What is Open Source Software Development?

Open-source software is available in the public domain for anyone to read, modify, and redistribute. It allows for developers around the world to collaborate on large projects.

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By Manaal Khurram

In computer science classes, we mainly focus on learning how to write good software, but the environment in which software is developed can also have a significant impact on its functionality and usage. Open-source software is software whose source code is available in the public domain for anyone to read, modify, and redistribute. Though the adoption of open-source infrastructure has been growing exponentially in recent years, open-source software development is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the Open Source Initiative even suggests that open-source software has been done since the creation of software itself.

The primary characteristic that distinguishes open from closed-source software is that large projects are usually developed in a more community-driven manner. This is because the users of open-source software can also become its developers by fixing bugs and adding features they think others would benefit from. On the other hand, closed-source software is developed in private with a specific group of developers, all of whom typically belong to a single company. With closed-source software, consumers can’t inspect its inner workings. Traditionally, a large amount of the software developed by large companies has been closed-source, though this seems to be gradually changing.

Oftentimes, this type of collaboration with open-source software takes place using Git, a version control system that allows developers to write code together. Additionally, developers can use a platform like GitHub, an application that facilitates conversations about software projects and can also host codebases. When someone wants to make a change to some open-source code that they are running, they can either change it locally by changing their own version, or they can try to get it changed upstream by changing the “original” version of the software. You can do the latter on a platform like GitHub where you can open a Pull Request. It is called this because you are requesting the maintainers of the codebase to pull some of your code (perhaps a bug fix) into their codebase.

Open-source software with an active developer and user community can be considered more secure than closed-source alternatives for numerous reasons. Because all of the code is public, more people can review that code and find bugs in it. Furthermore, a user who is competent in the related field may discover that the software is performing questionable activities, such as collecting information that is unnecessary for the correct operation of that software. An example of software that might be considered more secure than closed-source alternatives is OpenSSL, which is a widely used general-purpose cryptography toolkit. Systems that make use of cryptography often deal with sensitive information, so it is important for developers who are dependent on this code to be able to review the code which handles this cryptography. The fact that OpenSSL is open-source allows anyone with the right skill set to meaningfully review the code to ensure that it does what is expected.

If the software is open source and free to use, then how can someone get paid to work on developing it? While it is certainly less straightforward than a traditional job, people are able to make a living off open-source development through donations and developer funds. Companies that benefit from open-source projects will also sponsor developers to work on these projects.

There is a certain degree of freedom that comes with being an open-source developer. Namely, the developer gets to decide what aspects of a project they wish to work on. Though they may be sponsored by people or companies, they technically don’t have a supervisor telling them exactly what to work on, unlike a traditional developer job. However, while this might certainly seem like a benefit as they have complete control over how they spend their time, it can be challenging to decide how to spend their time in the most useful way possible.

The development of open-source software isn’t just about the software itself—it is also about the collaborative ethos. Open-source software is powerful because it allows anyone in the world to improve upon someone else’s code and ideas.