11 March 2004

South Africa: Living the Open Source Community Lifestyle


Johannesburg — The broad-scale promotion of open source software and open standards within the South African public sector as well as in education and business, will have a profound impact on the way software systems are specified, designed and implemented.

Inus Gouws, a senior information management (IM) consultant at Computer Associates (Africa), looks at the skills, disciplines and training necessary to function productively in this environment.

Open source software has the potential to empower people in ways that proprietary software simply does not allow. This was highlighted in a discussion paper published earlier this year (2003) by the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) an advisory body appointed by the minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology.

The paper, entitled "Open Software and Open Standards in South Africa", recommends the broad-scale promotion of open standards and open software within the public sector. It also promotes its use in education and business.

Open source software, such as Linux, Unix, Java and, to a lesser extent, desktop environments such as KDE, are examples of what have been achieved by the open software movement.

This movement has its roots in the Object Modelling Group (OMG) of some years ago which promoted the notion that all software code should be open, free and readily available and accessible by anyone in the open community who could make good use of it.

Open mindset

Open source software designers are generally well versed in conventionally programming languages, such as C, C++, Fortran and Java tools. But what sets them apart is not their knowledge or exceptional skills - but their mindset.

The open community represents a significant paradigm shift from the proprietary, commercially-oriented world in which source code is closely guarded and every upgrade, patch or enhancement carries a hefty price tag.

It is the big business benefits of this "openness" that is attracting worldwide attention - for a variety of reasons.

Skills development

NACI believes open source software will give South African software technicians opportunities to develop local programming skills. It anticipates that this could eventually pave the way for SA to become a world software-developing nation - such as India or Ireland.

NACI says the trade-off between the proprietary and open approaches to software amounts to choosing between relying on foreign skills and developing local skills.

Moves to maturity

The maturity of the open source community is being encouraged by such issues as confusion in the "proprietary" world surrounding software patents, which threaten software developments, and the limited lifespan of programs marketed with commercial self-interests to the fore.

No longer a bunch of amateur enthusiasts (although the enthusiasm is evident in the community), open source developers are now getting to grips with weighty and serious challenges.

These include the structuring of the open source environment and the standardisation of its methodologies. Once these targets are met, it will be significantly easier for open source developers to create more powerful business systems faster and more efficiently.

Computer Associates (CA) is currently helping our customers to create a Web-based global best practices library (GBPL) which will assist developers who are designing solutions for specific applications - data warehousing, e-tailing, production management, and a host of others - to access program templates.

To these customers who implemented the GBPL, these templates are available to their enterprise and will save time in the planning, designing, construction, testing, management and deployment phases of a new business solutions.

The objective of this initiative is to encourage the open source community to adopt the "three keys" to maturity:

a. Standardisation

b. Training and skills transfer

c. Execution expertise

In this way, open source solutions will become more refined over time and developers will be encouraged to take pride in their work in the belief that it represents a "philosophy that ends in a strategy".

Full glare of criticism

This philosophy precludes the generation of less than optimal code, illegal characters, cryptic notes, "loops" and other "surprises", all of which are present to a lesser or greater extent in proprietary systems.

Because of the transparency that exists in the open source community, under-par software will be subject to the full glare of peer criticism. On the other hand, masterful creations will be widely applauded by an appreciative audience.

Many see this as "vulnerability to criticism" as having an important advantage: It will significantly improve the lifespan of open software.

Producers of proprietary software have no interest in maintaining older versions. Because open software by definition includes access to source code, old versions can be maintained and enhanced by anyone in the community.

Building bridges

Today, there are many recommendations on the table from the proponents of open systems. These include making open standards a non-negotiable base for ICT in the public sector; encouraging government agencies and public institutions to use open source software; and allowing open software to compete on a level playing field with proprietary alternatives in government software procurement.

Government is being urged to promote the documentation, translation and localisation of software; establish an open software development initiative; and promote education and training on open software products.

These lofty ideals and ambitious goals have already born fruit in the form of SA's own new Unix variant called Impi, which, according to its creators, will provide an integrated, multilingual, professional and innovative open source solution to the local market. What's next?

Inus Gouws is a Consultant for Computer Associates Africa

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