Scott Logic has recently joined FINOS (Fintech Open Source Foundation), an organisation which promotes open-source within financial services. I thought this would be a good time to share some of my own personal thoughts about the benefits of open-source, and how the financial services industry needs to think more about the community, than the code this community creates.
By: Colin Eberhardt
Within the financial services industry much of the conversation around open-source software focuses on regulations and licensing; ensuring that developers are free to use, distribute and modify libraries and software products. However, I would argue that this focus on the source … on the code itself … misses out on a much more valuable aspect of the open-source movement - the community!
This is a community that financial services, and especially investment banks, have shuttered themselves away from. In this brief post I’ll look at why this community, and the support it provides, is so important, and how the banks need to change the way they engage.
Developer support and productivity
If you've read any of the regular Black Duck surveys you'll know that open-source software has both a significant market-share, and is on the rise. As a result, much of the software that developers use on a day-to-day basis is open-source.
For commercial software, the support model is quite simple, it is provided by the vendor. If you are struggling with how to use a commercial product, or hit a bug, you typically have a support contract that allows you to raise tickets and engage with support engineers.
For open-source software there is no team of support engineers, no ticketing system. With open-source software support is provided by the community, without the comfort of a Service Level Agreement (SLA). However, if you talk to developers at the big investment banks they are often cut off from this community. The ‘hubs’ of StackOverflow and GitHub are often read-only, or blocked entirely.
The lack of community support means the processes of fault-finding, debugging and problem solving take a lot longer than they would otherwise. To combat this, financial services institutions often try to build their own internal support communities, or create their own bespoke (forked) versions of open-source products. However, these internal communities are often ineffective, due to their lack of scale.
Your insurance policy
When selecting any third-party product or component, (open- or closed-source, free or commercial) the longevity of the product is of great importance. If you’re investing millions of pounds developing a banking platform, you don’t want the lifetime of this solution to be limited by the components you use to build it.
With open-source software there may not be a commercial support model, and as a result the lifetime of the software may be uncertain.
Within financial services the standard solution to this problem is once again the internal support model. Their insurance policy for open-source software becoming legacy is their own ability to maintain it.
A much better approach is to engage directly with the community. If a particular open-source component is central to your product, active engagement allows you to increase its overall lifespan. Furthermore, it allows you to influence the roadmap based on your own specific needs.
A route forwards
Scott Logic has very recently become a member of FINOS, a foundation which drives open-source innovation within financial services.
Many of the FINOS programs focus on code, taking proprietary technology developed by banks or other technology companies, and open-sourcing it. These are very worthwhile ventures, and some interesting technology will be made available as a result.
However, these programs do not tackle the issues around community engagement that I have discussed above. And the success of any open-source project very much depends on the community that it is able to build around it.
The FINOS Open Source Readiness program looks at the “legal, cultural and technical challenges” of open-source engagement. Without solving these challenges, financial services companies will never fully reap the rewards of open-source software.
And finally ... Microsoft had a significant change of direction in 2016, investing heavily in open-source, to become one of the most active companies within the community. Corporate involvement in open-source does wonders for the overall “employer brand”!
When talking about open-source software, please remember the source code itself is only a small part of the value it provides. The community behind this code is an integral part of the ‘product’ and one you should actively seek to become a part of.