How is open-source reshaping the world of software development

Explore open-source impacts on tech & security. See how it benefits programmers and how businesses are reconsidering its value.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Code sharing has evolved over the years, moving from academic exchanges to commercialization, and now towards a future driven by collective expertise and innovation
  • Currently, 50% of programmers engage in open-source projects, gaining enhanced skills, networking opportunities, and job prospects through their contributions. 
  • The median economic value of open source software is 1-2 times its cost, highlighting significant returns on investment that reshape business perspectives towards open source.

How much do we really own our ideas? This isn't just a philosophical query; it's a practical concern about control, ownership, and the rights over our innovations. Ownership can yield personal satisfaction and professional success. However, clinging too tightly to our creations without inviting collaboration can stifle their development and limit their impact.

This challenge highlights the value of the open-source philosophy. Open source means a publicly accessible codebase that can be collaboratively modified or shared, enabling vital inspection, adaptation, and enhancement of the underlying technology.

According to Digital Ocean's 2022 Currents study, 50% of programmers contribute to open-source projects, and over 90% of IT leaders use enterprise open-source for their most critical applications. The question remains, however: how profoundly is open source shaping the landscape of technological development, especially within the realms of blockchain and cryptocurrency? Let’s find out. 

From sharing code to collaborative technology 

In the early days of computing, everything was a breeze. During the 1960s, software was freely shared among academics and corporations, as a complimentary addition to the expensive hardware it operated on. However, the landscape shifted when companies realized the potential for commercializing software. This shift began with IBM and marked the advent of proprietary software.

By 1983, Richard Stallman, the first software activist, launched the GNU Project, promoting the use of free software. He also introduced the GNU General Public License (GPL), which allowed software to be used, modified, and distributed freely.

Then, in 1991, Linus Torvalds appeared on the scene, releasing the Linux kernel as freely modifiable open-source software, which became the first entirely open-source operating system.

The 2000s saw enterprises widely adopting Linux and open-source software, with major companies like IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft starting to support open-source projects. During this period, open source became a standard in software development, influencing software, hardware, and content.

Much like the transformation seen in software development, cryptography has undergone a similar evolution. It was once the domain of clandestine operations and exclusive circles, with a rich history of being closely guarded. In its early days, the art of encoding and decoding messages was predominantly a military tool—used extensively during wars and conflicts to secure communications and mislead adversaries. 

The transition towards more open cryptographic practices began to gain momentum with the advent of the digital age and the growing need for civilian cryptographic solutions. There was now a need for secure digital communications, evidenced by the development of SSL for internet transactions and the widespread use of open-source cryptographic libraries like OpenSSL, making modern cryptography an integral, transparent part of everyday technology. Much like code, cryptography is today mostly done in the open, with a growing belief that public, peer-reviewed cryptography, paradoxically, will always be more secure than closed/secret cryptographic algorithms. 

Then came Bitcoin, a technology that needs little introduction but deserves one anyway: an open-source public ledger that revolutionized financial transactions. Following Bitcoin, there were significant developments like Vitalik Buterin’s introduction of Smart Contracts on Ethereum, Tendermint’s straightforward BFT PoS - easily programmable with the Cosmos SDK, and THORChain’s sovereign blockchain - which is both open-source and cross-chain, leading up to the Maya Protocol’s decentralized liquidity protocol and more multichain protocols to come. 

The focus has shifted as open source continues to dominate software development—now integral to cloud computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and IoT. Today, we seek not just technology innovation but reliability. 

For example, while Kubernetes is a powerful open-source tool for managing containerized applications, merely adopting it doesn't guarantee reliability. This is just a tool; organizations must build trust through consistent performance and robust security measures to leverage its potential in diverse environments.

Is free and open-source more reliable?

Free and open-source software can be more reliable due to its transparency, community involvement, and collaborative nature, often leading to rapid bug fixes and continuous improvements. However, not all open-source projects meet such high standards. The reliability also depends on the community's size, the project's governance, and the availability of resources for maintenance and development.  

Let’s go through an example that illustrates a significant challenge within open-source ecosystems. The recent discovery of a backdoor in the XZ Utils data compression library used by several major Linux distributors underscores the security risks involved. 

This incident was particularly notable as the malicious code, affecting distributions like Fedora, Debian, and Arch Linux, enabled unauthorized remote access. Now this highlights the paradox of open-source security: while the open nature of these projects exposes them to vulnerabilities, it is this same transparency that allows for rapid discovery and remediation of such threats.   

Green flags of an open-source project:

✅ Active Community: Brings diverse perspectives and expertise, promoting knowledge sharing and quality improvement.

✅ Regular Updates: Frequent commits, merges, and updates in the code repository show ongoing development.

✅ Transparent Governance: Clear decision-making processes and open discussions about the project’s direction are signs of healthy governance.

✅ Well-documented: Comprehensive and up-to-date documentation for users and developers is crucial for usability and ongoing contributions.

✅ Strong Security Measures: Regular security audits, bug bounty programs, and quick responses to vulnerabilities. 

✅ Interoperability Features: Support for integrating other blockchain systems and applications suggests a forward-thinking and flexible approach.

Is every blockchain open-source? 

While many of the most well-known blockchain platforms, like Bitcoin and Ethereum, are open source, allowing anyone to review, modify, or distribute their code, there are also proprietary blockchains. 

These proprietary or private blockchains are developed and maintained by specific organizations, and access to their source code is restricted to certain users or remains completely closed to the public. Corporations often use these types of blockchains for specialized business needs where the company prefers to maintain control over the blockchain's functionality and security.

In contrast, Maya Protocol functions as an open-source liquidity protocol that is fully auditable, enhancing transparency and trust. In the blockchain ecosystem, this open-source approach is particularly valuable as it allows for broader scrutiny and validation by nodes, ensuring that the code governing transactions and interactions is secure and functions as intended. This model not only promotes transparency but also enhances security, as community validation is continuously rewarded and encouraged.

Is open-source code free speech? 

Where collaboration is widespread and contributions come from a diverse array of volunteers, the question of liability, particularly in the case of failures or security breaches, becomes complex. The prevailing notions is that companies profiting from the integration of open-source software into their products should bear the responsibility. This is mainly predicted from the idea that businesses that benefit economically are in the best position to manage risk and are more capable of supporting necessary security initiatives compared to volunteer maintainers. 

However, a contentious issue arises with the possibility of developers intentionally distributing malicious code under the guise of open-source. In such scenarios, should these contributors remain exempt from liability?

While the primary responsibility for open-source software security might logically rest with commercial entities that profit from its use, the open-source community must also grapple with maintaining a balance between openness and accountability, particularly in exceptional cases involving malicious intent.

The professional and personal benefits of contributing to open-source

Open-source software, while free, does not necessarily imply that contributions are unpaid. However, many developers engage in open-source projects out of a belief in "gift culture," where everyone—regardless of their background or resources—has access to the same code and the same opportunity to modify, use, and redistribute it. 

Participants are free to modify existing code and adapt it to new uses, with the primary stipulation that any distributions must retain the same license as the original. This ensures that users enjoy the same freedoms as their predecessors. Similarly, if those users alter and redistribute the code, the subsequent users will inherit those same freedoms.

Further emphasizing the significance of this community, the Digital Ocean Currents report from June 2022 highlights how vital open-source involvement is for personal and professional development. According to the report, 20% of contributors have aided others in skill development, while 15% have engaged in projects centered on missions, diversity, and inclusion. Beyond mere personal fulfillment, 32% of participants report feeling purposeful and part of a broader community. 

The report also indicates substantial professional benefits: 35% of contributors have enhanced their skills, 19% have expanded their professional networks, and 11% have secured job opportunities through their involvement in the open-source community.

Source: Digital Ocean Currents June, 2022
Source: Digital Ocean Currents June, 2022

This dynamic community not only fosters a culture of sharing and growth but also equips its members with valuable experiences that extend well beyond traditional professional environments. Increasingly, companies and organizations are recognizing that the value in open source models surpasses initial expectation.

According to The Linux Foundation's 2023 survey on the value of open source, the median economic value of open source software (OSS) is estimated to be 1-2 times its cost. This highlights that the benefits of using open source significantly outweigh its costs. This realization is pushing more entities to adopt open-source strategies, leveraging these communities' collective expertise and innovation.