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Linux Web Hosting Part 4: Conclusion

In this series, we’re looking at the Linux operating system (OS) as a Web hosting platform. In the series overview, we looked at how Linux was developed and its popularity. We’ve also looked at the scripting languages used on Linux OS distributions, and MySQL database software. In this article, we’re focusing on Linux as part of the open source movement and the future of open source.

When Linus Torvalds published the Linux kernel under the GNU Project’s General Public License in 1991, he provided the basis for the last major component of the GNU Project’s OS. This OS had been intended from the outset to be free to use, modify and distribute, and the inception of the GNU Project in 1983 is widely regarded as having launched the free software movement.

The Open Source Movement

The separation of the open source movement from the free software movement happened in 1998 in response to Netscape’s decision to release the source code for Netscape Navigator, and was backed by Torvalds. The differences between open source and free software are largely a matter of semantics, with the free software movement being more concerned with ideological issues of freedom, whereas the open source movement takes a more practical and pragmatic approach.

One of the main reasons the open source description was adopted was to clear up the confusion between free software, defined by the GNU Project as “a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software” and freeware. The problem was that free software could be commercially distributed, where freeware, although freely distributed, may not be free to “study, change and improve.”

Semantics aside, Linux and other free UNIX-based operating systems form the cornerstone of the open source movement, since developers inclined to create content entitled to copyright protection and make it freely available to the community are naturally drawn to an OS on which they have full access to the source code. For most proponents of either free software or open source software, proprietary software as embodied by Microsoft is the “enemy.”

When both hardware and software were prohibitively expensive for many, the free software movement and open source movement were often seen as a fringe group of developers devoting their spare time to pet projects. However, as hardware and storage prices dropped towards the end of the 20th Century, developer communities grew, and attracted commercial backing from large corporations such as IBM. This move towards an “open development process” by big business was facilitated in large part by the open source movement’s decision to “sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds that had motivated Netscape.”

The Future of Open Source

The results of the 2010 Future of Open Source Survey suggest that open source software has gained considerable market share during the global recession, at least with large enterprises. Perhaps not surprisingly, around 97 percent of respondents felt that a turbulent economy is good for open source, since shrinking budgets mean companies are forced to look for ways to reduce cost of ownership. However, overall investment was down 37 percent to $375 million, which could cause future growth issues unless investment increases as the economy recovers.

There seems to be a widely shared belief that open source has reached, or is about to reach, a “tipping point,” with the economic downturn encouraging both public and private adoption being the main driving points. Barriers to open source reaching critical mass are its unfamiliarity, and the lack of formal commercial vendor support.

The figures seem to support the groundswell, with more than half of the respondents suggesting the choice of OSS had no impact on the complexity of application management, and another quarter believing it made life easier. Compare that to the 12 percent who preferred OSS the year before, and you begin to recognize the dramatic swing of opinion. Even more telling, when asked, “What percentage of software purchases will be on OSS in the next five years?” around 60 percent answered, "Over 50 percent.”In 2008 that figure was around 20 percent, and in 2009 close to 30 percent.

Vendor income is currently mainly from support, services or custom software builds, and more respondents expected these areas to create most value in the future than anything else. However, there is a growing trend towards both Software as a Service (SaaS) and cloud computing many observers expect to affect the open source environment.

In general, though, the mood amongst the open source community is that supported and managed services where the developer communities work in tandem with commercial partners to create both commercial and non-commercial versions of products (much like Redhat Enterprise Linux and Fedora) will be the ones to benefit from the “virtuous cycle of open innovation.”

Read the other articles in this series:

Linux Web Hosting Part 1: Overview
Linux Web Hosting Part 2: Scripting
Linux Web Hosting Part 3: Databases
Linux Web Hosting Part 4: Conclusion