The value of open source in Europe

The adoption of open source technology is growing rapidly, with organisations and businesses waking up to the capabilities that it has to offer. An estimated €1bn was invested in open source technology in Europe in 2018 alone.

The European Commission’s (EC) recent report outlines suggestions and rewards of these benefits being transferred across the whole continent. Any encouragement of open source use is greatly welcomed, but some of the key messages from the EC’s report need further elaboration and recommendations.

If the pandemic has taught the working world anything, it is the growing need for agility and flexibility. Open source holds the key to greatly improving a business’s technological agility, enabling increased profitability and efficiencies, thereby positively impacting the economies in which these businesses operate. Through the availability of ready-to-use open source resources, enterprises can trial new initiatives with smaller startup costs and enable a greater potential return on investment. 

This open source agility translates to the public sector, where the potential lack of technical expertise is circumvented by the variety of contributors and resources that open source presents. Investments and expertise gained through open source remain within the public sector and can be repurposed for future projects. With this feedback cycle of continuous development and learning, public-sector projects have a higher chance of success and will be more cost-effective.

The EC’s report repeatedly stresses the importance of open source programme office (OSPO) adoption, with the OpenSSL cryptographic library a prime example of the need to do so. OSPOs act like skill centres, allowing specialised open source talent to meet the growing pressures and demands of open source work. 

The OpenSSL library provides key components of code used almost universally across the internet. Previously, it was managed by only two developers, with the scope of the work making it very difficult to maintain the project at the level needed. This presented a risk to the continuity of OpenSSL and all those who rely on it – a risk that financial support from the Linux Foundation was able to circumvent.

The wider investment in OSPOs that the EC’s report encourages greatly helps to spread this risk posed to OpenSSL and similar open source projects that enterprises depend on. Having a larger number of developers that specialise in the maintenance and development of open source working on these essential projects, with greater corporate and government backing, reduces the likelihood of incidents becoming mission-critical as they previously may have done. 

Open source can help facilitate Europe’s drive for digital sovereignty, providing competition to tech services that are often centralised in Silicon Valley. Gaia-X is an interesting example of such an initiative. Billed as a competitor to US and Chinese hyper-scalers, Gaia-X would function as a federated European system where users can still access cloud services without being locked into a single supplier. For Gaia-X and similar initiatives to be implemented successfully, public sector legislation and backing needs to coincide with private-sector investment and adoption. 

Open source also encourages innovation and the adoption of other technologies that have the scope for economic growth. Public cloud, for example, is utilised in many open source programmes and allows for significantly reduced hardware and software costs. There is significant room for open source to enable this second-hand growth in economies such as Germany’s, where only 25% of companies utilise public cloud. The private sector is growing increasingly aware of how open source investment can proliferate into other areas and enhance their business capabilities, with investment likely to follow. 

However, the primary method for increased open source adoption is simply through engaging with the community. The more private companies are feeding back into open source and supporting developers, the stronger open source tools will become, increasing its appeal to both public and private sectors. 

The EC’s report highlights both the scope that open source has to fuel innovation and the growing investment in the area. It is now time for enterprises that are already seeing the benefits of open source to lead the way by embracing the open source community to drive the technology to its full potential. 

Heikki Nousiainen is CTO and co-founder of Aiven