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Episode 5: Open Source
Episode 510th March 2022 • Traceroute • Equinix
00:00:00 00:33:35

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There is tension between the digital and the physical development spaces. As the world becomes more digital, the distance between software and hardware widens. Only a few people are attempting to bridge the gap. Unspoken competition, gatekeeping, differences in perspective — these reasons and more push experts from the software and hardware spaces apart. But open source is the key to furthering collaboration and innovation in technology development.

In this episode of Traceroute, we look deeper into the digital space and how it intrinsically connects to physical hardware. Joining us today are open-source advocates Jon Masters and Brian Fox. They share with us their insights on hardware and software proprietary rights. They also provide context on open-source technology and how vital open source is for innovation and increasing opportunities.  

If you are someone looking to explore open source technology, then this episode of the Traceroute podcast might be perfect for you!

Episode Highlights 

[1:50] Behind The Scenes In The Digital Space

  • The utilities we use daily — like water and electric appliances — are built to meet exacting standards to ensure user-friendliness. 
  • Similarly, tech companies build digital infrastructures that most computer users can easily utilize.

Jon Masters: “We build very boring, elaborate standards so that the average user, if they don't want to, doesn't have to understand every layer of what's going on.”

[03:30] How Open Source Ties Software And Hardware Together

  • Many people in the tech space tend to focus on either the physical or digital aspects of technology. 
  • Not being able to grasp the hardware that supports software can be a lost opportunity.
  • Knowing the hardware that goes with your software and how they intertwine can bring many opportunities.
  • The software industry, especially the internet, requires a durable physical backbone. Likewise, hardware can only evolve with new software developments.
  • The reawakening to hardware development mirrors the early stages of the open-source software space.

Jon Masters: “If you look at where the industry is going right now, hardware and software, they were always important counterparts to one another.”

[06:34] The Definition of Software

  • Software is a symbolic way of writing ideas. Similar to the English language, it employs semantics to express the developer’s collection of ideas. 
  • Software technology aims to develop a space that allows computers to perform several tasks simultaneously. 
  • To achieve a higher level of computing platform, computer processors would have to undergo time slicing. 
  • An operating system manages the software that runs on a computer, as well as access to hardware devices. Essentially, it serves as the interface between humans and hardware. 

[08:47] The Beginning Of The Open Source Movement

  • Back in the day, students and academics wrote numerous codes. They shared these codes in an effort to further the science. 
  • However, the rise of proprietary software ended the open collaboration system of the early days. 
  • Not everyone was onboard with proprietary software—thus, giving birth to the idea of open and free software. 

Brian Fox: “I'm working on a vision detection system, and I want the other guy who was working on it to also be able to enhance it in the direction that he cares about or that she cares about. And it shouldn't stop me. That way, we can share and collaborate, and the entire science moves up.”

[09:37] Free Vs. Open Source Software

  • Both free software and open-source software advocate public access to code. However, the idea behind these software types comes from different places of understanding.
  • Free software does not contain any license that prevents it from being shared across different users.
  • The open source software movement is rooted in an ethical understanding that formulas should not be restricted.
  • Anyone can join the open source community. People from all over the globe can collaborate and pitch in ideas to enhance software features. 

Brian Fox: “The thing that makes something open source isn't specifically the collaboration; it's the openness of the collaboration.”

[11:09] The Free Software Foundation

  • The Free Software Foundation was founded in the mid-1980s to promote open access and free software to the public. 
  • The Free Software Foundation employed a cathedral form of software development, wherein a dictator supervises a project until it reaches a specific stage of maturity. After that, the project becomes open-to-all until it is ready for evaluation by a gatekeeper. 
  • When Linus Torvalds completed Linux in the 1990s. Linux progressed and spread globally, which awakened the idea that high-quality systems can be free. 
  • Today, nearly every computing device is running on open-source software that Brian Fox wrote. And due to the nature of open source software, it kept maturing. 
  • Tune in to the full episode to hear Brian’s analogy for keeping technology open to all and why it is only ethical to pay it forward.

Brian Fox: "This is the beauty of open-source—that we can build something useful, and then that utility can be delivered [and] can actually be delivered to the people who want to use it."

[16:12] Creating A More Free Internet Space  

  • Free software also contributes to the growth of blockchain technology. These cryptocurrencies aim to deliver software for everyone to use and build upon.
  • Orchid Labs, founded by Brian Fox, aims to establish a more community-centered digital network. 
  • Networks and infrastructures would have to be centralized to create a free Internet.
  • Orchid Labs wants to create an Internet space without surveillance, which will give people more freedom online.

[18:29] The Connection Between Software And Hardware

  • Hardware and software developed hand-in-hand. 
  • A phone is a computer, but it carries hardware optimized for specific tasks.
  • Specialized hardware performs functions significantly faster than software.  
  • Improving hardware and software together will also allow computers and servers to perform faster while saving energy. Enhancing both software and hardware can also expand the cloud network. 
  • Moore's Law predicts that computer speed and capability will increase as costs decrease. However, progress over the last ten years seems to disprove this perception.

Jon Masters: "[Computers seem] to get 52% faster, which all that meant was that software developers would find ways to use that. Yet, the software never seemed to get much faster, but you had hardware just magically doing things for you."

[21:42] What Is Open Source Hardware? 

  • The hardware industry has recently been growing through open hardware. 
  • Open-source hardware is more costly than open-source software since hardware would need money to fabricate high-performance chips.   
  • Open-source hardware allows companies to focus on value creation rather than hardware exclusivity.  
  • Using open-source hardware is an inexpensive way of checking if your software works, especially for beginner app developers. 

[24:21] Applications Of Software And Hardware Synergy

  • The automobile industry is gearing towards self-driving features. 
  • General-purpose software is being run on top of new high-performance hardware to create smarter vehicles. By improving software and hardware, modern networks also advance. 
  • Tesla is currently developing a method that incorporates hardware, software, and networking together, which will allow flexibility and growth in the automobile industry.
  • Since processing occurs in the device itself, aggressive processing will require more advanced devices.
  • Evolving hardware, software, and networks together will create a space for a tremendous amount of processing. Relying on edge computing can also decrease turnaround time for processing data, which will produce a faster system.

[27:57] The Future Of Technology

  • 5G technology involves high bandwidth with very low latency. Advanced technology depends on smarter backend infrastructure and analytics.
  • Platforms need to become adaptive in learning and processing information before feeding information to the end-users and products. 
  • With edge computing, computing and processing become closer to the action. 
  • People in software development tend to underplay the complexities of hardware. Likewise, people in hardware tend to think the same about software. 
  • Roadblocks in technology can be more easily solved if both software and hardware developers discuss these problems together.

Jon Masters: “If I could have one wish in life, it would be to remove that us versus them kind of language and just have us all collaborate more together. And I think that's going to be very important in the decade ahead.”

Three reasons why you should listen to this episode:

  1. Explore the digital and physical spaces in technology.
  2. Learn about the beginnings of the open source development model and why it's essential to the systems we have today. 
  3. Discover how intertwining software and hardware can lead to a brighter future for technology. 

About Our Guests

Jon Masters is an open-source advocate and computer architect. He previously worked at RedHat as a Distinguished Engineer. During his stay at RedHat, Jon created a technical mitigation team for cache side-channel attacks (Meltdown, Spectre, L1TF, MDS, etc.). He was also the Technical Lead for Red Hat Enterprise Linux for ARM and was involved in the design and implementation of 64-bit ARMv8 Architecture (AArch64) servers. Jon is currently delving deeper into Software/Hardware Codesign at Google. 

If you want to get in touch with Jon, you can reach him through LinkedIn and Twitter.

Brian Fox is a computer programmer and open-source technology advocate. In 1985, he joined the Free Software Association, where he authored several command languages and systems under the GNU Project. Brian also co-founded several ventures, including Virtual World Computing, LLC and Orchid Labs. He also serves as the CEO for Opus Logica, Inc. He presently commits to removing surveillance and censorship on the internet at Orchid Labs. 

Want to know more about Brian Fox? Visit his LinkedIn or send him a message on Twitter.

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