Author’s note: If you don’t believe that software is manufactured then go directly to your TRS80, do not collect $200.
I’m becoming increasingly impatient with people stating that “open source is about free software” because it’s blatantly untrue as a primary driver for corporate adoption. Adopting open source often requires companies (and individuals) to trade-off one cost (license expense) for another (building expertise). It is exactly the same balance we make between insourcing, partnering and outsourcing.
When I probe companies about what motivates their use of open source, they universally talk about transparency of delivery, non-single-vendor ownership of the source and their ability to influence as critical selection factors. They are generally willing to invest more to build expertise if it translates into these benefits. Viewed in this light, licensed software or closed services both cost more and introduce significant business risks where open alternatives exist.
This is not new: its basic manufacturing applied to IT
We had this same conversation in the 90s around manufacturing as that industry joltingly shifted from batch to just-in-time (aka Lean) manufacturing. The key driver for that transformation was improved integration and management of supply chains. We review witty doctoral dissertations about inventory, drum-buffer-rope flow and economic order quantity; however, trust my summary that it all comes down to companies need supply chain transparency.
As technology becomes more and more integral to delivering any type of product, companies must extend their need for supply chain transparency into their IT systems too. That does not mean that companies expect to self-generate (insource) all of their technology. The goal is to manage the supply chain, not to own every step. Smart companies find a balance between control of owning their supply (making it themselves) and finding a reliable supply (multi-source is preferred). If you cannot trust your suppliers then you must create inventory buffers and rigid contracts. Both of these defenses limit agility and drive systemic dysfunction. This was the lesson learned from Lean Just-In-Time manufacturing.
What does this look like for IT supply chains?
A healthy supply chain allows companies to address these issues. They can:
- Change vendors / suppliers and get equivalent supply
- Check the status of deliveries (features)
- Review and impact quality
- Take deliverables in small frequent batches
- Collaborate with suppliers to manage & control the process
- Get visibility into the pipeline
None of these items are specific to software; instead, they are general attributes of a strong supply chain. In a closed system, companies lose these critical supply chain values. While tightly integrated partnerships can provide these benefits, they carry a cost premium and inherently limit vendor choice.
This sounds great! What’s the cost?
You need to consider the level of supply chain transparency that’s right for you. Most companies are no more likely to refine their own metal than to build from pure open source repositories. There are transparency benefits from open source even from a single supplier. Yet in some cases like the OpenStack community, systems are so essential that they are warrant investing as core competencies and joining the contributing community. Even in those cases, most rely on vendors to package and extend their chosen open source software.
But that misses the point: contributing to an open source project is not required in managing your IT supply chain. Instead, you need to build the operational infrastructure and processes that is open source ready. They may require investing in skills and capabilities related to underlying technologies like the operating system, database or configuration management. For cloud, it is likely to require more investment fault-tolerant architecture and API driven deployment. Companies that are strong in these skills are better able to manage an open source IT supply chain. In fact, they are better able to manage any IT supply chain because they have more control.
So, it’s not about cost…
When considering motivations for open source adoption, cost (or technology sizzle) should not be the primary factor. In my experience, the most successful implementations focus first about operational readiness and project stability, and program transparency. These questions indicate companies are thinking with an IT supply chain focus.