Open Source Processes Driving Software-Defined Everything

The Linux Foundation (LF) has been quietly nudging an industrial revolution. It is instigating a unique change towards software-defined everything that represents a fundamental shift for vertical industries.

LF on Sept. 24 published an extensive report on how software-defined everything and open-source software is digitally transforming essential vertical industries worldwide.

“Software-defined vertical industries: transformation through open source” delves into the major vertical industry initiatives served by the Linux Foundation. It highlights the most notable open-source projects and why the foundation believes these key industry verticals, some over 100 years old, have transformed themselves using open source software.

Digital transformation refers to a process that turns all businesses into tech businesses driven by software. This change towards software-defined everything is a fundamental shift for vertical industry organizations, many of which typically have small software development teams relative to most software vendors.

Some of the world’s largest, most regulated, complex and centuries-old industries, such as banking, telecommunications, motion pictures, public health, and energy have several essential things in common. These industries not only depend on open source, they are building open source into the fabric of their R&D models. They are all dependent on the speed of innovation that collaborating in open source affords, according to the LF analysis.

A key element differentiating companies in an industry vertical was open source adoption where companies shifted from being users to contributors. The report’s data shows that top-quartile company adoption of open source has three times the impact on innovation than companies in other quartiles.

Over the last 20 years, the Linux Foundation expanded from a single project, the Linux kernel, to hundreds of distinct project communities. The LF developed the foundation-as-a-service model that supports communities collaborating on open source across key horizontal technology domains.

However, many of these project communities align across vertical industry groupings, such as automotive, motion pictures, finance, telecommunications, energy, and public health initiatives. They may have started as individual efforts looking for a neutral home at The Linux Foundation. But over time these communities found it useful to collaborate as the organizations supporting the projects expanded their collaboration to other areas.

The Linux Foundation has become the leading organization for spearheading the open-source model worldwide. Its projects have had contributions from over 250,000 developers and 18,000 companies. Over 2,000 members around the world support the Linux Foundation and its projects, according to Mike Dolan, senior vice president and GM of projects, The Linux Foundation.

“Our membership split is roughly 43 percent Americas, 33 percent EMEA, and 25 percent APAC. We have been fortunate to work with industry leaders from every corner of the world as they look to collaborate around the globe,” he told LinuxInsider.

Driving Open Source Collaboration

The constant pressure to innovate rings that bell for some vertical industries. Still, there are challenges of supply chains, diverse customer requirements, regulations, and a lack of talent to do everything leadership may envision in any complex business.

Some organizations choose just to do the same things they have always done repeatedly, but running faster or investing more than their peers. They often develop strategic frameworks built around a core competitive advantage that should give them an edge.

It is the manner in which companies choose to execute their vision differently by relying on software to redefine their processes and assets. Marketers started referring to this shift as “digital transformation.”

As companies discover the processes and assets are software-defined, they see the opportunities for convergence of various business functions. The trend is similar to what the world saw in the convergence of the data, voice, and other communications, noted the LF announcement.

It is when an organization’s core strategic functions shift to a software-defined model that they realize how entirely dependent on software developers they are. This change towards software-defined infrastructure is a fundamental shift for vertical industry organizations, many of which typically have small software development teams relative to most technology industry software vendors.

Two related industries not yet under the LF’s umbrella are a potential fit for joining the digital transformation process, noted Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation. He expects to see the healthcare and insurance industries awaken to see the possibilities that open collaboration could bring to their industries.

“We have been in discussion with individual parties in these industries who see the opportunity, but the challenge of open collaboration is educating a segment of each ecosystem on the value equation. We focus on facilitating that conversation, which, in some cases, takes a few years of effort. We see the initial signs but have a ways to go yet,” he told LinuxInsider.

Resistance Sometimes Futile

It has been a long journey for the Linux Foundation to overcome opposition to the open-source concept. It is not apparent at first why openly licensing intellectual property makes sense, suggested Zemlin.

“That’s why most of our discussions start with ‘Why did X do open source?’ where X references another company or another industry. Many groups engage us to learn the ‘why?’ component. We focus on education and enabling leaders to understand why it works,” he explained.

Once executives understand how it all works, the open-source concept generates a spark. That leads to a fire within the industry as everyone quickly realizes how much value they can capture in a short period with open source, Zemlin added.

Most opposition he sees comes from parties who have a monopoly on some aspect of a process or workflow in an industry. They are generally more reluctant to embrace a path that leads to more competition, according to Zemlin. But often they already anticipated an inevitable end to their position at some point.

“They eventually conclude an open-source model can help accelerate the adoption of their higher value offerings, so it usually requires supporting an education effort within their organization,” Zemlin said.

Software-Defined Examples

To understand the evolution, consider how the foundation has changed the 144-plus-year-old telecommunications industry. In the last six years, the pace of innovation has sky-rocketed thanks to end-user driven innovation enabled by an open-source evolution, according to the foundation.

That’s a radical change, considering that telecommunications providers relied on upgrading their own generational networks involving proprietary and expensive switch hardware that was not easily modified, had its functionality modularized, or feature sets improved.

As the telecom providers adopted more of a software-defined model, they found the level of effort to develop their own software-defined network stack by themselves would be a massive undertaking. It would be potentially fraught with interoperability issues if they each went at it alone. Take just one current example: solving similar problems with the move from 3G to 4G, and now 5G.

The Linux Foundation noted that it was the first to host an initial project to enable this transformation. Providers joined forces to solve the same “undifferentiated” problem of network automation. That led to forming the LF Networking Foundation under LF’s umbrella. It was the beginning of an End User Driven Innovation, Telecom Service Provider.

Other Verticals

Automotive Grade Linux (AGL) is another example LF spotlights as how open source collaboration fostered software-driven innovation. Consumers desired a simple, user-friendly, and modern user interface to their car’s infotainment GPS, climate control, and other systems instead of the fragmented offerings that existed. The result was a better consumer experience using a smartphone attached to their automobile’s dashboard instead.

The motion picture industry saw the light of its own similar digital transformative movement, according to the LF. That industry was suffering from its own fragmented software infrastructure even though more than 80 percent of the industry used open-source software for animation and visual effects.

The problem for LF there was not unifying around open source. It was getting the industry ecosystem to collaborate in the open together, according to LF. It took two years to reach a solution with the formation in 2018 of The Academy Software Foundation (ASWF) developed in partnership by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the home for the Academy Awards.

Yet another digital formative moment occurred in 2018 involving the Fintech industry. FINOS (Fintech Open Source Foundation) quickly made strides to introduce collaborative methods that enabled open-source development and adoption in financial services. FINOS became part of the Linux Foundation this year.

A decade ago that accomplishment would have been unfathomable in an industry subject to intense regulation, legal requirements, complex, decades-old systems, and resistance to sharing intellectual property, according to the LF report. Two years later, major financial institutions increased their open-source engagement to contribute code that solved common industry challenges.

The bombardment of pandemic-related health issues helped the Linux Foundation to forge its worldwide public health initiative this past July with the launch of the Linux Foundation Public Health (LFPH) initiative. The goal is familiar: enabling mass innovation through open source.

July also saw the formation of the LF Energy initiative with support from RTE, Europe’s biggest transmission power systems provider and other organizations. The goal is to speed technological innovation and transform the energy mix across the world.

Limits to Software-Defined Transformation

Achieving more widespread digital transformation through open source has more challenges ahead for the LF. Despite the growing number of successful open-source initiatives, the limitations still get in the way of more software-induced transformation.

The limits largely depend on many non-software factors. Those, in turn, depend on organizations within an industry and their ability to execute transformation within their organizations, added Dolan.

“We often joke that we have the easy job. It is the leaders in the individual companies that execute the most challenging work,” he added.

The Linux Foundation’s report is available here.

Jack M. Germain

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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