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Penguins, Bees, Cathedrals and Wikis

The Changing Face of Open Source and Collaboration

This was going to be such a simple piece: a quick look at some of the developments in the use of open source in the embedded arena, a quick update on Eclipse, perhaps a comparison of the positive and negative aspects of open source compared with proprietary tools, and a final summary.

Unfortunately, I began to become more and more aware that the open source landscape is changing and that a new paradigm is appearing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines paradigm as “a pattern or model, an exemplar.” I am using it here, not in the PR sense of something vaguely new but, as I hope will become clear, in the sense that the changes occurring are already drastically altering the way in which the tools for developing embedded systems are created and may, in time, alter the systems themselves.

Let’s look at some straws in the wind:

Microsoft (one is tempted to say, “of all companies”) has set up an “Open Source Technology Centre” and, amongst a raft of other projects, announced this week that it is donating code to an Apache project.

Wind River’s Linux-related revenues in Q2 of their financial year 2009 were up 60 percent year-over-year, to $10,111,000, which was 11 percent of the total revenues for the quarter.

Start-up Imperas spent three years and an estimated $4 million in developing a virtual platform for software development — and then placed it into the public domain.

Virtually every supplier of tools for embedded system development and debugging now includes an Eclipse interface.

A maker of chips with embedded processors for applications in the consumer market has over 300 people dedicated to maintaining a Linux distribution for users of its devices.

Firefox is continuing to increase market share, while the number of add-ins created and donated for nothing grows rapidly.

Apple’s iPhone, after first resisting the add-in community, has now embraced them, and there is huge number of downloads.

MATLAB has attracted a huge community creating and sharing tools and routines, and the community pages on the MathWorks web site looks like more an open source community than a commercial web site.

The best selling MP3 album on Amazon’s MP3 store is also available for free private download under a Creative Commons licence.

Wikipedia has compared favourably with Encyclopaedia Britannica in an article in the leading scientific publication, Nature.  

MIT is making vast quantities of current degree course materials available on the web, for nothing.

Within the sector serving enterprise computing there has been significant growth of Professional Open Source Software (POSS) companies. One of these, Pentaho, which provides business intelligence systems, was co-founded by James Dixon. It is Dixon who has come up with the Bee Keeper analogy for these companies. Bees gather honey because that’s what bees do. The bee keeper provides the bees with hives (and may also provide support services to the bees – like feeding them in lean times). In return, the bee keeper takes the honeycomb, and sells the wax and the honey. The bee keeper may also add further value to the honey, such as turning it into mead.

Compare this to a POSS company that sells a commercial distribution of Linux. The programmers work on Linux, because that’s what programmers do. The POSS company packages Linux and sells it with support and professional services. The bee keeper may create add-ins, such as drivers, and, if playing the game, returns these to the community.

Now we get into some interesting debates. Two of the key terms in this arena are Free Software and Open Source Software. They overlap, but there are important differences.

Free Software, in the meaning coined by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation, “is not like free beer, it is like free speech”. It is freedom software, software you can tinker with and which you can pass on to your friends. (And, by extension, you get the source code.) Free Software is also a crusade against the restrictive “licensing” of software, as exemplified by End User Licence Agreements (EULAs), which severely constrain what you are able to do to with the software. For some, the voice of the Free Software community can be a little shrill.

Open source also centres on the availability of source code, although the definition by the Open Source Initiative makes it clear that that source code is not the only element of the equation. (And, if the source code is available to a customer through download, that is sufficient.)

The enterprise seems to be embracing open source in a number of areas, though anecdotal evidence suggests senior people within companies might not realise, for example, that the MySQL database or the Apache server on which they are building their web sites and so their sales strategy, are open source products.

In both of these areas, projects are produced by collaborative effort, or by a company placing the source code of a product into the public domain. (Imperas, a company that is doing just this, was the topic of IC Design and Verification Journal earlier this year.)

More normally, as with Linux, one person, usually, sees a problem and begins work on solving it. He posts his ideas on the web, and others join in. The group input refines the specification and the use case, making the result more generally applicable. As different people develop code, others test it, usually by using it. Gradually, the code becomes more and more refined. Dixon cites as an example the Coverity static code analysis of a number of open source products in early 2006. The bugs were posted, and within days the community working on the projects had solved many of them. Today, if you look at www.scan.coverity.com, the list of products, where the open source community is fixing a significant number of bugs, includes PERL, tcl and Python. There are some products with zero defects outstanding. This is a strong argument both for the quality of open source tool products and for the responsiveness of the community in addressing issues and resolving them.

The difference between traditional and collaborative approaches was described by Eric Raymond as being the difference between a cathedral, usually developed under a master plan for specific functions, and the bazaar, which develops and serves a multitude of functions.

The collaborative approach is not limited to developing software — Wikipedia is a famous example — but large companies are using this approach to gather input from a wide range of sources to solve significant problems. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams document several examples, from gold field exploration to pharmaceutical research, in their book, Wikinomics. These are all feasible only because the internet provides an infrastructure.

And the internet is also facilitating other methods of working: for example, “Cloud Computing”, where you can rent flexible computing capacity, both processing power and storage, when you need it. The resource, and the software running on it, can be shared by people in multiple locations. Alongside rack hosting and other techniques, it can mean that you don’t have to invest in massive server farms when attacking large problems.

A similar approach is useful using shared access to documents through Google Docs and similar services. (We use Google Docs to share information within Techfocus Media.)

We have already seen that “free” software is not “no cost” software. Neither is open source software. There will normally be costs involved in making the open source tools match a specific set of requirements, and there are companies evolving that are specifically set up to assist companies in understanding and optimising these costs. Embecosm is a UK company that is committed to help companies develop products using open source tools.

So what are all these different developments going to mean in the long run for the average embedded systems engineer? To be honest, I don’t know. At one end of the spectrum, where we are looking at high rel / safety-critical, it is difficult to see how the entire development stream can be certified, and where responsibility or accountability lies, if there are elements of open source within the tool chain. At the other end of the spectrum, where market pressures, whether real or perceived, are screaming for new versions every few weeks, if not sooner, then anything that can accelerate the development cycle is going to be welcome.

Over the next few years, there will inevitably be more and more collaborative efforts, both in tools and in application code. Two groups will benefit from these: the savvy engineer who adopts the results at the point where they are sufficiently stable to be useful and the alert “bee keeper” who commercialises the results of these efforts and provides support services to the users. And if I knew which ones were really going to take off, I would be investing in an apiarist’s suit.

Here are sources where you can follow up some of the things discussed above.

The cathedral and the bazaar:  www.catb.org

Open Source Initiative: www.opensource.org

Free Software Foundation: www.fsf.org

Wikinomics: www.wikinomics.com

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