As an EU-funded project, open source is one of the key principles of our work. It can also be observed that this principle is gaining more and more traction in the software landscape. Especially in the cloud computing sector, Open-Source software such as Kubernetes, Docker, Linux, Apache, etc. are the basis of most services and applications. In other technical domains, however, the situation is less clear. In the recently published paper “The Role of Open-Source Software in the Energy Sector”, we explored the open source landscape in the energy sector. The full paper can be found on the publisher’s website, but we’d like to summarise the main findings here. This post is about the general characteristics of open-source software, in the second part we will present the analysis we did in that paper.
First up: What is open source software? Open source software is characterised by a licence that allows the source code to be modified and freely redistributed. This sounds like a technical detail, but this liberal approach has some important implications. The most obvious is, of course, that the software is free to use, which can significantly increase the adoption rate and, in the best case, ensure interoperability through open and royalty-free de facto standards.
Successful open source software projects, such as the Linux kernel, are often driven by a large community that can sustain the software beyond market cycles and product lifecycles driven by the commercial interests of vendors, not users. While many open source communities are self-governing, some are supported by non-profit organisations or companies that seek to commercialise open source software. Examples include the Linux Foundation, the Apache Foundation and many others. Despite the royalty-free nature of the software itself, commercialisation of open source software or products based on open source software is still possible. The most common are business models that focus on selling additional value around the core software itself, such as technical support or additional enterprise features.
With this introduction to open source in general, we’d like to discuss the potential specific implications of this model for the energy sector. One major benefit we see is increased interoperability and vendor independence. Take SCADA software as an example. This software is responsible for collecting data from remote sensors, calculating the status of the network from this information, and providing control and operation capabilities. It is obviously a critical part of energy networks. Having proprietary software at the heart of operations implies a high degree of dependency on the vendor of that software. Any adaptation to new technologies has to be in line with that vendor’s business interests, and changing vendors while maintaining operations is very challenging. In an open source environment, either in-house development or third parties can provide new integrations if the original vendor has no business interest or may even be out of business. For example, the Linux Foundation Energy’s SOGNO platform provides such an open platform.
Another point to discuss in the context of energy networks is vulnerability to attack. There is a common belief that the availability of source code makes it easier for attackers to study the system and therefore reduces security. On the other hand, the availability of the code to the public can help, as there are more people who can analyse the code and help find and fix such vulnerabilities. We cite studies in the paper that suggest this is often done more quickly in open source projects.
Finally, there are some risks associated with open source projects: In some cases, the usual open source business models may not generate enough revenue to compete with proprietary software due to a lack of financial resources. Exposure may reveal flaws in the code that reduce the credibility of the research or product. And if community governance is not successful, there is a risk of a so-called fork, which can endanger the project.
It should be stressed, however, that the strict opposition between proprietary and open source software is also a limited view. Many of the accepted open source licensing models are based on the assumption of coexistence with proprietary solutions. This kind of compromise represents a very interesting business model, where open source can bring significant cost reductions even to companies with proprietary solutions. With the right level of cooperation, companies can focus on their unique selling propositions, while open solutions work in the background.
This brief introduction should set the scene for the next blog, in which we will present our analysis of the open source landscape in the energy sector.