform engineering approach will be a big opportunity. Offering self-service support and ease of use will put open source back on par with the Cloud.

The alternative is that, without the ability to support easy self-service delivery, developers will pick solutions they can put to work fast. In the rush to achieve their goals, developers may care less about whether they are using open source options, risking lock-in and rising costs. This won’t be immediately apparent for many enterprises, but it will lead to potential issues over time.

Similarly, it may affect the number of contributors that are able to take part in open source projects. If companies outside the Big Tech sector can’t build successful business models for themselves, they won’t be able to invest time or resources in building those open source projects. This will slow the pace of innovation.

Overall, open source projects are in demand from developers and from enterprises. But without companies that can build sustainable businesses, the support for communities will slowly wither away. This could affect the future of open source in the long term as a way to make software available to everyone.

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