The Role of Open-Source in Sustainability
I was invited to speak at the Media Meet & Greet Connect 365 event on June 13, 2023, along with Simon Cardon from GreenWeb. The session was about software’s role in sustainability. I was invited because of my contributions to open-source software (OSS). Simon was invited because he created an agency designing responsible digital strategies and solutions (Web and apps) with an interesting Web hosting side (Digital Forest).
My presentation was architectured around 4 points:
- The evolution of software efficiency.
- Doing less by sharing.
- Sharing is not the solution to all our problems.
- The economics of OSS and sustainable communities.
It sounded exciting. However, questions started to pour in from the audience: it seemed like some people wanted numbers. They wanted comparative numbers with other solutions.
I have a scientific background, with a master’s degree in both Maths and Computer Science, and I’ve worked in a public research entity. I love numbers. At GPAC, we rely heavily on numbers. However, for my specific case as an open-source maintainer, the following questions were problematic:
- How can an open-source solution provide numbers against closed-source solutions?
- I underappreciated how environment and sustainability are mixed up in most people’s minds.
Open-source is the most competitive environment
I remember my first job at Allegro DVT (now part of ATEME). I was part of the team building a software H264/AVC encoder for (then-)new IPTV services. Over four years, I had two challenges: video quality and performance. At the time, we were trying to compete with the giants of our times, which offered better density and quality: Harmonic and Tandberg.
Then we discovered x264 at work because the project won the 2006 MSU Video Codec comparison. I was already a craftsman, an open-source contributor, and a video enthusiast, and this discovery filled me (and most of my co-workers) with awe.
x264 beat us on a lot of metrics including video quality and performance. I guess the x264 developers didn’t know until they compared their work with freeware codecs (and also with the help of supportive professionals on the doom9 or VideoHelp forums). That’s certainly what pushed them to participate in the MSU Video Codec comparison. By the way this created a new business model for MSU where companies would pay to keep the results private!
My point is that open-source projects often compete with bigger teams with much greater resources. I often explain that passion is a key driver in open-source systems. With a community scrutinizing the source code, these projects often serve their users efficiently and converge into more acceptable industry standards. When they are as successful as x264 has been, they are an open inspiration and target for the industry. Aside from being free, open-source hasn’t proved to be popular in a sane commercial environment (for example, consider commodities like washing machines that don’t have popular open equivalents). Open-source projects stick around because they are competitive.
Sustainability differs from environmentalism
According to Wikipedia sustainability “is a social goal about the ability of people to co-exist on Earth over a long time”. I like the diagrams attached to this definition:
By Purvis, B., Mao, Y. & Robinson, D. Three pillars of sustainability: in search of conceptual origins. Sustain Sci 14, 681–695 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-018-0627-5 - https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11625-018-0627-5, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
As one can see, there are three components:
Open-source software has obvious social implications. We'll elaborate on that in a next blog article.
In my presentation, I tried to make a point regarding the software packager that I co-maintain and sell (GPAC) to explain why it is efficient by design. As explained in the previous section, I guess that if people like Meta or Netflix chose GPAC, that’s because we compare favorably to competing solutions. And even if we had to be improved, open-source allows that. Remember: thousands of eyes on a project can only help.
However, because we believe improvements need to come from a consolidated stack, we’ve joined a consortium called SMART-CD to optimize the impact around 5G. This consortium includes established vendors like Ateme and Viaccess-Orca, along with Nexedi (open infrastructure vendor), Motion Spell (ourselves, a professional open-source-based technology vendor), Telecom Paris (a public research organization), and GreenWeb (digital sustainability experts).
The last part of my presentation covered open-source economics and sustainable communities. Let’s be clear: the equation is tough, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I believe that most of us (particularly the younger generations) look for a balance between what feeds and what moves them. They’d like both to align, but this involves many trade-offs. Given the environmental challenges we face, it is important to create an ecosystem that unleashes energies.
Another point that I’ve tried to make is that open-source eats the world. When an OSS is adopted by global leaders along with open-standards, as is the case for GPAC for video streaming, it means that the technology has matured enough to be considered as infrastructure. That was the point of Netflix at the 2023 NAB Streaming Summit (video). In this situation an OSS often becomes the de facto standard for the whole industry. That’s where the economics is important:
I’m really happy this subject raised so many questions, even if some questions were quite pointed or even misunderstood. As an open-source contributor that created a dedicated company, I feel a special responsibility to explain what we do, why it is important, and how it leads us to a safer and more responsible future.