It was only a couple of months ago that CERN celebrated 20 years of the open web. We pointed to the way that freedom had allowed the web to succeed in a way that the patented Gopher couldn’t compete with. Today brings the announcement of another big success for open software, as CERN move into a year long collaboration with Rackspace to create an a new cloud computing facility (in conjunction with their existing OpenStack clouds) to handle the massive quantity of data created by CERN’s experiments.
The move highlights one of the ways in which open source software can be of value to the scientific community. Speaking on that topic, CERN’s IT infrastructure manager Tim Bell said that open source technologies, “foster continuous technological improvements through community contributions, while also giving us the ability to quickly address challenges, such as massive scaling, by leveraging the work of others.”
What he’s highlighting here is the flexibility of the open source approach. Flexibility is the core value of open source software; allowing you to be free to innovate and problem-solve rather than becoming a vassal to your suppliers’ business models. CERN unleashed this change when they set the Web free; it’s good to see them still using the same approach to create new revolutions today.
The document CERN signed that made the technology behind the World Wide Web available without restrictions to everyone in the world showed up recently as part of CERN’s celebration of 20 years of the open web. Back at the start of the 90s, I was at IBM working on video conferencing (you’ll still find my name next to the well-known port number allocation for it), and among my responsibilities was making information available on the newly-popular Internet. We had a web page for our project, and did consider the idea of publishing information through another, much more widely used technology of the time – called Gopher. However, doing so was more complicated, and also we were concerned that running our own server might require some sort of license. So we stuck with just a web page.
Our experience was duplicated all over the world. Despite being very widely used, Gopher stagnated in the face of an open alternative. People don’t like to have to ask permission to get their job done, so given a choice between a technology that can be used without having to seek permission and one which requires approval from its owner (and all the corresponding bureaucracy that goes with that with ones employer) the decision is easy.
People have asked “what would have happened if the Web was patented”. The answer is there would never have been a web. It would have been an interesting project stuck in a lab somewhere, unable to get any traction against the more widely used Gopher and probably never heard of. What made the WWW was CERN’s decision to make it freely available. We should be immeasurably grateful for that enlightened decision.