What Is Open Source? Origins and Applications

Open source is code that was written to be used, copied, and distributed, either unchanged or modified. In other words, code that anyone can see, change and use.

The Beginning of Open Source

In the late 70s, Richard Stallman was a staff programmer at MIT, and he implemented a small fix for a printer that had a habit of jamming. The fix was simple: when the printer jammed, a message would be sent to everyone with printing in the queue, and someone would clear it.

It was a system that worked so well that when his department received a new printer, Stallman requested the source code for the printer software so he could implement the same fix. But he was refused access to the code because the printer used private, closed source software.

The following decade or so was when computer software became increasingly private. Code which had long been given away was no longer free. Source code was being turned into a commodity.

During this period, computer software companies exploded, and selling proprietary licenses was key to their business models.

Richard Stallman resolved to work against the rise of proprietary software and the loss of community-powered, free software. He would drive the free software movement and develop an operating system that would replace the widely used, closed source Unix operating system.

GNU, the Linux Operating System and the Open Source Initiative (OSI)

Stallman began the GNU project, and its purpose was to build a free operating system that would be compatible with Unix. During this time, Richard Stallman’s concept of Copyleft became popular. A play on the word “Copyright”, Copyleft takes the principles of copyright law and uses them to allow free distribution and modification of intellectual property.

This was first used in 1989 in the GNU Emacs General Public Licence.

Then, in 1991, a Finnish-American student, Linus Torvalds, used GNU's development tools to create the Linux kernel. The Linux operating system we know began here, with a combination of GNU software and Linus Torvalds’ Linux kernel.

In the late 90s, open source software was thrust into the professional landscape as a legitimate and respected kind of computer software. In 1999, VA Linux and Red Hat launched onto stock markets with huge success.

The Open Source Initiative (OSI) was also founded in the late 90s. Its aim remains the same: to educate and advocate software's shared development and collaborative improvements.

Closed Source vs. Open Source

Also known as proprietary software, closed source software refers to a piece of software that has a private source code. In other words, the source code is not freely accessible and is protected by a license owned by the organization that created it.

Users must also have a valid licencs to use the software. These must be purchased from a vendor or a proprietary company. Closed source software can be as expensive or cheap as the organization decides. Even with a license, the source code cannot be legally viewed, copied, or altered in any way.

Open source is the complete counterpart to closed source. The cost of OSS is very low, and it is “free”. In this case, free refers to the freedom to use, modify, and distribute the software.

For decades, this terminology of free versus open source has been the subject of debate in the OSS community. With Richard Stallman of the opinion that using the word “freedom” was important.

Stallman believed that removing this word would lead to a future where open source code would be free to use, but users wouldn’t be freely able to change the software to meet their needs.

The Pros of Open Source

It’s cost-effective. Many open source software licenses are available for no cost at all. And hardware costs are also lower thanks to most solutions – like Linux – requiring less hardware power to undertake tasks than servers running many proprietary operating systems.

You aren’t tied into a contract with a vendor. Vendor lock-in is a real problem for many IT leaders. This can be for various reasons, from expensive fees to rigid, customizable solutions. OSS gives you the freedom to do what you wish with your software.

This leads to the flexibility of OSS. With OSS, you have complete independence, and because you have the right to change your source code, you can customize it to meet your specific needs.

It’s reliable. Most large open source projects have thousands of active developers constantly working on code. Far more so than most proprietary projects. The open source community is truly the power behind OSS, from fixing bugs and security flaws to enabling easier integration with new systems.

The Cons of Open Source

Although open source draws a vast number of benefits, there are some drawbacks.

There may be very little in the way of upfront costs for open source technology (or none at all!). But there could be a need for long-term or ad-hoc external support. Due to the community nature of open source, third-party support will likely be necessary if you lack in-house expertise.

The largest question that hangs over open source software development is security. If the code is freely available to you, it is also freely available to users with malicious intent to find holes.

However, this raises an interesting point. Since 2018, 96% of all applications have been built using open source technology.

So… Is Open Source Secure?

Generally speaking, open source software is no more secure than proprietary software. But neither is it necessarily less secure. Critics of open source software security often cite the above risk. They argue that the transparency of OSS makes it easy for hackers to find vulnerabilities.

However, OSS software advocates argue that the open source community development and refinement of OSS makes it more secure than most closed software. This is because there are so many people in the community (vastly outnumbering malicious hackers) who are able to discover and develop fixes incredibly quickly.

This argument could actually be a point in favor of OSS. With so many contributors to some OSS projects, the rate and speed of problem discovery and releasing patches and versions ar faster than privately owned software. Therefore, OSS can have much tighter security update cycles.

Interestingly, many of the commonly purported security flaws of OSS are actually down to the state of commercial apps in which the open source code is used.

The 2021 “Open Source Security and Risk Analysis” (OSSRA) report found that 91% of codebases (the collection of source code used to build a piece of software) contained abandoned open source code.

They also found that 85% of codebases (including proprietary) used open source code that was more than four years out-of-date. This code hasn’t been abandoned; there are still communities developing security updates regularly. Rather, this 85% were using code that had simply not had patches applied.

Furthermore, 60% of the codebases the OSSRA audited contained high-risk open source vulnerabilities.

Ultimately, it’s important to investigate the security and reputation of any software you look to use. Because a commercial license won’t guarantee the security of your software.

But one thing going for true OSS is that thanks to its transparent nature, any vulnerabilities are likely known and fixed by the community. Whereas with closed software, you have to ensure you trust the owner and vendor of the software.

Explore the OutSystems Forge

The OutSystems platform was crafted to free developers from repetitive tasks to focus on what they love the most: coding; coding that last inch that makes the difference and has the most impact on the business. And the OutSystems Forge and Developer Community are at the very heart of that vision.

The Forge is an online repository where community members can easily share the OutSystems software they have developed with other community members. This software ranges from entire applications to components, connectors, and templates that can help accelerate development across a wide variety of projects.

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