How Linux and Beowulf Drove Desktop Supercomputing

Open Source Software

Open Source Software (OSS) is a bit different from free software. Generally, it is defined as, “… a type of computer software in which source code is released under a license in which the copyright holder grants users the rights to use, study, change, and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose … .” Although different from the free software movement, its roots definitely started there. In 1997, Eric Raymond published an essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” (later published as a book), which was based on his experiences in the open source project Fetchmail, as well as his observations of the Linux kernel development process.

The essay was a factor in Netscape Communications Corporation’s decision to release their Netscape Communicator Internet Suite as free software, which in turn caused a group of people to hold a strategy session to discuss open source software development – in particular, how they felt the open development process would fare relative to other processes. Note that the emphasis was on the software development model.

This strategy session then led to the Open Source Initiative (OSI) being founded in 1998. Although related to the free software movement, it chose to use the phrase “open source” to “… dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that has been associated with ‘free software’ … ” (Maher, Jennifer Helene. Software Evangelism and the Rhetoric of Morality: Coding Justice in a Digital Democracy. Taylor & Francis, 2015, p. 69). Very quickly, the term “open source” was adopted by a wide range of people, include Linus Torvalds.


Open source continues strong to this day through a variety of licenses. An interesting aspect of open source licenses is that the software is usually released for free in terms of cost, but that is not always the case. The most common open source licenses are those that have been approved by the OSI according to their Open Source Definition (OSD).

You might be familiar with some of the most common licenses, such as the Apache License, BSD 3-Clause License, GNU Public License (GPL, which includes the “copyleft” license, the opposite of a copyright), GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), and MIT License. These aren’t the only licenses, but they are commonly used. Notice that open source licenses can include free licenses, such as GPL and LGPL.

A quick glance at free versus open source software might result in the conclusion that they are the same. Although very close, they have important differences. Free software emphasizes the “free as in speech” aspect of software; open source software emphasizes the development model (i.e., open collaboration for all).

Many people don’t know that FSF holds the copyrights on many GNU tools such as GCC. As a result, it can enforce copyleft requirements of the GPL license when copyright infringement occurs on that software.

Open Source Observations

Free and open source licenses are important in general, and in particular to desktop supercomputers. Using free/open source licensing allows millions of people to study, learn, and even contribute to a project in the form of direct coding, porting, testing, or documentation. Moreover, some companies pay people to work on free and open source software, but a very large percentage of contributors are volunteers who want to work on a specific project. Whereas small focused teams paid to write specific software might be an expedient solution, an open source project can contribute to better, perhaps more secure, code and can even result in faster development because people are motivated by something other than getting paid: something that they personally feel is important, interesting, and fun.