Our world has big problems to solve, and what we desperately need in this quest are the open source and open-standard communities working together.
Let me give you a vivid example, taken from the harsh realities of 2020. Last year, the United States experienced nearly 60,000 wildfires that burned more than 10 million acres, resulting in the destruction of over 9,500 homes and at least 43 lives lost.
I was a volunteer firefighter in California for 10 years and witnessed the critical importance of technology in helping firefighters communicate effectively and deliver safety critical information quickly. Typically, multiple agencies show up to fight these fires, bringing with them radios made by different manufacturers who each use proprietary software to set radio frequencies. As a result, reprogramming these radios so that teams can communicate with each other is an unnecessarily slow – and potentially deadly – process.
If the radio manufacturers had instead all contributed to a standard-compliant open source implementation, the radios could have been quickly aligned to the same frequencies. Radio makers could have provided a valuable tool that saves lives rather than a time-wasting obstacle, and they could have shared the cost of developing such software. In this situation, as in so many others, there is no competitive advantage to be gained from proprietary radio programming software and many invaluable benefits to be derived from standardization.
Open source and open standards are obviously different, but the objectives of these communities are the same: interoperability, innovation and choice.
The benefit of consistent standards and corresponding open source implementations is not unique to security critical situations like wildfires. Many areas of our life could benefit greatly from better integration of standards and open source.
Open source and open standards: what’s the difference?
“Open source” describes software that is publicly available and free for anyone to use, modify, and share. It also describes a philosophy of collaborative and community-based software development, with open exchange of ideas, open participation, rapid prototyping, and open governance and transparency.
In contrast, the term “standard” refers to agreed definitions of functionality. These requirements, specifications and guidelines ensure that products, services and systems operate interoperably with quality, safety and efficiency.
Dozens of organizations exist for the purpose of establishing and maintaining standards. Examples include the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). OASIS Open also belongs to this category. A standard is “open” when it is developed through a consensus-building process, guided by open, fair and transparent organizations. Most people would agree that the standards development process is careful and deliberate, ensuring consensus through compromise and resulting in sustainable technical specifications and limits.
Where is the middle ground?
Open source and open standards are obviously different, but the objectives of these communities are the same: interoperability, innovation and choice. The main difference is in how they achieve these goals, and by that I’m mainly referring to the culture and the pace.
Chris Ferris, IBM Fellow and CTO of Open Technology, recently told me that with standards organizations, it often seems like the bottom line is to slow things down. Sometimes it’s for good reasons, but I’ve also seen the competition get the best out of people. Open source seems to be much more collaborative and less contentious or competitive. This does not mean that there are not competitive projects that tackle the same area.
Another cultural characteristic that affects the pace is that open source is about writing code and standards organizations are about writing prose. Words outlive the code when it comes to long-term interoperability, so the culture of standards is much more deliberate and thoughtful as it develops the prose that defines the standards. While standards are not technically static, the intention of a standard is to achieve something that will serve without significant change in the long run. Conversely, the open source community writes code with an iterative mindset, and the code is essentially in a state of continuous evolution. These two cultures sometimes clash when communities try to move together.
If so, why try to find harmony?
Collaboration between open source and open standards will fuel innovation
The Internet is a prime example of what the harmony between open source and open standard communities can achieve. When the Internet started out as ARPANET, it relied on common shared communication standards that predated TCP / IP. Over time, open source standards and implementations have brought us TCP / IP, HTTP, NTP, XML, SAML, JSON and many more, and have also enabled the creation of additional key global systems implemented in standards and software. open code, such as Disaster Alerts (OASIS CAP) and Standardized Global Trade Invoicing (OASIS UBL).
The internet has literally transformed our world. This level of technological innovation and transformative power is also possible for the future, if we re-energize the spirit of collaboration between open standards and open sources communities.
Find harmony and a natural path of integration
With all of the critical open source projects residing in the repositories today, there are many opportunities for collaboration on associated standards to ensure the long-term operability of this software. Part of our mission at OASIS Open is to identify these open source projects and give them a collaborative environment and all the scaffolding they need to build a standard without it becoming a difficult process.
Another point that Ferris shared with me is the need to grow this path of integration. For example, this need is especially prevalent if you want your technology to be used in Asia: if you don’t have an international standard, Asian companies don’t even want to hear from you. We also see the European community asserting a strong preference for standards. It’s definitely a driving force for open source projects that want to play with some of the heavyweights in the ecosystem.
Another area where you may see a growing need for integration is when an open source project grows larger than itself, which means it begins to impact many other systems and alignment is necessary between them. An example would be a standard for telemetry data, which is now used for many different purposes, from observability to security. Another example is software nomenclature, or SBOM. I know there are things being done in the open source world to meet the challenge of tracking where software comes from. This is another case where, if we are to be successful, we need a standard to emerge.
it will take teamwork
Fortunately, the ultimate goals of open source and open-standard communities are the same: interoperability, innovation, and choice. We also have great evidence on how and why we need to work together, from the internet to the Topology and Orchestration Specification for Cloud Applications (TOSCA) and more. Additionally, key stakeholders carry the banner, recognizing that for some open source projects we need to take a longer-term, strategic vision that includes standards.
It’s a good start for teamwork. Now is the time for foundations to step in and collaborate with each other and with these stakeholders.