Guest Blog: Don’t confuse Open Source with Open Standards

Steve Nice
The European Commission has recently published guidelines which will make it easier for public authorities to switch to Open Standards. This move should be commended, but with a caveat. Open Standards do not equate to Open Source, and vendor lock-in is still a probability. In an effort to appeal to the public sector and other organisations that have fallen victim to proprietary system overspend; some of the large IT companies have publically embraced the idea of Open Standards, but with questionable motives.

Open Source software has its roots in the free software movement from the early ’80s. The underlying premise to Open Source software is that all source code is made freely available to promote collaboration and interoperability. The movement began in opposition to the established proprietary software companies that essentially locked users into their often incompatible systems.

Open Standards on the other hand help to create interoperable solutions that can be used by everybody, which opens up the market and promotes competition, ultimately benefiting the end user. In theory, those wishing to process or access any data that falls under an Open Standard are not reliant on any one single software vendor, and are free to use this data as they see fit.

But IT vendors have been locking customers into systems ever since The Big Blue’s zealously protected punch card data format, and leopards never really change their spots. Proprietary formats hinder innovation and an organisation’s ability to be agile and, while Open Standards have been around for quite some time, it is only now that it feels like the tide is starting to turn. This is also precisely why the big IT companies are so keen to show off their Open Standards credentials.

Let us consider Microsoft for a moment, which has for decades been the biggest player in standard office software. For years it exploited this position and there was little choice for anyone that wanted to collaborate on documents of one kind or another not to deploy the ubiquitous Microsoft Office suite. Pressure eventually came in the form of OpenOffice and the Open Document Format (ODF), an XML based file format designed to be easily accessed and edited from a range of applications.

Microsoft’s response was to give limited support to ODF and plough on with the development of the new .docx file format, its own variation of an XML based document. The trouble with this is that .docx format is still capable of saving down layers of proprietary code, such as Word Art, that only Microsoft products can read. Sure, the new format was more open than previous Microsoft file formats, but this is an ‘Open Standard’ purely on their terms.

Cloud computing is one of the most exciting spaces in technology at the moment, but at the same time it is also one of the most confusing. Despite the cloud computing market having matured considerably over the last few years, there is still no de facto standard adopted by the industry as a whole. Two of the biggest players in the IaaS space, AWS and Rackspace, have adopted their own standards and as it stands there is no write-once-run-anywhere solution for those wishing to use public cloud providers.

OpenStack, the platform developed by Rackspace in conjunction with NASA, is an Open Source project, which in theory should be a good thing. The problem in this case is that OpenStack is not compatible with the open APIs that AWS has provided which are utilised by other Open Source Cloud infrastructure platforms such as Eucalyptus and CloudStack. Although OpenStack is Open Source by nature, it is not as compatible as it could possibly be with other systems, namely AWS. And while AWS is a proprietary system, some effort has been made to make it compatible with other architectures. But this is clearly not enough and it is the customer that ultimately suffers in what is shaping up to be the next great format war.

There are numerous other examples of systems not being as open as they claim to be, and some of them, as we have seen, even involve Open Source software. Despite this, one thing remains constant and that is if you want to ensure you are never locked in to an IT system of any description, choose Open Source infrastructure. Only truly Open Source systems can guarantee that you are fully in control of your data. This may prevent you from taking advantage of a widely used proprietary solution in the short term, but in the longer term it will ensure the freedom of your data. Add to that the benefits of a fully customisable IT solution to precisely meet your organisation’s needs and the ability to change IT suppliers without prohibitive migration costs and you will see why Open Source wins the argument.

Data freedom is an important issue for both government and enterprise, and we need organisations such as the European Commission to highlight this. But don’t stop short by just adopting Open Standards, protect your future with a fully Open Source approach.

 

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