Open source: facing a skills shortage [NEW TITLE]
Open source software has emerged as one of the most important IT movements in recent times. According to a study carried out in 2006 by analysts IDC, ‘Open source is the most significant all-encompassing and long-term trend that the software industry has seen since the early 1980s’, and it is gaining momentum. Evidence of this can be seen in all sectors in the UK, but a severe shortage of skills in this area could limit its future. This document looks at the growth of open source in the UK, and considers the possible effects of a skills shortage on the long-term success of open source, and how the problem might be addressed.
Open source in the public sector
In the European Union, the use of open source has for many years been seen as an appropriate means of providing maximum economic value, and a survey conducted by Maastricht University in 2005 concluded that nearly 80% of European local governments were using it, consciously or unconsciously. Today, governments across Europe are still actively encouraging, or even requiring, future IT projects to consider open source as an option.
The UK government, reflecting this trend, defined a policy in 2004 that aimed to deliver value for money by ensuring that procurement in the public sector considers open source alongside closed source, and that software resulting from publicly funded research is sustained through commercialisation and/or open source licensing. This policy was re-iterated in 2009, in the Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use: Government Action Plan, in which Action 1 is '[to] develop clear and open guidance for ensuring that open source and propietary products are considered equally'. The document also states that, 'Where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility.'
Open source in the commercial sector
The for-profit sector is adopting open source even more readily than the public sector. For example, a survey of nearly 1000 IT staff in the UK, Germany, France and North America, commissioned in 2008 by internet applications supplier Actuate, revealed that 54 per cent of UK businesses responding to the survey felt that the benefits of open source outweighed any negative aspects, a significant increase over 45 per cent in 2007. This upward trend appears to be based on actual experience, rather than on expectations, with 43 per cent of responding businesses in the UK already using open source. A similar trend was identified by the aforementioned IDC study, which found that of the 5000 survey respondents, 71 per cent of developers are using open source software, and it is in production at 54 per cent of their organisations.
This growth seems set to continue. IT research firm Gartner recently predicted, ‘By 2012, 80 per cent of all commercial software will include elements of open-source technology', and quickly revised this figure to 90 per cent, stating that open source technologies ‘provide significant opportunities for vendors and users to lower their total cost of ownership and increase returns on investment. ... Embedded open source strategies will become the minimal level of investment that most large software vendors will find necessary to maintain competitive advantage during the next five years.' IDC, apparently bearing this out, believes that open source will eventually play a role in the life-cycle of every major software category - that is, open source will be an important part of the development of software and, as a result, will have a direct influence on the cost of software development. This will result in a reduced total cost of ownership, for the customer, of all software, regardless of the licence model used. Even Microsoft, historically one of the most vocal opponents of the open source movement, has been using open source components since Windows 2000. Today, open-source-related announcements come from Microsoft on a regular basis, and the company has recently been engaging directly with a variety of open source development projects. In addition, it has had two open source licences approved by the Open Source Initiative and now hosts and releases software under those licences.
Another of Gartner’s top predictions in 2008 was that ‘By 2012, at least one-third of business application software spending will be as a service subscription instead of as a product licence.’ The service subscription model is one of the most commonly found open source business models: for example, the revenue of the Linux and middleware company Red Hat comes entirely from service subscriptions, training and other services.
Open source in education
The adoption of open source software in the education sector has been similar to that in the public sector, and is also on the increase. A national survey of all 615 further education (FE) and higher education (HE) institutions comprising the UK's non-compulsory education sector, conducted by OSS Watch in 2006 and repeated in March 2008, found, for example, that in 2006 only a quarter of institutions mentioned open source explicitly in their policies, while over half did in 2008.
However, a look at the current landscape of software actually installed on servers and desktops in FE and HE reveals that most of it is still closed source. But this will change, as an increasing number of institutions plan a move to open source: for desktops, some 10% of all institutions will stop using solely closed source, and a similar number will consider using open and closed source on equal terms. For servers, around 15% of FE institutions will do something similar, while the change in HE will be smaller.
One particularly successful, and encouraging, exception to this pattern of limited uptake in education can be found in the adoption of virtual learning environments, where the open source application Moodle is in use in the majority of institutions.
We have seen that the use of open source in the UK is growing in every sector. But all is not well in this increasingly open future: in research conducted for Actuate, six in every ten respondents mentioned ‘serious problems finding the right IT skills to implement and manage open source solutions’. This research is borne out by the OSS Watch survey mentioned earlier, which found that a lack of staff expertise was the main reason for not adopting open source on the server, and the secondary reason for not adopting open source on the desktop. As more open source is adopted across all sectors, this skills shortage will become more acute, since there are currently very few educational or training organisations offering courses that focus on open source, open standards and open development.
This lack of skills does not reflect a lack of user skills, since users need to learn to use any new system, regardless of the software's licensing and development model. Instead, it reflects a lack of skills on the part of IT staff, IT managers and procurement officers - a basic lack of understanding about how open source is developed, marketed, sold, licensed and supported, and of the benefits of engaging with open source projects. The result is that open source solutions are often not considered during procurement exercises, and when they are, their evaluation is flawed: open source and closed source solutions cannot be effectively compared using existing techniques and skills. While the software products themselves can be compared on a feature-by-feature basis, the 'softer' aspects, such as quality of support, security, flexibility and sustainability of the solution cannot easily be compared like for like.
The reason for this lack of skills is simple: very few courses in the use of open source are available, and the people who do understand open source licensing, development and deployment are able to command higher than average salaries in the for-profit sector and are therefore not drawn to the education sector; consequently, there is a shortage of teachers and trainers to equip new graduates and existing staff with the open-source-related skills required by employers and vital for the ongoing development of open source.
How do we tackle the problem? Two important, interrelated courses of action are needed to ensure the long-term success of open source: not only do we need to increase the level of available skills through education and training and the inclusion of open source issues in computer science, software engineering and business management courses, but we also need to change the procurement process itself. Simon Phipps of Sun Microsystems suggests one potential model for a level procurement playing field through adoption-led approaches, and warns about how the existing process can be abused.
OSS Watch has been addressing these needs in the education sector for some time and, while we have had considerable success in some areas, the statistics show that we are only just beginning to see the fruits of our labours.
The use of open source is undeniably on the increase in all sectors: it is seen by the public and education sectors as a way of providing better value for money in public spending, by the for-profit sector as a way of cutting costs in product development, and by the software development sector as a way of better serving its customers. However, this growth cannot be sustained without a fundamental change in the procurement process and an increase in the skills necessary for implementing, managing and engaging with open source projects. Without these skills, most policies and action plans will fall on fallow ground, or worse still, open source will be rolled out in a cultural environment that is not conducive to the success of the project as a whole. To get the most from any engagement with open source, it is essential to understand the whole model from beginning to end, so that a complete and thorough evaluation of the options presented by open source can be undertaken. Open source is much more than a licensing model, and failure to understand this will result, at best, in a sub-optimal open source experience.