Tech That’s Open, Fair, and Inclusive for the IoT
Open source fosters rapid innovation and supports collaborative efforts in
digital transformation and beyond.
Open, as an adjective, means to allow access or passage. Something that’s open is not closed; it’s exposed, unlocked. There’s often a positive connotation with the word open—whether someone’s waiting with open arms, an establishment is open for business, or a business leader is open to suggestions, open sounds inviting and encouraging, probably because it generally is. Open-source software similarly invites users to freely view, change, and even distribute the source code to further their own ideas and projects. Open-source projects may even be developed collaboratively from the get-go, so it effectively “belongs” to the public community that helped create it.
Kyle Mandli, assistant professor at New York City’s Columbia University, says, in theory, open source can lead to better software and better interconnectedness of technologies. “The central ethos to FOSS (free and open source software) includes, in my view, four primary principles: open exchange of ideas, broad and diverse participation, meritocracy (although this is always imperfect), and community,” Mandli says. “These all really work in concert, but the power of having broad participation and, therefore, ideas, along with an open community to support them is really the primary strength of FOSS approaches.”
In 2018, some high-profile acquisitions of OSS (open-source software) businesses suggested more companies are looking at open source as a growth strategy. For instance, Salesforce acquired MuleSoft, Adobe acquired Magento Commerce Cloud, IBM acquired Red Hat, and Microsoft acquired GitHub, an open-source development platform that boasts more than 30 million developers. The presence of tech giants isn’t new to open source. Cloud players like Google and Amazon have long championed open source, but how will the space adjust now that IBM and Microsoft are more heavily involved, and how is open source shaping the IoT (Internet of Things)?
“The central ethos to FOSS (free and open source software) includes, in my view, four primary principles: open exchange of ideas, broad and diverse participation, meritocracy (although this is always imperfect), and community.”
-Kyle Mandli, Columbia University
At its best, open source reflects broader trends of openness and visibility in society at large. Entire organizations (e.g., the Open Source Lab in Berlin, Germany) are built on open source and focus on fostering interdisciplinary research and collaboration and, importantly, making a positive impact on society. What’s more, the use of open source in new scientific projects could produce huge advantages for humankind. Key to the future of open source, however, will be sticking to several of Mandli’s principles for preserving the open ethos—though meritocracy is, admittedly, a controversial one.
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Open Source and the IoT
Ken Johnson, senior director of product management at open-source cloud software provider Red Hat, says a group of developers sharing code, ideas, best practices, and creative solutions can generate more innovative and effective software more quickly than any number of individuals working in isolation. In the context of the IoT, open-source software is developed so various components fit and integrate together, for example, by adhering to or creating standards and by documenting APIs (application programming interfaces) so they are well understood and easily used. “The integration-ready and standards-based approaches are especially important to (the) IoT, which relies on the ability to connect a multitude of devices and data streams into various enterprise applications and back-end data platforms,” Johnson adds.
Open-source community projects have been at the center of innovation for years, and Johnson says enterprise vendors realize this and are adapting (or have already adapted) their strategies accordingly. “Open source has been the foundation of the Amazon and Google cloud technology from the outset,” explains Johnson. “IBM has a long tradition of supporting open-source software—think of the Eclipse IDE (integrated development environment) and the many contributions it has made to Linux over the years. Microsoft’s joining the open-source movement is a significant shift, however, and signals its goal to serve enterprise computing needs beyond what is currently served by Microsoft Windows. By integrating open-source offerings into Azure, customers have more choice and can select technologies that are best suited to run the applications an organization needs.”
Johnson says an IoT deployment takes a village, and the open-source approach is the best way to bring that village together. “IoT open-source communities consist of dozens of projects that address particular aspects of IoT deployments, but development occurs in public view of thousands of collaborators that strive for interoperability,” he explains. “They bring together the whole range of technical expertise required by an IoT deployment: connectivity, networking, security, data integration, enterprise application integration, etc. The ready availability of component parts allows system integrators, solution builders, commercial vendors, and end users to prototype and evaluate new IoT solution ideas without having to start in a paid vendor relationship.”
Johnson says an IoT deployment takes a village, and the open-source approach is the best way to bring that village together. “IoT open-source communities consist of dozens of projects that address particular aspects of IoT deployments, but development occurs in public view of thousands of collaborators that strive for interoperability,” he explains.
Source: Synergy Research Group
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“They bring together the whole range of technical expertise required by an IoT deployment: connectivity, networking, security, data integration, enterprise application integration, etc. The ready availability of component parts allows system integrators, solution builders, commercial vendors, and end users to prototype and evaluate new IoT solution ideas without having to start in a paid vendor relationship.”
Open source relieves many of the pressures companies face when they rely exclusively on proprietary technology, Johnson says, and this is true whether they acquire the technology or develop it in-house. As a result, more companies are using open-source code and engineering in open-source communities, leading to an unprecedented level of innovation in open-source community projects.
In the academic realm, too, many are championing the benefits of open source. Alan Rea, professor of business information systems at Western Michigan University, says at the heart of open source is a developer’s desire for his or her code to be seen, critiqued, and improved. Services like GitHub have helped immensely to bring this collaborative approach to the forefront. “The open approach to development can play a large role in making a product or service better,” Rea says.
“Perhaps a company wants to create software to enable internal business processes. Taking an open-source approach to developing it would allow for developers and those closest to the process (to) contribute ideas as well as code, rather than a few developers making decisions that need to be backtracked later because they do not solve the particular challenge.”
“The integration-ready and standards-based approaches are especially important to (the) IoT, which relies on the ability to connect a multitude of devices and data streams into various enterprise applications and back-end data platforms.”
-Ken Johnson, Red Hat
Rea says IBM’s acquisition of Red Hat signals a major commitment to OpenShift and its associated open-source offerings. Similarly, he says Microsoft also realizes that developers need access to Linux services, and by offering various Linux flavors in their Windows Subsystem for Linux, the company has been able to attract more developers from Linux and macOS back to Windows. In the IoT realm, Rea suggests the most immediate impact is the influx of new hardware and software ideas within the Raspberry Pi and similar communities. “By making (it) easy to access open-source offerings, everyone can learn from one another,” Rea explains. “People who might never have thought of themselves as developers quickly see that with the right tool sets, it’s not as challenging as one might think to create some interesting IoT projects. This translates into more people getting involved and growing from there.”
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A Community for the Betterment of Community
Open source is also making an impact in the AI (artificial intelligence) space. Organizations like OpenAI are dedicated to building free and open software tools for training and experimenting with AI and accelerating AI research. Open-source technologies such as Keras, a deep-learning library, the Microsoft Cognitive Toolkit, an open-source framework, and TensorFlow, a machine-learning framework, among others, help developers bring their AI projects to the next level.
Sometimes, open and collaborative projects aim to benefit society as a whole. Late last year, NYU (New York University) School of Medicine’s Dept. of Radiology, in partnership with Facebook AI Research, announced it’s releasing the first large-scale MRI dataset of its kind. The release is part of fastMRI, a collaborative research effort dedicated to sharing open-source tools and investigating the use of AI to speed MRI scans up 10-fold. The initial dataset release includes more than 1.5 million anonymous MR (magnetic resonance) images of the knee and raw measurement data from almost 1,600 scans.
Yvonne Lui, MD, associate chair for AI and associate professor of radiology at NYU School of Medicine, says the dataset consists of a combination of raw imaging data and DICOM (digital imaging and communications in medicine) format data. “It contains deidentified data and uses vendor-neutral formats for the images, making it generalizable,” Lui says. “The dataset is designed to be of specific use in advancing MR image reconstruction, though perhaps there are other use cases as well.”
NYU hopes the collaboration will promote research reproducibility, provide consistent evaluation methods, and empower other AI and medical imaging scientists. “Open source lends itself to rapid innovation,” Lui adds. “It invites contributors from all over the scientific landscape to join in and really makes it a collaborative effort. Too many scientific projects are attempted in silos.”
By contrast, the fastMRI project combines the strengths of academia and industry while also leveraging complementary expertise in imaging and data sciences. “Making our tools open source is a model we hope many others will also embrace with increasing frequency as we move forward in scientific inquiry in general,” Lui says. “We invite cross-discipline contributions and sharing of information with the ultimate goal of making real advances in medical imaging and improving the lives of patients everywhere.”
As more cloud companies move more intentionally into open source, Lui says it will benefit the scientific community. “The fact that we have the infrastructure capabilities afforded to us by cloud companies like Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon sets us up for a major paradigm shift in how things have traditionally been done in the scientific community. Previously, it was a lot more difficult to easily share data and tools,” she explains.
Open source is, essentially, a way for a community to work toward improving the community. Joshua Peschel, assistant professor of Agricultural and Biosystems engineering, Iowa State University, is also leading an open-source initiative for precision livestock farming in an effort to bring a larger ecosystem together to help improve overall costs, reduce waste, and hopefully improve the health of the animals.
There are other open-source programs underway in many verticals market like construction and manufacturing in the hopes of bringing software tools more open and interoperable.
Red Hat’s Johnson says an important consideration for the future of open source is continued collaboration and involvement. “Community projects are not just for the taking,” he warns. “Vendors must contribute ideas, time, (and) code to nurture and drive the communities and not exploit them. Many companies understand this, but it something to always keep in mind.”
Western Michigan University’s Rea makes a similar case. “As much as open source welcomes developers, there is another current in the development community (not always open source) that is harsh to people asking questions,” he says. “There tends to be a great deal of shaming as well, which, over time, has stopped new users from being more involved. This particularly applies to females.” However, Rea says this reality is changing and points to Linux’s recently updated code of conduct, as well as the revised ACM (Assn. for Computing Machinery) Code of Ethics, which will both help move the computing realm to a more welcoming place for all.
The benefit of creating tech that is open and inclusive will be huge, especially as society moves into an era driven by AI and autonomy. Rea says: “If everyone can see the code, then we have a much more transparent approach to items. We learn there are algorithmic biases, so we can work to minimize these as much as possible. This is becoming extremely important as artificial intelligence is making massive moves into decision processes—from loan approvals to driving cars down the road.”
Looking forward, NYU’s Lui says while there is sure to be some resistance to change, this doesn’t mean things won’t slowly move in the direction of open source. “As scientists see successful projects utilizing the open-source paradigm, more will follow suit. We hope that we can serve as a useful example to show how it can be done,” she says. “To be honest, it’s hard to imagine what wouldn’t be a positive about making technology or society at large more open, fair, and inclusive.”