Open source sweeping software firms, bolstering SaaS (interview with Black Duck)

By Andy Oram
April 28, 2010

A talk I had today with managers of Black Duck Software confirmed a couple things I've been thinking and hearing from other people for some time. First, free and open source software is continuing to grow and take over--it's more relevant in a recession than ever. Second, the growth of Software as a Service is entwined with the growth of free software; the two movements are good for each other.

The growing popularity of free software was noted by many people after the start of the recession around 2008; Open Source convention chair Allison Randal made a point of it on the podium at the 2009 convention. Black Duck can confirm the trend through their own revenues.

The role of Black Duck is to help companies keep track of the software they're using, particularly open source software. They have a signature-based system that runs over all of an organization's source code to see whether anything was taken from open source software. Lots of developers--whether underhandedly, to cover up plagiarism, or innocently without remembering to make a note of it--copy code from open source projects, and many companies come to grief when they try to include it in a proprietary product and are outed. With Black Duck's system this is much less likely, because they track hundreds of thousands of open source projects, representing billions of lines of code currently.

Over the years, Black Duck has added other functions for keeping track of code's origins in a database of open source projects, a service that is invaluable for firms that just want to find code, integrate it, and assess quality issues. We'll see shortly how this helps Black Duck expand its market too.

Reasons for the popularity of free and open source software

Tim Yeaton, President and Chief Executive Officer, and Peter Vescuso, Executive Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, boasted to me that the company has reached almost 100 employees, that 2009 was their best year yet (they've been around since 2002--but now they even have competitors), and that Q1 this year was also strong. We agreed on three main reasons for the growing popularity of open source:

  • Open source has matured. Yeaton says, "What's useful in open source has gone up exponentially." Why on earth would a company develop its own web server or JavaScript framework? Or license a proprietary one where they have to depend on a single company for support?
  • The cost of licensing has taken on new relevance in the recession. Vescuso says many software departments have suffered 30% budget cuts.
  • The maturity of the software has made it familiar to a new generation of developers, CIOs, and CTOs, who are more comfortable with the open source phenomenon than many of their older counterparts.

It's becoming standard, Yeaton and Vescuso say, for companies to use open source as the foundation for their added value. A recent blog by Vescuso finds progress even in the mobile area. And nowhere is open source more important than the fast-growing area of Software as a Service.

Software as a Service runs on free and open source software

Many proponents of free software are worried about Software as a Service because of the control it exerts over the data we store there, and because of the service's lack of accountability. But while we fix these problems (very much on the minds of cloud computing users), probably through policy, we should celebrate the mutual support that free software and Software as a Service offer. I wrote about this over a year ago. And it's clear that companies going "into the cloud" (which means, in relatively buzzword-free terms, that they are moving their functions from stand-alone software to a Web foundation) are using scads of free software--and creating it too, as we see for instance with Facebook and Cassandra.

Yeaton and Vescuso say moving into the cloud requires a new, large-scale development of a Web foundation, and open source software is where the companies are turning. They're also turning to Black Duck, so they can keep track of software and standardize on its use throughout their development teams. They can't afford the "ad hocism" of using whatever one or another developer happen to find.

Some free software advocates will complain that companies are profiting from the results of the free software movement while violating its goals of open systems and data. We can see lots of dubious policies in the Software as a Service world, but that's nothing new in the world of software. (Have you ever downloaded and run something from an FTP site or peer-to-peer network and then regretted it?) We still need consumer education and good-faith policies. Ultimately, I hope, most sites appreciate what free software has done for them, and will come to respect its values.

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