Why Open Source Will Rule Scientific Computing

January 19, 2010

Index To the Series
Intro: Why Open Source Will Rule Scientific Computing ?
Reason #1: Open Science
Reason #2: The Search for Authenticity
Reason #4: Agile, High Quality, Collaborative Software Process
Reason #5: Scalability
Reason #6: Business Model

I recently had the privilege of attending the Open Source CFD International Conference in Barcelona, Spain to deliver a software keynote presentation on the future of scientific computing (http://www.opensourcecfd.com/conference2009/ access to proceedings requires registration). I enjoy such venues because they give me a chance to meet intriguing people with different viewpoints on open source; and to break away from my usual frenetic routine to think about some of these issues more deeply. And this conference did not disappoint. One of my conference highlights was the industrial applications keynote given by Dr. Moni Islam, Head of Aerodynamics & Aeroacoustics at Audi. What particularly struck me about Dr. Islam’s presentation was how closely it mirrored what I presented in my keynote, except that his perspective was far more valuable in that it came from a large manufacturing concern using open source software in real world applications. This of course was very gratifying in that it crystallized trends that we have seen emerging at Kitware, plus it spoke more generally towards the future of open source software in scientific computing.  Dr. Islam’s presentation was not an isolated incident, at Kitware we have worked with many customers representing large, traditionally conservative companies who are convinced that open source software is the way to go.

I think there are inexorable forces that will elevate open source software to widespread acceptance, and eventually dominance, in the scientific computing market. I have harbored a secret belief that this is true for some time now, but when customers and scientific computing professionals start saying the same thing, it’s time to pay careful attention. My belief is that the following technology and market forces:

will make the use and adoption of open source software essential for effective scientific computing. Why? Well the market will demand it, the pace of scientific research will require it, and the size of the technology problems we’re tackling will necessitate that we practice the Way of the Source.

The way I see it the frontiers of technology are expanding at an ever increasing pace. To keep up and participate with this unprecedented expansion of knowledge, and to succeed in business and as technology contributors, requires us to discard inefficiencies in our processes and to seek better ways of creating and engineering knowledge. While this may be as straightforward as improving a software tool like a bug tracker, it also challenges us to reject old ways of behaving like treating knowledge as a finite resource that we divide and squabble over, or treating individuals outside our immediate organization as threats and competitors.  I am a firm believer in growing the pie rather than fighting over the current pie, I think opportunities are exploding all around us and I’d rather ride on the leading edge of the wave than get caught up in the pettiness of turf battles.

I would like to add here that when I claim that open source will rule scientific computing, I am not implying that there will not be any proprietary code and solutions; there will always be good reasons for these due to security, privacy, or business concerns, and we will continue to work with customers to provide such solutions, including incorporating open source technology into proprietary systems.  While my preference is to use open source whenever possible, I believe that drawing a hard line in the sand is counterproductive to the overall FOSS movement. I think it does more harm than good to go militant on this front; many of our most important customers from medical, geophysical, and pharma greatly appreciate the OS value proposition, and want to do the right thing. This includes funding significant technical efforts which are contributed back to the community, often with no recognition on their part, usually to pare down the maintenance burden and retain key, proprietary technologies as a business advantage. Spurning such customers is akin to the proverbial ”cutting off the nose to spite the face.” I have no problem with such relationships since it benefits the community and the public good, and to co-opt a famous phrase (from a very proprietary software company) we aim to “embrace and extend” our customers to introduce open source into their corporate world, extract useful technology that we can all use, and build exciting alliances that will let us all win together.

This is the first in a series of blog posts. I will treat each of the technology and market forces mentioned above in separate posts. My aim is to summarize why I think open source is the future of scientific computing software. And a final note: most of what I have learned has come from the open source community, customers, and of course from Kitware’s amazing staff.

Continue on to the second blog posting.


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