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Open Source in the Enterprise

Open Source in the Enterprise

Part 2 of a 2-Part
Series
 
 
 

How Your Company Can Become An Open Source Organization

In Part 1, I talked
about the history and the many advantages of utilizing open source. The
advantages outlined are numerous and the more advanced companies are not only
utilizing open source, but creating it as well. Part 2 will address how your
company can not just leverage open source, but become an open source
organization and an active user and contributor.   

Hurdles and Challenges

Overcoming the Legacy Wall

The foremost
challenges surrounding a shift to open source are related to platform legacy
and existing company culture. Most organizations are using or have built
software applications and platforms that are tied up with licenses from big
corporations like Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle. This is often a large annual cost
burden. These applications and platforms cannot be torn down and replaced
overnight. Software professionals are trained and often have lengthy
backgrounds in legacy technologies, so introducing them to an entirely new
stack and development approach can be challenging. Operations are also in place
to monitor and deploy these older technology stacks. So, you may ask, then how
do we get started?  

Enterprise Processes and Regulations

Netflix
is a sterling example of a company that has not only grown into a large
enterprise but has created and adopted a strategy to overcome enterprise
processes and regulations. Netflix relies on a model that lowers process and
regulation, which will increase innovation and speed of delivery. Rather than
creating more process to prevent problems, Netflix relies on individual and
team responsibility. This same philosophy holds true for open source adoption.
Many enterprises are reluctant to use open source because of the lack of
enterprise support. However, if each team is responsible for their development,
testing, deployments and service level agreements (SLAs), they are free to
explore and build as long as they deliver quality. 

Your Company’s Open Source Strategy

Think Like a Startup

Startups have
traditionally been early adopters of open source for a number of reasons.
Startups are often cash-strapped and do not have the resources to acquire
software licenses, so using open source is often a decision made out of
necessity. As a result, startups usually lead the way in terms of innovation
and time-to-market. How do they do it? It’s done through constant experimentation
and tremendously fast iteration cycles achieved by quickly leveraging and
adopting these tools ad hoc. Unlike large companies that are often limited by
vendor software, startups are able to choose the right tool for the job at the
right time. This is especially important in the technology industry, where
software release cycles are accelerating as quickly as ever. In an ecosystem
where frameworks, tools, and technologies are falling in and out of favor
virtually every day, the advantage of being a startup is not necessarily in the
tools they choose, but in their ability to rapidly prototype, iterate, and swap
technologies as they see fit. This is in stark contrast to many large
companies, where adding layers of complexity to combat legacy software is the
status quo.

While it’s unrealistic
to advocate for the same level of flexibility often achieved at startups, it is
imperative that companies approach open source in a similar spirit. We’ve seen
numerous examples in recent years of large, seemingly invincible companies
suffocating under the weight of a legacy tech stack. Organizations looking to
join the open source movement must not expect to find a “golden hammer,” but
rather build their systems to be as flexible and loosely-coupled as possible.
 

Find or Hire Your Own Open Source Mavericks

These open source
mavericks are often hidden gems within your company. These are the developers
who work nights and weekends at home and tinker. They often have their own
GitHub pages showing what great work they’ve done.  A lot of them have an entrepreneurial spirit
and many are working on their own side projects.  

Sometimes, these
open source mavericks are professionals who have been working with the same
technology for a while and want the opportunity to work on something new and
challenging. Some people in your organization are happy with working on the
legacy systems, while others want to be challenged. Recognizing these mavericks
and giving them the opportunity to work on what’s new and shiny can change a
stale culture into a fresh and exciting one and can transform your company into
a destination that is desirable for the best and brightest.  

Offer Incentives
Companies such as
Yahoo will offer incentives for developing technology that will either make or
save the company money. In some cases, these will be in the form of offers that
will give employees a direct percentage of revenue or savings generated from
the initiative.  Innovating will take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.
Employees will often ask “what’s in it for me?”, other than building a good
resume to allow them to move on to a better opportunity somewhere else.

Hackathons
Hackathons are another
great method to market and find talent for a specific technology. Open source
skills are some of the most sought after in the marketplace both from the
employee and the employer perspective, so this is a great way of matching
potential prospects with an opening. This is also a great way to market to the
masses that your company is using these technologies.

Don’t Be Afraid To Fail
More often than not, teams and organizations are under constant
pressure to deliver. This can cause enterprises to fall back to what we know
and often take us to the path of least resistance. However, this approach will never
spur innovation. If we keep patching the same legacy systems, we can never move
forward and will only build the legacy wall even higher. Well-run organizations
understand that consistent investment in their software is paramount to their
success as opposed to constant band-aid solutions.  It’s OK to fail as
long as you learn and iterate and do not spend an undue amount of time. This is
what R&D is all about.  

Organize Into Small Autonomous Groups

It is often the
case that not everyone will have the same opinion within an organization on how
to best solve a problem. While many of your teams may be trying to solve
similar problems, the backgrounds and skillsets may vary greatly. Many
companies have found success with a Microservices architecture, providing their
engineers with the autonomy to create the best solutions for themselves in the
context of the support network that large companies benefit from. Yelp and Spotify are two examples of companies that have found success with and
written about this approach.

Pick a Pilot Project
The best way to get started is to find a project that is either
net-new without legacy dependencies or a project that can be retrofitted into
your existing architecture. This will allow you to do “bake-offs” and
“A/B performance tests” against different technologies.  To start, try something small to experiment
with the new technology stack. Don’t be afraid to try a number of competing
technologies such as MongoDB vs Couchbase or NodeJS vs Tomcat.  Do this
for every layer of your stack, from client tools through the database.
 This will allow you to find the lines of demarcation within your
organization.  

Create a Layer of Abstraction

Since each
technology has its own tooling and modules, the last thing you want to do is be
tied to a particular product because it’s all wired together too tightly or has
too many dependencies.  To account for this, design an API for each tier
of your application to develop layers of abstraction. This approach is
consistent with Microservices architecture patterns and best practices.  

As an example,
Node.js provides excellent asynchronous API orchestration. A NodeJS layer can
stitch together compound requests into a single asynchronous request. These
requests can be written in any blend of technologies and languages. For
instance, high computational requests can be written in something like C++ or
Java and be fronted by a Tomcat/Spring server.   

MVP (Get Your Win)

Projects often
suffer from overdesign and extensive  timelines. Think long and hard about
determining what your project’s minimum viable product (MVP) is. The principles
of Agile will support iterations before and after the initial MVP release.
Getting your open source-based project released will allow your team to put a
“stake in the ground” and begin to establish an open source culture within your
organization. If you can eliminate the need to renew licenses or replace them
with less expensive licensing deals, then that’s a big win.    

Cloud Agnostic Approach

Building an
application or platform that will only run on a specific cloud provider’s
infrastructure like AWS or Azure can lead to the same legacy wall issues. Your
organization will become dependent on a provider’s proprietary tools.
 Certainly leveraging these tools can provide benefit, but a design around
a specific cloud provider’s tooling can also lock you into that specific
vendor. Avoid this pitfall by leveraging tools that work on a number of cloud
providers. Good examples of this are Docker for deployment containers and
Node.js.  Some organizations will require certain assets to remain within
their walls, so there is usually a need to think agnostically. Doing so will
also allow you to burst out onto the public cloud in the future.

Use Licensing Where It Makes Sense for our Organization

There are
situations where it may make sense to license certain software. If your
company’s lifeline depends on a highly-available application, then buying an
open source support contract may be the right decision. This license agreement
can be temporary as your organization ramps up its internal skill set.
 This is why it’s best to build software that does not have a strong
dependency on versions that are only available in a licensed product.
  

The Benefits to Contributing and the Power of Community

As you become
proficient with open source, consider contributing back. This can be achieved
in several ways. For one, you can submit pull requests directly to packages’
repositories on GitHub. NPM (Node Package Manager) is a great example of this. The NPM community has grown
exponentially over the years and new modules are uploaded constantly.  Of
course, this can also create a bit of a minefield, so proper QA and due
diligence is a must.  Contributing back to open source can also provide a
great way to attract talent and advertise your organization as a destination of
open source innovation.

Get Bootstrapped By Getting Help

If you truly feel
your company just doesn’t have enough experience with open source in-house to
get started, then you can always scaffold the effort with a consulting firm.
 This can provide the benefits of rapid building and allow your in-house
talent to pair up with consultants to learn and sharpen their skills.
 Again, this can be a transitional step once your company feels
comfortable with your level of background, skill, and proficiency.

Final Thoughts

Open source
provides many good options for your organization and should be seriously
considered as an option to utilize. My suggestion is that you proceed in
incremental steps and try to create a technological and cultural shift that
will make your organization more innovative and adaptable in the fast changing
marketplace. 

 

Paul
Marcinkiewicz
is a
Solution Architect for Slalom Consulting – Boston and is an AWS Certified Solutions Architect.
Paul has worked as an architect ranging from startups to Fortune 500 firms and
has experience designing, building and migrating onto platforms utilizing open
source technologies. Connect with Paul on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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