Open Source, Binaries & Celebrity Chefs

Working for an open source software company, I am faced with questions surrounding the open source approach and model in most customer meetings.  Many customers understand what open source is, or they think they do, but still want to know more.

Open source vendors are now everywhere - Github, the social code repo, claims to house over 22 million projects.  That is a staggering number.  Many public sector and government departments, now have a preference to use open source vendors in their selection processes.  Some of the biggest vendors on the planet, are now the top contributors to the Linux Kernel - including IBM, Samsung and Google.

So I think it is fair to say, that Open Source Software (OSS) is here to stay.  However, there is often some confusion around how a commercial model around OSS materialises.  I use the following little flow to emphasis some of the differences between open source and compiled binaries and the subtle differences between customization and configuration.

The Recipe Book

If we switch to world of cooking for a second.  The seemingly omnipresent world of cooking and more specifically celebrity rock star chef style of 'cooking' (just how many ways are there to roast a chicken? I digress..)

Most celebrity chefs are themselves multiple brands.  If we take the recipe book, this is generally seen as unique raw output of the chef.  Albeit priced accordingly. Their unique touches, techniques and ingredients (aka user interface, design and libraries in the software world...) that they bring to their industry.  The recipe book is their relatively complete description of how to reproduce those wonderful professional quality dishes that adorn the TV shows and magazines.

I would say that recipe book is akin to an open source project.  The guts.  The entire inner gubbings of the final dish. But to make it work, you need to make (no pun intended) that dish yourself.  You basically need to be a professional chef to make it taste like a professional chef.

The same can be said of consumer food such as cola, chocolate bars and frozen pizza.  The ingredients are listed, but I personally don't have the skills, facilities or ambition to make my own bottle of cola.  I would rather buy a regular bottle from the supermarket, knowing full well the taste will be consistent and it wont poison me.

The Restaurant

If on the other hand, you don't fancy trawling through the complex ingredients list, soufflĂ© techniques and sugar browning blow torch approaches to make your perfect birthday meal, then a trip to the nearest Jamie's Italian restaurant (other celebrity chef restaurants are available), can result in the complete article, all fully supported and catered for.  However, that will come at a price.

That price dutifully covers all the ingredients, chef time, restaurant space, service, waiters, wine, ambience and piece of mind that the food will taste lovely.

This, I would describe as being the fully tested binary, supported with patches and guaranteed to work in a well documented way.

The Salt, Pepper and Sauces

One last addition, are the personal preferences, customizations and intricacies that come from the condiments.  The pouring of salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup and other wonderful spices on top of the aforementioned recipe book or restaurant meal, allow the eater, slightly more control over the finished dish. Lets call these configuration items.  The turning of a steak into a mustard adorned meat feast for example.  These intricacies are vitally important, as not every person has the same tastes.

This could also be the example of a cola being mixed with whiskey, or ice, or lemon or lime.

The same is true for each organisation or project that requires software to implement a solution.

I would say these last steps are akin to implementing any configuration or even customization tasks to the purchased software.

Not all chefs produce cookery books.  Those that do, are opening themselves to a new and different audience, and opening themselves up to a new level of transparency.

On a consumer project perspective, would you eat a frozen pizza not knowing the ingredients? That is akin to buying closed source proprietary software, where you have limited visibility to the true origins of the design.