NICTA opens its software to the world

Hopes other research organisations follow lead to formalise open source releases.

Gernot Heiser

Gernot Heiser

Research organisation National ICT Australia (NICTA) has stepped up its support for open source software by launching the OpenNICTA portal (http://www.opennicta.com) where people can view and download software developed and licensed by the organisation.

NICTA’s Trustworthy Embedded Systems Group Leader, Gernot Heiser, said OpenNICTA will play a key role in the organisation's goal of gaining international attention and collaboration.

Open source software is impossible to ignore and it is an important way for people to collaborate," Heiser said.

According to Heiser, a majority of projects in research environments, and definitely within NICTA, are based on open source software.

“This is particularly the case where the researchers really need to dig in to a system: if it is not open source they typically face major hurdles,” he said.

Heiser said NICTA values open source as important for both academic and commercial reasons.

“Open source and commercialisation are not mutually exclusive, and this is frequently misunderstood” said Heiser.

“In the end a portal is only as good as the material available through it so the key is obviously in developing world class software to distribute. I think we have made a pretty good start in that,” he said.

There are 11 NICTA-developed open source releases available through OpenNICTA, but this number is set to grow rapidly in the next year with several new releases in the pipeline and two new releases to be added soon.

Heiser said he would like to see more research organisations follow NICTA's lead and formalise processes for handing software back to the open source community.

“[Research organisations have been donating software back to the community] for a number of years but typically in an ad-hoc fashion and very often below the radar of the authorities,” he said.

“Basically, it is done without telling anyone and in the hope that the lawyers don't catch on. This, of course, has the potential for creating major problems (for the organisation). So I think it is important that a systematic approach is taken.”

NICTA has a procedure for deciding whether or not a project should be open sourced. It considers a number of factors and most importantly the business case.

“This procedure is something we can improve on. At the moment our hurdles are still on the high side, but it is natural that people are cautious initially,” said.

In addition to his role within NICTA, Heiser is also the CTO of successful NICTA spin-off Open Kernel Labs.

Open Kernel Labs developed the OKL4 embedded hypervisor, which is one of the releases now available though OpenNICTA.

OKL4, which offers microkernel-based virtualisation for embedded systems, has been deployed in more than 300 million mobile devices worldwide. These numbers, according to Heiser, are growing by tens of millions a month.

Part of the key to the success of Open Kernel Labs could well be through its licensing strategy.

“Open Kernel labs initially went out to market under a very permissive BSD license in order to maximise exposure. As we became more well-known and our business objectives changed, we changed to a more restrictive open source license.”

Heiser said another good reason for releasing software as open source is that it helps the software retain its value.

“Software is often expensive to create but it does not hold its value,” he said.

“If it is not maintained and it does not have a group of people behind it that understand it and continue working on it [gets less appealing] very quickly. That's another reason for going open source. You can build a community around the software that will maintain it while you can wash your hands of it and move on to other things.”

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