Image representing Open Source Software <span class='text-indigo-600'>for Manufacturing </span>

Understanding Open-Source Software

Over the last few decades, Open-Source Software (OSS) has changed access to software by allowing free use, modification, and distribution. OSS is developed collaboratively by volunteers who release their work under licenses enabling users to freely share and modify the software without any royalties or fees. They can be easily accessed from a code-sharing platform or by asking the author or vendor for a copy. This stands in contrast to proprietary software, which is developed and copyrighted by companies or organizations. Access to proprietary software is typically restricted and only available directly from the vendor under license terms that limit usage rights and often prohibit modification or redistribution by users.

It is estimated that about 90% of the world's software is open source, and is used in a wide variety of applications including operating systems, web browsers, and office suites. OSS is especially popular in scenarios where the software serves as an infrastructure layer component, requiring minimal business logic configuration for implementation. At FlowFuse, the company contributes to the open-source project Node-RED, all contributions to that project are free to be used, modified, and redistributed by anyone.

With the popularity of OSS, numerous vendors have begun utilizing the term "open" to describe their software offerings. However, it is crucial to distinguish between genuine OSS and marketing terms such as "open architecture" or "open ecosystem," as these do not necessarily indicate true open-source status. This distinction is essential to mitigate potential risks associated with non-open-source software.

One of these risks is where the proprietary software is typically created and supported by a single company driven primarily by profit. This centralized approach can narrow the spectrum of expertise involved in its development, potentially limiting its flexibility for various applications. Moreover, the software's lifespan may be influenced by financial factors within the company, exposing it to market pressures. In contrast, OSS benefits from a collaborative community approach that encourages diverse expertise and long-term planning, thereby enhancing its adaptability and sustainability.

There is also a hybrid model between open-source and proprietary software known as "source available" or "open-core". This model allows access to the source code for reading purposes only, without the rights to execute, modify, or redistribute it. The intention behind this model is to monetize certain features and the added value beyond the core open-source software.

At FlowFuse, the platform follows this open-core model. While much of the product is freely available for use, modification, and redistribution, there are specific parts that are accessible for reading only. For additional rights to the code, an agreement must be reached with the company.

In essence, the OSS community empowers users to freely share, modify, and use OSS without financial or legal restrictions. This is often summed up as "free as in beer, free as in speech." Software that doesn't offer these freedoms is not considered open source.

Benefits of Open-Source Software for Manufacturing

While manufacturing companies have traditionally been slow to adopt software solutions, the pace of adoption has accelerated significantly in the past five years. This shift is driven by the increasing digitization of the industrial landscape, with more shop floor hardware being digital native. Additionally, manufacturers now recognize that embracing software is crucial for maintaining a competitive edge.

Manufacturing companies are now faced with a decision regarding their software adoption strategies. Open-source and open-core software, such as that offered by FlowFuse, present compelling advantages that make them an appealing choice.

Firstly, OSS enhances developer efficiency by leveraging a vast library of existing solutions, reducing the need to reinvent the wheel. This allows manufacturing teams to concentrate on solving specific business challenges rather than on repetitive tasks.

Secondly, OSS excels in adaptability. It supports backward compatibility with older machines and is designed for forward compatibility with emerging technologies. This flexibility enables manufacturing companies to seamlessly integrate new technologies and processes, ensuring their software investments remain future-proof.

Here are a few ways OSS improves software agility and the developer experience:

Faster adoption: The most prominent advantage is the speed of adoption. With OSS, engineers can download and execute code in minutes, delivering value to business problems without any hurdles. Organizations adopting OSS typically demonstrate incredible agility in their adoption of different software, allowing them to iterate quickly toward solutions.

As OSS is free to adopt, it removes the upfront costs and risks of adopting software that might not fit the problem. Free software allows wider adoption and experimentation. This leads to a large and diverse user base that can provide valuable feedback and contributions, accelerating development. This extensive use provides a clear understanding of the software's capabilities and limitations, reducing uncertainty when considering implementing software in production systems.

Ecosystem for adaptability:: Open-source software possesses a remarkable capability to foster ecosystems that seamlessly integrate with other systems and software. Node-RED, for instance, has expanded to encompass thousands of connections to devices, software services, and protocols. The transparency of its code enables the community to learn and quickly build upon the success of existing solutions. Moreover, when software is designed for ongoing community extension and adaptation, it creates a flywheel effect that provides a competitive advantage proprietary software cannot replicate.

This ecosystem also serves to future-proof the software. With invested stakeholders contributing to a library of connections, new applications, hardware devices, and systems are likely to be supported soon after their release.

Transparency breeds scrutiny: Due to its transparent nature, OSS benefits from continuous scrutiny by a large community of developers. This collective examination is instrumental in swiftly identifying and addressing security vulnerabilities. According to the "many eyes" principle, the more people examining the code, the higher the probability of detecting and resolving flaws effectively. This transparency also acts as a deterrent to malicious actors, as any attempts to insert backdoors or compromise security would be readily exposed. The availability of source code allows both security professionals and enthusiasts to conduct thorough analysis. This includes not only traditional black-box testing but also meticulous code reviews, which can uncover vulnerabilities that might be missed in closed-source software.

The Linux Foundation, as a prime example, upholds a rigorous security posture through various initiatives. They promote secure coding practices, conduct comprehensive security audits, and facilitate prompt vulnerability disclosure and patching. Their collaborative efforts with a global network of developers and security experts ensure that potential threats are swiftly addressed. The Foundation's commitment to open communication and knowledge sharing further strengthens the overall security of open-source projects under their umbrella.

Better onboarding and internal adoption: OSS often experiences much faster adoption rates compared to proprietary counterparts. This is due to several factors. The primary factor is often the cost, OSS is free to use, eliminating the financial barriers associated with licensing fees for proprietary software. A free product also prevents an engineer adopting software from needing internal approvals based on a budget. The same affordability allows companies to experiment and adopt new technologies without significant upfront investment. Thus, the open nature allows for easy access and distribution, facilitating a faster onboarding process for organizations. The absence of complex procurement cycles and licensing agreements further accelerates the adoption timeline.

The ease of learning and training on OSS contributes significantly to its rapid adoption. The availability of documentation, tutorials, and online resources fosters a supportive learning environment. The vast community of users that many OSS-projects foster creates a space to readily share knowledge and expertise, making it easier for individuals and organizations to upskill and adapt to new technologies. The collaborative nature of these communities also encourages the development of training materials and courses, further enhancing the accessibility and learnability of OSS.

Benefits of Open-Source Software for Manufacturing Graphic

Risks and Remedies for Open-Source Software in Manufacturing

When deploying any software, there's always a risk of it becoming unmaintained without a dedicated team or individual overseeing it. Proprietary software typically includes yearly invoices, prompting organizations to assess its usage and value regularly. In contrast, when no invoices are sent, the responsibility falls explicitly on a team or individual within the organization. The approach to managing this responsibility depends on factors such as the software's level of adoption, its criticality to operations, and the available resources for proper oversight.

Throughout the history of OSS, companies and organizations have generally chosen two options: become a participant in the open-source community, or reach out to a vendor who is an expert in the open-source project that’s being adopted. Needless to say, these options are not mutually exclusive, and a mix of these options is possible too.

When contemplating active contribution as a participant in the project’s community it’s first and foremost important to understand the importance of this project to the company. The first step companies take is to fix a bug in the software that helps them move forward, or contribute a smaller feature. This iterative and incremental step allows the organization to adapt to the way the project operates. Consider variations on a per OSS project basis in release schedules, governance, and openness to contribution from new sources. Each project conducts its operations differently, and by learning from small incremental contributions the journey for the project and the contributing organization derisk the collaboration.

Collaborating on the code and community can be a cost-intensive option. This is why many open-source projects have a company associated with them as a core contributor and maintainer that has a commercial model for adopting organizations. This reduces the cost per contribution per organization, while each organization influences this commercial proxy into the project. These commercial organizations will often extend the open-source project with features that fit their target audience. For example; FlowFuse is the main contributor to the Node-RED project, and offers a product that improves the operational efficiency of deploying Node-RED at scale, enhances security and compliance, and improves the speed of development of the engineers using Node-RED. Having a vendor relationship for an adopted OSS project makes many organizational hurdles lower as the relationship between software and the adopting organization is normalized to what they’re familiar with; a vendor.

Here are some other risks and remedies to consider:

Legal and procurement: When engineers adopt OSS, they generally do not go through a process that validates the license and verifies if the legal department approves of the license. While there’s very little risk in adopting OSS, some licenses are considered ‘viral’ – modifications made to the software MUST be published. This is inconvenient when requested by the community. When internal policies forbid the publishing of modifications as these might include business logic and intellectual property, there’s the possibility of an expensive legal process.

Procurement often includes evaluation questionnaires to ensure that the software abides by the standards upheld for the buyer. OSS projects will not fill out questionnaires for an organization, and thus an investigation needs to commence internally. Generally, more time consuming, the result is less accurate and inefficient.

Hard Hat Safety: The adoption of software, especially real-time control software, introduces a new layer of potential risks. In a manufacturing setting, this could mean controlling robotic arms, managing conveyor belts, or regulating temperatures in a chemical process. If this software malfunctions, the consequences can be severe, ranging from equipment damage and production halts to worker injuries or even catastrophic accidents. With OSS the liability for faults in the software lies with the user of the software, which might not have had the right information to make judgements on these concerns. This underscores the need for rigorous testing, validation, and redundancy mechanisms to ensure the reliability and safety of real-time control software in manufacturing environments.

Black Hat Safety: OSS is inherently open to scrutiny, enabling faster identification of vulnerabilities, but it also means users are responsible for patching and updates, leaving systems vulnerable to cyberattacks if patching is delayed or overlooked. Additionally, OSS projects often rely on numerous libraries and components, creating hidden dependencies that can introduce vulnerabilities if not carefully managed. Understanding the entire software stack is crucial to ensure all elements are secure.

To mitigate these risks, organizations using OSS should establish a robust patching process for monitoring, testing, and promptly applying security patches. Automated tools can streamline this process. Managing dependencies is essential, including maintaining an inventory, regularly scanning for vulnerabilities, and updating components as needed. Secure coding practices are also crucial when customizing OSS to ensure modifications don't compromise security.

Testing and validation are vital to ensure that any modifications made to the OSS do not introduce new vulnerabilities. By following these best practices, organizations can leverage the benefits of OSS while minimizing the risks associated with its use.

Maintenance and Support: OSS lacks formal support channels, unlike proprietary software with vendor support contracts. In case of issues or malfunctions or unexpected behaviour, manufacturers may have to rely on community forums or their own expertise for troubleshooting, which can be time-consuming and risky.

Vendors can address the concern of the lack of formal support channels in OSS by providing a range of support options to help customers. These options may include offering service level agreements (SLAs) that outline the level of support customers can expect, establishing a dedicated support team with experienced engineers, setting up a support portal with documentation and troubleshooting guides, and offering paid support contracts. Additionally, vendors can partner with managed service providers (MSPs) to provide support to customers, provide clear and comprehensive documentation, and offer training and workshops to help users understand how to use the software effectively.

Professional Services: Professional services and training play a crucial role in ensuring the successful adoption and effective use of OSS within an organization. Engaging experienced consultants or service providers specializing in OSS security can assist with risk assessments, vulnerability management, and incident responses. This expertise contributes to a comprehensive approach to securing OSS, mitigating risks, and maintaining a secure environment.

Additionally, training and education are essential for both operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) teams to gain the necessary skills for managing OSS. Targeted training programs, knowledge sharing, and collaboration among teams foster a better understanding of Linux administration, scripting, and other required skills. A well-trained workforce ensures the efficient use of OSS, promotes innovation, and enables organizations to leverage the full potential of open-source solutions.

Balancing Openness and Innovation: The Open Core Business Model at FlowFuse

The open core business model combines the best of both worlds of OSS and proprietary software. This approach offers a free and functional core product as OSS, while additional features or services are provided under a proprietary license. This creates a mutually beneficial arrangement where users can access a free, customizable, and transparent core product, while the company can generate revenue through the proprietary offerings.

FlowFuse exemplifies this model by offering Node-RED, a powerful flow-based programming tool, as the open-source core of its platform. FlowFuse enhances Node-RED with additional features and functionalities, the source code of which is only partially available under a fully open-source license. This allows FlowFuse to monetize these enhancements, providing a financial incentive to maintain and develop both Node-RED and the FlowFuse platform.

Customers benefit from a reliable vendor committed to the longevity of Node-RED while also having the option to access additional features and support tailored to their needs.

Conclusion

In the unique context of the ongoing transition to smart industry, manufacturing companies face a critical decision regarding which software to adopt and rely on for the next few years. As they embrace software-enabled production through the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the choice of software platform can significantly impact their competitiveness and success in the long term.

Open-source software (OSS) offers manufacturers the opportunity to adopt well-supported, adaptable, and future-proof software solutions. With a large and active community of developers continuously contributing to and improving OSS projects, manufacturers can expect ongoing support and regular updates.

The modular nature of OSS allows for easy customization and integration with existing systems, enabling manufacturers to tailor solutions to their specific needs. Furthermore, the transparent and collaborative development process of OSS ensures that security vulnerabilities are quickly identified and addressed, promoting long-term reliability.

As the manufacturing industry embraces digital transformation, OSS is poised to play a pivotal role, with experts predicting that up to 90% of software used in manufacturing will be open source in the coming years. By leveraging OSS, manufacturers can gain access to innovative and cost-effective solutions that drive operational efficiency, productivity, and innovation.

Contact FlowFuse to learn more about how we can support your manufacturing enterprise innovation.