Welcome to the open source renaissance

In the span of just a few years, open source has produced businesses that are incredibly attractive to the investment community. In 2012, open source venture investment jumped 80 percent over the prior year with $553 million invested, compared to $307 million in 2011. VCs have flocked to darlings like MongoDB, Open Stack, Cloudera, Puppet Labs and Hortonworks because these companies are solving incredibly difficult challenges in the cloud and big data arena faster than any proprietary software vendor could.
So why the big increase in interest now? Open source software has been around for years, in many cases implemented on the fringes by developers who prefer the freedom and flexibility of contributing to the evolution of the platforms with which they choose to work. There were even early glimmers of promise; for example, Linux proved to be a fast, effective server platform for many businesses before it grew to be one of the largest open source communities and the third-largest web client operating system in the world.
But today, open source has crossed over from a niche techie outlier to a driving force for businesses.
A few major factors have made open source more appealing to the business community and driven an open source renaissance:
Innovation and collaboration: Open source technology empowers developers to contribute to projects based on their interests, attracting top talent from all corners of the globe. These international contributions make open source technologies and platforms develop and debug faster, increasing the pace of innovation far faster than proprietary counterparts. Furthermore, developers now are more empowered to make technology purchases within their companies, which means that open source is brought to the decision table on a more regular basis.
Agility and time to market: The traditional roadmap approach has historically forced an organization to move at the lethargic pace decided by a vendor rather than at the speed and on the path uniquely required by that organization. Technological agility is enabled in a variety of ways with open source capabilities and, perhaps most importantly, helps organizations eliminate the proprietary vendor’s “roadmap.”
Overcoming the security hurdle: The big question around open source software continues to be: “Is it secure?” Over time, open source software projects have proven more secure than their proprietary counterparts because of the sheer number of developers constantly updating software worldwide. Think of it as a 24/7 security monitoring capability no single company would be able to sustain. Once businesses began to recognize security as a differentiator for open source rather than a challenge, it introduced a radical change in acceptance levels within the corporate world.
The digital revolution and resulting influx of big data: Perhaps the largest driver in the open source renaissance is the single market force that changed the way nearly every company — on a global scale — does business. Digital is disrupting nearly every facet of business, and this, paired with the rise of Internet-connected-nearly-everything, has brought about a massive influx of information. Open source has become the only way to cope with the nearly infinite data points, preferences and inputs that come from each technology user. Big data, personalization, and unprecedented interconnectedness leave open source as the best potential technology to manage and operate within the era of digital revolution.

Disrupting old business models: digital revolution style

As the digital revolution marches on, traditional ways of doing business are getting completely turned upside down. A recent survey from Black Duck and North Bridge Venture Partners showed executives are becoming more willing to work with open source communities to influence projects, which in many cases takes a leadership role to drive change from the inside out. In fact, 61 percent of respondents said they see this type of open source innovation as leading the technology industry forward.
This, in many cases, has already begun happening in the big data world. For example, companies like Jaspersoft have made open business intelligence — or the quest for analyzing and interpreting unlimited inputs — an easy-to-execute reality for businesses. MongoDB (the company behind the popular NoSQL database of the same name) is building the infrastructure necessary to not only scale operations, but also keep pace with constantly changing data needs, regardless of where this data may be housed.
And we can’t think about big data without thinking of Apache Hadoop. Named after the stuffed animal of the creator’s son, the Hadoop framework allows for the distributed processing of large data sets across clusters of computers. Hadoop is designed to scale up from single servers to thousands of machines, providing the computing power to handle data in enormous volumes. There are new Hadoop-based growth companies like Cloudera, Hortonworks, and MapR, as well.
The motivations for a mass-market shift to open source are many, but at its core, every business decision boils down to agility. And the power of open source is limitless when organizations tap into the commitment and collaboration of executive teams and developers around the world. While the challenge of keeping up with fast-paced markets will never go away, open source technology will close the gap — making businesses better, faster and smarter than they’d ever imagined.
Tom Erickson is CEO of Acquia. Follow him on Twitter: @tom_eric.
This post was corrected on April 15, 2014, to reflect that Hadoop the elephant belonged to Hadoop creator Doug Cutting’s son, not his daughter.