Software developers might say that open source software is akin to free speech rather than free beer, but companies like Lush are increasingly reaping the benefits of platforms that allow them to give back to the developing community.
What is open source?
A simple analogy for open source would be a cooking recipe. You can cook the recipe to the letter but also make modifications and improvements. You might then share your new and improved version of the recipe on the internet. In contrast, something which is closed source (also known as proprietary software) might be a trade secret and unalterable.
You might ask why anyone would ever want to give away something, that they’ve spent their hard earned time working on. Well, open source doesn’t necessarily mean entirely free – this is where licensing comes in. Open source software is distributed under a licence to the community that allows it to be modified and built upon. Different licensing regulates how much the code can be changed and modified.
The idea behind making projects and information open source isn’t entirely new. Long before the advent of computers and the Internet, peer-to-peer review systems existed within the academic community to help improve their work. In the earlier development stages of modern computers, people would share source code because the software often wouldn’t run without individuals fixing the bugs themselves. In the 1980s and 1990s, software companies attempted to legislate against individuals modifying the code they had created, worrying that open source methods would open them up to bugs and security loopholes. This lead to a an influx of proprietary or closed source software.
Why open source?
Technology pioneer Eric Raymond once famously said “Given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow,” meaning that the more people able to see bugs, the easier it is for bugs within the the code to be fixed. Open source creates the flexibility and freedom, to innovate through a vast peer review process.
The value of open source code for both parties is self-evident: users can assist in developing new projects, which in turn helps the development of their own projects. It’s a win-win situation.
Dan Richards Lush’s senior developer explains “Open source is, at its heart, about freedom. The freedom to use the software you want, in the way you want to use it. If the code doesn't work quite the way you need it to, no worries, you can fork the codebase and change it. And who knows, maybe the changes you make are really good and the rest of the community want to use them too. Boom, you just contributed to an open source project, it really is that easy!
As well as being about freedom, open source is a community. Being a part of it gives you access to a wealth of expertise. It means that a small team of less than 10 engineers has access to the collective knowledge from hundreds of thousands of people. It allows us to achieve goals normally expected from a team 3 or 4 times the size”
Using open source drives that innovation and efficiency, stopping people from duplicating existing work, and helping create vibrant development communities. The resulting interaction and communication between developers and users means the software is always at the cutting edge of the industry.
Lush’s open source ethos
Jack Constantine, Lush’s Chief Digital Officer, has pioneered Lush’s use of open-source platforms like Drupal, and in 2016, the company built the largest ecommerce site ever developed using the open source platform Drupal.
The company’s recent migration to the google cloud platform from Acquia was also part of a wider strategy to adopt open source software across the organisation as a whole, as Jack recently stated in an interview with Computerworlduk: “Licensed software is dying - there is no doubt about it. [Adopting open source] is not even a decision, it is just like this is the world now, how do you deal with it?”
Although Lush had previously relied on proprietary software providers, the company now has future plans to create and develop some of its systems in house.
Senior developer Dan explains, “The days of closed source, proprietary software at Lush are well and truly numbered. And I could not be happier! Using open source software, such as Kubernetes, Docker and Terraform, gives us the freedom and flexibility to push the business forward.
Lush is an agile and fast moving company, never afraid to take a big decision if it means we can make gains in the way we work and how we communicate the world. This ethos filters down into engineering team on a daily basis! The engineering team have proven the benefits of open source on our eCommerce platform. And the future for us is to apply that approach to the rest of the business.”