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Open source is everywhere – we should try to understand it

Many think that open source software is a cheap copy of proper software: it runs haphazardly, no user support is available and information security is a joke. However, an open source IT library has been deployed on ten billion devices connected to the Internet across the world and even on one device on Mars.

Jukka Rahkonen, a person with short hair and glasses is standing outdoors in a green environment.
National Land Survey of Finland

In fact, it is difficult to find any programs that are completely free of open source. Many open source licences also permit the use of open source alongside closed source, and this opportunity is truly being used. According to a recent study, 96 per cent of non-open source software includes open source. Furthermore, 93 per cent of cloud service providers stated that they use open source technologies.  

Open source components are used because they help reduce costs, accelerate software development and improve quality. If licence terms permit it, why would you write a new software component if you can use a completed and tested one immediately without any licensing costs? Certainly, programming, maintenance and the use of support services also carry a charge when using open source.

Open source is no guarantee of quality

In the case of the small helicopter sent to Mars with the Perseverance rover, the selection of NASA’s software developers was based on quality – on the reliability of the open source libraries used in the helicopter software having already been proven in practice. If more reliable options had been available, there probably would have been enough funds from the programme’s total budget of USD 2.7 billion to pay for licence fees as well.

However, open source is not an automatic guarantee of quality. GitHub alone, which is the largest development platform for open source, consists of 330 million software projects. Not all of them are suitable for operating a helicopter on Mars or providing safe and high-quality services for customers of a Finnish government agency. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to even recognise what open source projects work and are reliably maintained today, not to mention in the future.

However, comparable information can be found for open source projects, and this is often easier than for closed source software, as error reports are available to all.

Respond to the following questions to identify how long-lasting open source software is

  1. How long has the software been available?
  2. How many users does the software have? Pay special attention to significant IT service providers.
  3. How is software development funded?
  4. How many developers does the software have?
  5. Does the project depend on a single person?
  6. How can the developers be contacted and do they respond?
  7. Does the software have several open error reports and are errors fixed?
  8. Do software users provide support?
  9. Is commercial support available for the software – also in Finland?
  10. How long would the software remain usable if its development was stopped today?

Jukka Rahkonen

The author is a Chief IT Specialist at the National Land Survey of Finland

In the National Land Survey of Finland blog, different authors discuss various matters topical to the National Land Survey of Finland.