Traditionally, "open source" meant that a program's uncompiled code could be examined by anyone who cared to look at it. Opening source code effectively makes it free, because anyone who can read the code, can also copy and re-compile it on their own. Therefore, open source has become associated with free software.

So what is open source hardware? Does it mean the physical components are given away for free?

Open source code, open source circuitry

No. It means that the designs are opened to the community, so that they can be implemented, and improved upon, by anyone. Open source hardware actually brings the idea of open source back to its original intention. The idea is not so much to give things away (gratis), as to enable the free spread of ideas (libres). Or, as free software guru Richard Stallman has said, "You should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer."

But why would one enterprise share its cherished designs with a competitor? Wouldn't that be the same as giving up one's competitive edge?

Not necessarily. Let's consider the origins of open source hardware in the form of a parable. What if the idea had caught on 250 years earlier?

The baker’s story

Imagine a small 18th century town in which there are two bakeries, owned by different proprietors: Baker #1 and Baker #2.

They are in competition, but the competition is not antagonistic. Neither expects to put the other out of business, and there are plenty of customers for them both. On the other hand, each bakery would prefer to grow its own customer base as much as possible.

Now suppose that both bakeries have a problem. The flour they use is of low quality. They get it from any one of a group of local mills, but most of the mills make the flour in about the same way. Let's call these "traditional" mills.

Building a better mill

Both bakers consider themselves to be visionaries relative to the traditional millers. They think they could make much better bread, if only they had better flour. They have each tried to convince the millers to change the milling process. But the millers like their business just fine the way it is. Also, they also don’t appreciate being told how to mill by bakers. And they know that, ultimately, the bakers don’t have any power over them. After all, they have to get their flour from somewhere.

But then something extraordinary happens. The Baker #1 has a particularly good season. Finding himself flush with cash, he hires a local mason to build him a private mill. The mill is built on spec, according to the plans of Baker #1. It’s designed to produce a better type of flour.

And it works. The following year, Baker #1 produces much better bread than anyone in the surrounding area. He gets more business than he can handle.

Are you in the bread business, or the mill business?

Then, a local financier approaches Baker #1 with a lucrative offer. The two of them could go into business together, creating a chain of bakeries and custom mills. They could put Baker #2 out of business. And that would be just the beginning. Eventually, world domination!

And this is where our Baker #1 has his epiphany. He doesn’t want to conquer the world. He doesn’t even want to go into the mill-making business. And he has no desire to deprive Baker #2 of his livelihood. All he really wanted was to bake excellent bread, and now he’s doing it. Sure, he likes the idea of there being more high-quality mills in the area, but why should he be the one to build them?

Open source mills motivate the mill-makers

So Baker #1 invites all the local millers on a tour of his special mill. He also invites Baker #2. He gives them all free flour samples. He gives them all copies of his blueprints. He explains every principle involved, and he doesn’t hold back anything.

The millers take a few notes, but in general, they aren’t impressed. One turns to the other and says: “If this baker thinks he’s so special, let him have his own mill. Our businesses are safe. We can still keep selling flour to other customers.”

But at the end of the tour, Baker #2, thrilled and empowered, turns to the millers and says: “By Jove, if you fellows don’t build another one of these wonderful things, then I’m going to have to do it myself. Heck, if I have to, I’ll find some bakers in another town to invest in it with me. And every improvement I make, every single thing I learn, I pledge to share with my friend, my fellow artisan, my brother in dough, Baker #1!”

The two bakers embrace in a cloud of flour. The millers look at each other uneasily. After this, nothing will be the same.

Back to the present: baking bread with the data giants

In the 21st century analog of this story, the bakers are online service providers. The mills are computer manufacturers and server farms. And Baker #1 is an amalgamation of the industry leaders that created the Open Compute Project.

As the founding organizations strove to improve their datacenters, their leaders realized that they could only get so far without the cooperation of the OEMs. But incentivizing the OEMs to rethink longstanding design principles required the cooperation of the OEM's other customers.

Non-traditional millers

Any given organization's position in the supply chain is relative to that of its partners. If your company's work involves skill and precision, then you identify with the baker. If your business relies on purchasing a product or service from someone else, then it can be easy to identify that entity as the miller. And someone further down the supply chain than you, whether they be an industrial partner or an end consumer, might see *your* business as the miller.

But that's okay, because it's actually possible to provide your clients with choices instead of pre-fabricated solutions. And that's what Ericsson aims to do with our deployment of Intel's Rack Scale Design (RSD) in the Ericsson HDS 8000 and why Ericsson joined OCP in 2016 as a platinum member. Ericsson has supported and used open source for many decades, examples being Erlang (used by Facebook Messenger) and Bluetooth (used by everybody). Just to name two.

Read more about our cooperation with the Open Compute Project below:

Learn about Ericsson and the OCP

Or explore a full-length video of our Susan James at Red Hat Summit on telco cloud transformation:

Watch the recording now

Ericsson and the Open Compute Project



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Michael Bennett Cohn
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Michael Bennett Cohn

Michael Bennett Cohn is a digital content expert with a wide range of experience in online publishing and advertising. He was head of digital product and revenue operations at Condé Nast, and he oversaw the digital ad campaign that launched the first Amazon Kindle. His journalism has been published by Newsweek, Mashable, and The Forward. He lives in Brooklyn.