Article for CLW's 24 November 2009 forum

This article was presented at our 24 November 2009 forum on the subject of open source and cloud computing. The purpose of the forum was to introduce members of the audience, most of whom were from architectural, engineering or other design companies, to the concepts behind and some of the details of these two subjects.

Our articles are often related to subjects discussed in our forum events.


There are two forces in the world of technology that are rapidly changing the face of computing. One is open-source software and the other is cloud computing, which is in many ways based on the open-source revolution.

Open-source software has become particularly newsworthy in recent years because of the adoption by large companies such as Cisco and IBM of the Linux operating system. The Linux kernel, which is at the centre of the operating system, was begun as a hobby by the Finnish developer Linux Torvalds in 1991. It is fascinating to consider how a project, conceived by a very young computer science student 18 years ago, has grown exponentially to a point where it can boast the involvement of over 5,000 individuals representing over 500 companies in the last 4 years alone. View source.

You may scoff at the idea that this loose agglomeration of people can provide a sufficiently high-quality operating system for your company. But, without our even knowing it, our businesses, homes and even our cars and many appliances in daily use depend on Linux and/or open-source software already. The routers that control your office network, the virtualisation technology that consolidates your servers, your NetApp filers, Axomic image management system, the majority of the world's web servers, Goldman Sachs's financial trading system, your BMW and possibly your toaster all depend on Linux or other open-source software components to operate. As does Google.

Why? What makes Linux, for example, good enough to challenge some of the best proprietary systems? And, if it is really good stuff, how can our offices use it and benefit from it?

The answers to these questions are fairly complex. However I think that there are three particularly interesting aspects of open source for design companies: its model of collaborative innovation; open-source software acting as infrastructure; and the rise of software and operating systems that are being sold as services rather than off-the-shelf black boxes.

1. Collaboration

The internet assists people who have the interest and expertise to collaborate on an open-source software project. The open-source world has evolved highly-developed social norms and technology for dealing with contributions, and for recognising seniority in the virtual communities that spring up around projects. In Eric Raymond's famous text "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", he describes traditional software development as occurring within a formalised "Cathedral", while he contends that the loose collaboration model offered by the "Bazaar" can produce superior results.

Several factors play a part in the Bazaar model of development. One is that many people review code, and can send patches or improvements back to the project maintainer, because the code of an open source project is available to all. Consequently developers tend to release software early and often, sometimes with known bugs, to allow others working on the project to assist with fixes. By means of this arrangement, open-source projects can progress rapidly, and sustain extraordinary levels of innovation and change. Recently, for instance, an enormous 10,923 lines of code have been added the Linux kernel, 5,547 lines removed, and 2,243 lines altered every day, including weekends and holidays! These changes represent merely a fraction of many submitted that fail to meet the requirements of the patch management team. View source.

Another critical aspect of open-source is its licensing schemes, dominated by the GPL (General Public Licence). This is the brainchild of Richard Stallman, a guru for open-source idealists, whose stature is perhaps comparable to that of Le Corbusier in architecture. The effect of the GPL, also called the "copy left" licence, is that any firm can use GPL software, or use its source code or "blueprints", to modify the programme to meet its particular needs. However, it is a condition of the licence that those changes are then released to the community for everyone's use. Learn about the GPL.

The combination of wide-reaching, expert and rapid review, together with a licence that typically ensures that improvements are shared, helps ensure that in many cases open source can provide a compelling alternative to its proprietary counterparts. Through this process a lot of interesting software is simply becoming infrastructure -- software that is shared by all to help make other, even more exciting, products and services.

There are straightforward potential benefits to moving to Open Source. For instance, if the whole AEC sector transferred to Open Office, an office suite much like Microsoft Office, the industry would not only benefit from open standards and future-proofed non-proprietary documentation formats, but it could save millions of pounds in the UK alone.

2. Open-source as infrastructure

Open-source has become the de facto standard in many computing environments, prompting The Economist to declare recently that "Open-Source has Won the Argument". This status has been achieved because many open-source products are ubiquitous, fairly easy to modify if required, and good enough (or better than the alternatives) for most purposes. Why would you use a web server other than Apache unless you have a specialist need to do something different?

An area in which Linux has become particularly prevalent is virtualisation. Linux and open-source technologies are behind much of the virtualisation tech that VMWare, KVM or Xen use to allow offices such as yours and mine to consolidate several "real" physical servers into "virtualised" servers running on far fewer pieces of hardware, which helps reduce capital expenditure and running costs.

This ability to run many virtual servers on a single machine, and the concomitant ability to scale or move virtual machines, has given rise to Cloud Computing, where providers allow virtual servers to be hired on demand. Nicholas Carr, in his book "The Big Switch", calls the inevitable move of internal company server rooms to the the Cloud a paradigm shift that in many ways mirrors what occurred in America in the early 1900s, when Edison's and then Insull's centralised power stations rapidly took over power generation from individual plants attached to factories and utilities. Servers and services are likely to ship to the Cloud for many of the same reasons that industrialists moved to Insull's power utility in Chicago -- improved reliability and scalability, and greatly reduced cost. It may be the case that, if you can find a high-enough speed Ethernet link to "The Cloud", your present capital investment in servers has met its apogee. In future your office will be tying up less capital in kit, spending less time maintaining servers, and providing less space, power and cooling to run servers that -- in most server rooms at least -- typically run at only 30% utilisation.

Open-source has led the move to computing as a utility, as infrastructure.

3. Software and operating systems as a service

A third major aspect of the open-source revolution, built on the back of software acting as infrastructure and the commoditisation of on-demand server resources, is that there has been huge growth in the number of companies providing software and operating systems as a service.

The first thing you do, just about, when you install a new proprietary software package from DVD is that you have to click through an EULA -- the End User Licence Agreement. The agreement is the instrument which controls your use of the software and what the software can be used for. Typically the document provides a very long list of things that you can't expect the software to be able to do. Often you will be expected to accept the software "as is and with all faults", and to agree to a comprehensive disclaimer about how it might perform. View reference.

Open-source software doesn't usually come with any warranties either. However, companies have sprung up that will do something better, which is to create robust collections of open-source software to meet your company's needs, and to ensure their effective operation. Red Hat sells this hugely useful aggregation service for the version of the Linux operating system bearing their name. Red Hat's multi-billion dollar market capitalisation is testament to the fact that free, open-source software can make excellent business sense. In a similar vein, application providers are selling applications as a service across the internet.

What you end up buying is a service that works for you, rather than a restrictive licence that may or may not provide the functions you and your business need.


I've touched on 3 aspects of the new world of computing that are of real interest to design companies. The first point is that open-source software is a source not only of what in many cases is low-cost but highly effective software. More than that, it is a model for the co-operative development of innovative products and services. The second point is that open-source is creating the ability to move services to the Cloud, as open-source has encouraged the running of operating systems in a homogeneous environment, turning computing into a utility. Thirdly, open-source has helped to establish a trend to replace boxed software with collections of software and applications that meet specific needs.

However, as I noted in my introduction, I believe that open-source is possibly most interesting to design companies because of its model of collaboration. Why are many design companies ordering their internal IT Operations as if they were trying to recreate the office environments depicted in the 1960s movie "The Apartment", where every desk is set out in a rigid grid, and staff are regarded as automatons? I wonder if today's command-and-control arrangements with locked-down desktops have more to do with insecure operating systems than a lack of belief in the ability of employees to behave responsibly.

Proctor & Gamble aims to source 50% of its new innovation from outside the company before 2010 [Wikinomics, Tapscott and Williams, pg 118], through the sort of collaborative framework familiar to those in the open-source world. If some of the world's largest companies are using the spirit of collaboration and some of the web-based technology of the new era, including wikis and blogs, I believe designers should follow suit.

I strongly believe that if design companies adopt the example of open-source collaboration, they will loosen up their IT Operations processes dramatically, to find ways of including more ad hoc collaborations with colleagues, consultants and experts. This approach offers not just a new way of approaching innovation, but of organising business too.

For more information on the subjects discussed here contact

Rory Campbell-Lange
Campbell-Lange Workshop
or see