How Open is Too Open?

July 18, 2011
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If you’re in the technology or information management spaces, you’ve probably heard the axiom “Information wants to be free.” While accounts vary, many attribute the quote to Stewart Brand in the 1960s.

If you’re in the technology or information management spaces, you’ve probably heard the axiom “Information wants to be free.” While accounts vary, many attribute the quote to Stewart Brand in the 1960s.

Today, information is becoming increasingly more prevalent and less expensive, spawning concepts such as Open Data, defined as:

the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyrightpatents or other mechanisms of control. While not identical, open data has a similar ethos to those of other “Open” movements such as open sourceopen content, and open access. The philosophy behind open data has been long established (for example in the Mertonian tradition of science), but the term “open data” itself is recent, gaining popularity with the rise of the Internet and World Wide Web and, especially, with the launch of open-data government initiatives such as Data.gov.

Again, you may already know this. But consider what companies such as Facebook are doing with their infrastructure and server specs–the very definition of traditionally closed apparata. The company has launched a project, named OpenCompute, that turns the proprietary data storage models of Amazon and Google on their heads. From the site:

We started a project at Facebook a little over a year ago with a pretty big goal: to build one of the most efficient computing infrastructures at the lowest possible cost.

We decided to honor our hacker roots and challenge convention by custom designing and building our software, servers and data centers from the ground up.

The result is a data center full of vanity free servers which is 38% more efficient and 24% less expensive to build and run than other state-of-the-art data centers.

But we didn’t want to keep it all for ourselves. Instead, we decided to collaborate with the entire industry and create the Open Compute Project, to share these technologies as they evolve.

In a word, wow.

Mixed Feelings

Both of these projects reveal complex dynamics at play. On one hand, there’s no doubt that more, better, and quicker innovation results from open source endeavors. Crowdsourced projects benefit greatly from vibrant developer communities. In turn, these volunteer armies create fascinating extensions, complementary projects, and new directions for existing applications and services.

I could cite many examples, but perhaps the most interesting is WordPress. Its community is nothing less than amazing–and the number of themes, extensions, and plug-ins grows daily, if not hourly. The vast majority of its useful tools are free or nearly free. And development begets more development, creating a network effect. Millions of small businesses and solopreneurs make their livings via WordPress in one form or fashion.

On the other hand, there is such a thing as too open–and WordPress may be an equally apropos example here. Because the software is available to all of the world, it’s easier for hackers to launch Trojan horses, worms, DoS attacks, and malware aimed at popular WordPress sites. To be sure, determined hackers can bring down just about any site (WordPress or not), but when they have the keys to the castle, it’s not exactly hard for them to wreak havoc.

Simon Says

Does Facebook potentially gain by publishing the design of its data centers and servers for all to see? Of course. But the risks are substantial. I can’t tell you that those risks are or are not worth the rewards. I just don’t have access of all of the data.

But I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable doing as much if I ran IT for a healthcare organization or an e-commerce company. Imagine a cauldron of hackers licking their lips at the trove of stealing highly personal and valuable information surely used for unsavory purposes.

When considering how open to be, look at the finances of your organization. Non-profits and startups might find that the squeeze of erring on the side of openness is worth the juice. For established companies with very sensitive data and a great deal to lose, however, it’s probably not wise to be too open.

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What say you?