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Enterprises have a new open source business model: Inner source

The open source model has been so effective that some organizations are making it their own -- literally. Here's how inner source is changing enterprise software development.

BOSTON -- At the Red Hat Summit 2017, it was clear the open source business model is gaining ground, but in some unusual ways.

The premise of open source -- software code that's publicly shared for anyone to use -- has been so successful that companies are now making it their own, but with a twist, said Steve O'Keefe, product line director for mobile at Red Hat Inc., based in Raleigh, N.C. Widely known as "inner source," this copies the open source business model entirely, but only within the walls of the enterprise.

Every company wants faster and better software development, but many miss that the answer is right in front of them, said Andrew Aitken, general manager and global open source practice leader at Wipro Ltd., an IT systems integrator and consultancy based in India. "The idea is to give every developer access to every software repository in the company," he explained.

This internal open source business model, inner source, gives an instant jump-start to new software projects because it's likely at least some parts of the code have already been written by someone else, and it's just a matter of finding it and fitting it in.

"In many companies, developers don't even know where other dev repos are stored, and they're certainly not in the habit of searching them," Aitken said. "But when we explain it to them, they get it. And the only trick is to make sure it becomes a habit."

When it's successful, companies are releasing better software more quickly, he said. And just like the real-world open source business model, inner source relies on collaboration and communication, and Aitken stressed the need for developers to have access to as many tools as possible to make that happen, including Slack, Jira and Google Hangouts.

And inner source can help bridge the Agile-DevOps gap. "It brings the best pieces of the open source development model and blends it with Agile," Aitken said. "We want developer teams to begin to feel ownership of the process. In many instances, they feel like implementers only. But it really boils down to having the right tooling to make it happen."

Of course, it's also key to have the right people. But at a time when software developers remain in very short supply worldwide, that can be hard to do. The IT group of the province of British Columbia took a different spin on the open source business model -- this time to find external developers to work on problem projects.

For the last six months, Todd Wilson, director and DevOps product manager at BC Public Service in British Columbia, has been issuing "micro-procurements" on GitHub, asking for developers to fix problem code. The province puts a bounty on each piece of code -- between $1,000 and $10,000. And if a fix is accepted, the developer is paid any way he or she prefers, through PayPal, a check or another method, Wilson explained.

To date, about 25 developers are working with the province in this manner. And if the government organization could speed up its screening process of potential outsourced developers, Wilson said he would love to see the number increase. "We have no interest in hiring more people," he said. "We really see this as another way of creating community." A bit like crowdsourced testing for the developer crowd, this is another unique spin on the open source business model concept. "With inner source, we are doing tons of reusing now in ways we never thought possible."

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