Open Source: Billions Upon Billions Of Free

Just how much is all that free stuff worth?

That’s the task the Linux Foundation set itself, releasing a new report that claims that the code it stewards is worth more than $5 billion. With projects ranging from Linux to Cloud Foundry to Xen, it’s as impressive as it is plausible.

If the Linux Foundation projects add up to $5 billion, how much more would Apache Software Foundation projects—including Hadoop, Spark, Cassandra, and more—be worth? 

See also: Big Data Depends On Big Community, Not Big Money

My guess? Even more.

Of course, the real value of software is not how much it would cost to replicate, but how much it transforms one’s business. We talk about how software is eating the world. But that hostile metaphor isn’t the right one for open-source software. It isn’t consuming the world, leaving a void in its place. It’s adding to the world, one line of code at a time.

It Costs A Bundle To Make Free Stuff

Estimating the financial value of code is tricky, with no perfect way of going about it. Still, the Linux Foundation’s approach—count up the total lines of code, estimate how long it would take an average developer to write that code, and then approximate the value of her time to do so—is a reasonable one. 

Using this approach, established by David Wheeler back in 2002, the report tallies up the following numbers:

  • The total lines of source code present today in Linux Foundation’s projects are 115,013,302
  • The estimated, total amount of effort required to retrace the steps of collaborative development for these projects is 41,192.25 person years
  • Put another way, it would take 1,356 developers 30 years to recreate the code bases present in Linux Foundation’s current projects. 
  • The total economic value of this work is estimated to be more than $5 billion.

Despite the Linux Foundation’s confusing name, the software the nonprofit oversees is much more than the popular Linux operting system. Current Linux Foundation Collaborative Projects include the AllSeen Alliance (Internet of Things), Cloud Foundry, Cloud Native Computing, Node.js Foundation, Open Container Project, R Consortium, and Xen Project, among many others. 

Does Apache Have Linux Beat?

But if we want to start counting up projects, committers, and code, the Apache Software Foundation might actually have the Linux Foundation beat. With more than 300 projectsscads of developers writing oodles and oodles of code; and projects like OpenOffice, Hadoop, and more, Apache is a treasure trove of free and amazingly good code.

As for the volume of code, that’s hard to pinpoint, since (so far as I can find), the ASF doesn’t publish aggregate numbers. 

The Linux Foundation’s flagship Linux project has more than 20 million lines of code, while the Apache Software Foundation’s Apache HTTP Server has only 1.7 million lines. Still, numerous code-heavy projects at the Apache Software Foundation would seem to favor it.

Not that it really matters. 

The Freedom Not To Care

After all, when an organization determines to transform itself by embracing a new generation of data infrastructure like Apache Spark or Apache Storm, it really doesn’t care how many lines of code are involved.

Ditto the business that determines to run Cloud Foundry on Linux, or the individual who chooses Android for her smartphone platform, or CERN uncovering the “God Particle” using MongoDB.

In no case is the person or organization in question thinking a millisecond about how much it would have cost to replicate the open-source software they’re using. Instead they’re just choosing the best software for a particular job. That software, increasingly, is open source.

Years ago, Peter Goldmacher, then a Wall Street analyst, separated three categories of winners in the Big Data gold rush. The biggest winners, he reasoned, would be those that harnessed data to create entirely new industries or business models: “[T]he dividing line between winners and losers in the business world over the next decade will hinge on a company’s ability to leverage data as an asset.”

And given that all of the industry’s top data technologies are open source, what Goldmacher was essentially arguing is that the biggest winners over the next decade will be those that learn to leverage open source software as an asset.

Not because it’s free, but rather because it’s awesome.

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