Why Codethink is a founding member of the Civil Infrastructure Platform, a Linux Foundation initiative

This blogpost was originally published on the Codethink website on Thursday March 9th.

On April 4th 2016 a new Linux Foundation initiative called the Civil Infrastructure Platform was announced. CIP aims to share efforts around building a Linux-based commodity platform for industrial grade products that need to be maintained for anything between 25 and 50 years – in some cases even longer. Codethink is one of the founding members.

Industrial grade use cases

In order to describe why this initiative is relevant let me go over the use cases that motivate companies like Siemens, Toshiba, Hitachi, and Renesas to share efforts.
During the Open Source Leadership Summit, Noriaki Fukuyasu (Linux Foundation) and myself, based on the experience of Siemens, Hitachi and Toshiba, described the development life cycle in industrial grade use cases. For example, a railway management system is as follows:
  • Analysis + design + development: 3 – 6 years
  • Customizations and extensions: 2 – 4 years
  • The certification process and other authorizations take a year.
  • Each new release or update has to go through further certifications and authorizations that take between 3 and 6 months.
  • The system is expected to work for between 25 and 50 years.
So on average, an industrial grade product might take 5 to 7 years from conception to deployment. This is coherent with our experience in other industries like automotive, where life cycles are also quite long despite the expected lifetime being shorter.
A key part of the life cycle is maintenance. Due to its length, the associated risks are high. The certification processes to introduce significant changes in any already deployed systems are painful and expensive. In addition, the capacity to simulate a production environment is, in general, limited. This is true in other cases like energy production plans, for instance.

Open Source principles in the Civil Infrastructure industry

It’s obvious that Open Source could have a dramatic impact in this industry. By sharing efforts, corporations can commoditise a significant portion of the base system focusing on differentiation factors, increasing control through transparency and the quality of that starting point over time. Collaboration with upstream will bring even higher impact benefits.
Two immediate challenges come to mind when thinking about Open Source in this industry:
  • Development of processes and practices to produce software for safety critical environments.
  • Bridging the gap between the Open Source approach for software maintenance and the approach currently taken when building large-scale platform projects. For instance, how can approaches oriented to update any specific Open Source software component to the latest upstream stable version be compatible with any typical industry SDLC?

Can you reduce the gap?

We have for years been working on transformation projects for which one of the goals has been to reduce the gap between the software our customers ship and what upstream is continuously releasing. One of the key steps is to adapt an organisation’s processes using FOSS tools. Over the years we have been a strong advocate that the closer to upstream you are, the more benefits you reap from the Open Source development model, maintenance cost reductions being one of the main advantages.

So why did we get involved in an initiative that aims to maintain a kernel for 25 years then?

The short answer would be… because we love a challenge!
Safety critical with Linux-based systems is a challenge currently being faced in the automotive industry for instance, where Codethink is a strong player. When we analysed some of the industrial-grade use cases, it called our attention not just to the magnitude of the second challenge enumerated above, related with super long term maintenance, but also the apparent conflict between the industry requirements and the referred well known Open Source practices.
Hence the main driver for an Open Source consultancy like Codethink in participating in an initiative like CIP is to learn by doing, that is, putting the Open Source development, delivery and maintenance best practices under stress in one of the toughest environments. We bring our experience in producing embedded Linux based systems and our Open Source culture, to work together with industry leaders in finding solutions to these challenges, by looking at them with FOSS eyes.

Current activities

Codethink is participating in CIP in several capacities, the most relevant being:

Kernel maintenance
The first CIP approved kernel is 4.4, an LTS kernel supported until Feb 2018. Ben Hutchings is the initial CIP kernel maintainer. Besides providing support for the reference platforms, Ben is working on several activities like backporting the security patches, such as those from the KSPP and consolidating the maintenance policies, taking those from the kernel community as reference.
Testing tooling

kernelci.org is the most successful testing project in Open Source. Its impact in the kernel community is growing, as is the number of people and companies involved. It was designed and developed as a service where the testing activities can take place in distributed board farms (labs).
Codethink has been working on making the tools easy to deploy on developer machines through a VM, so they can test kernels on directly connected boards. This first milestone of the CIP testing project is called Board At Desk – Single Developer. This activity was described at the Open Source Leadership Summit 2017 and the first beta released during ELC 2017.

Conclusion

The challenges for Open Source that Industrial-grade product development and maintenance introduce are great, especially in two aspects: safety-critical and maintenance. Codethink is working on CIP to help the industry to overcome these challenges by adding our Open Source perspective.
Learn more about the CIP project by checking the following slides and videos from the conferences in which CIP members have participated.

Automotive supply chain and Open Source: a personal view

Software in automotive yesterday

The automotive industry has treated software like any other component, as part of the traditional, well structured and highly controlled supply chain. Tier-1’s has been providing software to car auto-makers for some years now and both together have done what they have could to prevent consumers or downstream players in the supply chain from manipulating it, improving it, customising it nor from adapting it. It didn’t matter if the software was Open Source or not, they have treated it as if it was proprietary, promoting locked-in practices. Only very few stakeholders with the right kind of agreement could manipulate it in a very limited way. Consumers and third parties didn’t have a say.

For a software company, there has been no life outside the traditional supply chain of any auto-maker.
Automotive yesterday
From all the reasons I’ve heard since I am involved in automotive, that justifies this situation, arguments related with security together with the safety critical nature of some systems shipped in a car are among the most popular ones.
But wait, once I buy a car, I can manipulate or even change the engine, the suspensions, the tiers, the brakes… but I can’t even dream about changing the software? Eveny if it is Open Source?

Software in automotive tomorrow

In my opinion the current way software is treated by automakers, the supply chain associated to them and the current business model around software in automotive will change dramatically. And the main reason will not be the license of the software used but the fact that the increasing amount and complexity of the software shipped with any car, together with the challenges that connectivity and privacy bring, will open up the door for new new players with new business models, Open Source business models. Those new factors will also provide current stakeholders in the supply chain the opportunity to increase their services around software. New players will challenge the current controlled and centralised environment.
I believe the software supply chain will expand beyond the purchase of the car, providing inputs at every level. Initially this will take place in a semi-controlled way, specialy by dealers, but later on software will become a major point at every stage, where there will be a wide offering of security and performance improvements, deployment of new functionality, maintenance services, customizations, integration with third party services, etc., to consumers directly by ISVs, enhancing the user experience adding more choice and adaptability to their particular use cases. The role software companies today play as providers will be substitued by a partnership relation.

In the same way that we all have a relative that “fix cars”, there are many developers out there that can put their hands on the provided software of their own vehicles. There are also many companies willing to do the same for their own fleet or somebody else’s one. A new car cost a hundred times more than a mobile and its life cycle is at least five times longer. I do not think the mobile industry will be the mirror for autmotive.
I believe that the picture will be closer to the current one in the enterprise industry, even if the journey to get there is diferent. Some automakers might remain as key stakeholders when talking about software, but not like today. 
Software in automotive tomorrow

The consumers demand for more and better services and the portability needs across the different platforms and devices (cars) in order to make business with software at scale, will increase the pressure on OEMs and Tier-1s over hardware and software standarization. That pressure might become in some cases as strong as govements regulations, I think. It will be definetly stronger that in the mobile industry. I see this as a positive factor for consumers.
Software in automotive soon
Experience shows that, if you intend to control a software ecosystem, you need to become upstream and create around your software a business model that serves as a service platform for third parties (ISVs). Maybe not even then you will be able to stay in control of what the customer is consuming. In other words, to be like Apple you need to control the hardware, develop at least the software platform and create a field for third parties to make money through “your platform”, which means at least controlling the distribution and updates. 
I do not believe automakers will be able to achieve that same level of control being only a Open Source consumers in a connected world, by restricting access to your platform to anybody but those who are part of your supply chain. not even if they become Open Source contributors. And no, the Android model does not apply to a single hardware (car) vendor.

I am obviously no guru so take all this as nothing but a personal opinion from an Open Source geek. But if you think it is feasable for an automaker to achive similar levels of control with Open Source based platforms than Google or Apple has over their ecosystems in the mobile industry, I think you are at least as crazy as you claim I am.

Codethink is hiring engineers.

Codethink is steadily growing for some time now. I have been working for 18 months in the company and it is about time for me to tell you that this is an outstanding place to work if you:

  • Love Open Source and work upstream.
  • Prefer to work in a startup kind of environment than in a corporate one.
  • Love to solve complex problem for first class customers instead of living peacefully in your comfort zone.
  • Like to travel to customers and conferences once in a while.
  • Understand that being challenged every day is the best way to improve.
  • Like international and multicultural environments with a British touch.
  • Think that Manchester, UK, is not a bad place to live or to visit once in a while. Hey, I am from the Canaries and too old to party night and day when I am not working, ut that might not be your case 😉
  • Like IRC, git, vim/emacs, RSS and some other technologies that newcomers to Open Source consider… old school.
  • Are not scared of sending patches by mail.

But above all, you are willing to learn no matter how senior you are!

Codethink is an independent consultancy company based in Manchester, UK, although it has some people like myself working remotely. Our customers are also spread around the world. We are around 75-80 people now, most of them, engineers.

Most of our work is related with Linux kernel, low level system activities, compilers, delivery of linux systems, distro and SoC work.

Let me know if you could be interested in working at Codethink or send directly your CV to jobs@codethink.co.uk

Business model as a variable to consider when choosing Open Source software.

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A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at an Open Source event for professionals. A senior developer asked me a question that got my attention. It was something like…
So do you recommend to consider the business model when choosing a particular piece of Open Source software, beyond the license?
My answered was something like…
In general yes, specially when that piece of software is core to your product/business and definitely in cases where you distribute/sell it to customers.
 
Thinking about it later and reviewing some of my talks and posts, I thought it would be interesting to develop that answer a little further.

Key questions

Any analytic report about who writes the code in open and collaborative environments will reflect how corporations involvement is increasing in Open Source software development at every level. More and more companies are transitioning from becoming FLOSS consumers to producers and almost every new software company out there has Open Source as a core strategy or even as part of their DNA.
But who is sustaining the development of that key piece of software that will be a core part of your future product? Who pays those developers? Why? How does the key stakeholders benefit from the outcome of the ecosystem and the software they produce? How much do they invest in the production of that software? For how long? How do they get their income? What is the relevance of the software produced by the ecosystem they feed in their business models?
These and similar basic questions need to be fully understood before a specific software becomes part of your key product or business. Knowing the answers to the above questions might not prevent you from surprises in the future but at least can prepare you for the potential consequences. What it is clear to me is that these answers are becoming more complicated to find and understand over time, specially for those companies who do not have a strong background on Open Source.

Choosing a specific piece of software based on purely technical variables or even present healthiness of the community around the project/organization, expectations of the number of contributors or impact in general might not be enough any more. A specific community or project will become “your provider” so the business model behind it is equally important.

Examples

You might base your new product on a technology produced by a company that is heavily investing on it but that has no clear associated business model. It might be for instance a service company and the software might not be core to their services since it has no significant impact in their income. This might not be your case so you can end up relaying on a provider that do not have “your use case” as a critical one, no matter how big you are and how profitable your business could be.
Think about the case when your product relies on a technology that is disruptive but sustained by a start-up or a company that is not profitable yet. Engineers might be extremely excited about this new technology for good reasons, the community around it might be on fire at the point when you are analyzing it, but the future of the business might be unclear due to, for example, the inexperience of the executives leading the project, the market they are playing on or the strategy of the investors supporting it.
A well established project has suffered a fork, attracting the core developers. Very soon a boost of energy is noticeable in the development front, which leads to an increase in the number of contributors. They gain customers rapidly but it is unclear if they have a solid business case to sustain the development effort with the current growth in the short term.
The above three cases and many others out there show that, although there is no question that published Open Source software development represent an advantage compared to proprietary when it comes to sustainability, that doesn’t mean it is at no cost. This is specially true when safety critical and/or long term support are essential variables for you. 

Sometimes choosing a technology/project with a business model more aligned to yours could work better than choosing the leading or hot technology/project. In other cases, going for a more conservative but solid/veteran project might be the right choice. In some others, assuming risks can be the best choice.

Key considerations

I believe that for any organization, moving from being a good Open Source citizen to becoming an Open Source company also means that:
  • You evaluate the business models around the organizations/projects that produce the software you contribute to and/or consume. This requires involvement of business related professionals in key decisions related with selecting Open Source software.
  • A key part of your sustainability effort is to create feedback loops with your providers also at a business level, contributing to their sustainability as Open Source project but also as organization, specially when you are bigger/stronger than they are. Ideally, your business model should be compatible with those from your providers so your success has a positive impact on theirs.
  • You put in place mitigation actions to reduce the risk of severe changes in your key Open Source software providers situation that in the worst scenario, might compromise the future of your product or even company.

Conclusions

The fact that Open Source is done in a collaborative way might reduce sustainability risks in most cases compared to proprietary business models. But the nature and complexity (dependencies) of many Open Source ecosystems introduces new risks that requires to consider variables beyond the technical or community aspects.
This is why it is so important to choose carefully which FLOSS software you will use, produce and contribute to, looking at the business models supporting the selected project/technology stakeholders.
As a company, you will not control any more the relation with your FOSS providers as you used to. Open Source has changed the nature of that relation, that goes beyond the license or any further contract. To take advantage of this new reality, you will need to adapt.

Final reminder

Open Source is also about providing more control to creators. If you want keep similar levels of control that you had in the proprietary world, contracts will not be enough anymore. You will need to write the code yourself, which means, become upstream.
And the smartest way to achieve sustainability writing code is through collaboration.

Automotive, what an opportunity for KDE!

During the last year I’ve focused a significant part of my effort on driving the GENIVI Development Platform, together with some Codethink colleagues and other GENIVI professionals and community members.

What is GENIVI Development Platform?

GENIVI Development Platform (GDP) is a project and an outcome.

As a project, it can be defined as the delivery side of the GENIVI Alliance. Today is a fairly standard Open Source project, done in the open following many of the most common practices any FLOSS developer would expect.

As an outcome, GDP is a Linux base distribution (Poky) derivative, built with Yocto, that integrates the software that GENIVI community (automotive professionals) develop as Open Source software.

It still a small project but the quality of the platform and the number of people involved has grown this last year significantly.

GENIVI Alliance is a consortium of +140 companies so obviously most of the overall effort is done by paid developers. Changhyeok Bae (community member) together with Tom Pollard and Robert Marshall (Jonathan Maw before him) from Codethink Ltd, constitute the maintainers team, who are responsible for the integration, testing and release of GDP.

These guys are supported by people like myself, doing coordination, marketing, documentation, IT services, infrastructure, testing and many other key tasks which provides the project a level of robustness and scalability that any serious attempt of this nature requires nowadays.

I am interested, where can I get more?

You can find more general information about the project in the following resources:


GDP-ivi9 is the current stable version although we have moved so fast this last year in terms of the software shipped, that I recommend you to try the following:

  • If you are interested in a solid base system, try GDP 11 RC2
  • If you are interested in checking the latest UI and demo applications, try GDP 11 RC3
  • If you are interested in building from scratch you own images with the latest software, do it directly to GENIVI’s rolling release, called Master for now. You can get the latest software there. It should most ly work since we put stabilization effort on it, following the openSUSE Tumbleweed mindset in this regard.

Currently GDP supports RPi2 & 3, Minnowboard MAX and Turbot, Renesas Porter and Silk and Qualcomm Dragonboard 410c. GDP ships Qt 5.6 at the moment, since it is based in Yocto 2.1…

…which makes GDP a great target for KDE software, specially for Plasma.

 

GDP and KDE

Putting the effort on having KDE well supported in Yocto would provide the project a third life, landing on an industry that is heavily investing in Open Source with a key piece of software, with no clear competitor today in the open.It would revamp the interest of many KDE developers in porting their apps to embedded/mobile environments and would bring attention to the project from Qt professionals all over the world. Currently KDE is significantly better than anything else that is open in automotive. It would just require the effort to include it and maintain it in Yocto, which is not small, and adapting Plasma a little initially, not much.GENIVI launched a Challenge Grant Program that might help to put some funding in the equation 😉

Whatever effort done to put Plasma on Yocto (so GDP) would also be picked up by GDP’s competitor, AGL UCB (Auto Grade linux Unified Code Base), the Linux Foundation automotive group Linux (again, Yocto) based distribution. So there would be at least two players for the cost of one.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Qt companies would jump in on this effort too. In order to play in the open filed today, they need to Open Source their products, which is a big risk for most of them. Playing with KDE, which is based in the technologies they are familiar with, would be simpler for them. I bet the Qt company would be heavily interested in promoting this effort. It would help to dissipate all the pushing back from the automotive industry to the current Qt license model, GPLv3 based. And it would do it in the best possible way, by providing great ready-to-use software with no competitor. I have been one year preaching about how big the opportunity currently is for KDE, but this is not the kind of challenge that can be sustained on volunteer basis, sadly, since keeping KDE up to date in the Yocto project would require a high level of commitment from KDE as a whole.

The community probably needs first a small success story and some company/corporate push before really jumping on it, I think. The support of a couple of KDE or Qt companies would catalyze the effort.GENIVI and AGL make a significant promotion effort around the world within the automotive industry, participating in forums where KDE is unknown. Many companies that currently develop close source Qt applications for automotive would be interested in KDE which would increase our potential targets for our Corporate program.

Having KDE on GDP and AGL UCB would increase the incentive of developing new applications for many of our young developers who currently do not have automotive as a “professional target“. 

Companies like LG, Renesas, Bosch, Hartman, Intel, Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota, Visteon, Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, Volvo, among many others…. are key stakeholders of GENIVI and AGL. Isn’t it this attractive enough?A success story like the one I am proposing would be yet another example of how KDE can play a key role for the Qt ecosystem. Sadly not everybody in this ecosystem understand what a great “tool” KDE can be for them. After a hit like this one, it would be undeniable.Think about the exposure, think about where we are today… Something like this would place KDE where Unity, Android (AOSP) or GNOME are not… yet. I believe this is the kind of strategic decision that would change KDE future. But also the business perspective of those companies (specially Qt ones) who would get involved.

Let’s do it now… or somebody else will.

Update(29/10/16): to find out about the state of KDE in Yocto please read the comment to this article from Samuel Stirtzel. Thanks Samuel.