Open source software powers some of the world’s most popular projects, including WordPress, Linux, VLC Media Player, Mozilla Firefox, Gimp, and Handbrake.
All of these projects have become essential for daily business operations. Although you can find Windows-based web servers, most web servers run on Linux.
It’s safe to say that most people and businesses wouldn’t have a website if WordPress wasn’t open source. Most WordPress websites rely on third-party plugins for functionality, and many top themes wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t open source.
The truth is that open source software can be a liability, but potential risks can be avoided and eliminated. In this article, we’ll explore these liabilities and share several effective strategies to eliminate them.
First, let’s explore what open source software is and why it’s so popular.
Open source software is exactly what it sounds like – the code is open source, which means anyone can access and alter the code. This is the opposite of proprietary code, which is locked away from view. Developers who produce proprietary code don’t want anyone to view, edit, or alter their code in any way.
Software developers who align with the open source philosophy make their code available because they want people to make changes. They want their users to find ways to improve their project management and will incorporate community feedback in future releases.
For example, communities often recommend adding certain features that would make an application better. Some community members take the time to develop those features and produce unofficial releases and modifications. When a community-made feature becomes popular, the developer will usually include that feature in future releases.
In this way, open source software is like crowdsourcing software development. Two minds are better than one, but the possibilities are exponential when thousands of minds look at an application from their unique perspectives.
Progress is stifled when all code is proprietary. Crowdsourcing has always been the best way to get feedback in the tech world. Although not all projects should be open source, we need open source projects to move forward. Without open source, we’re stuck waiting for one team of software developers to come up with all possible solutions and features. That’s a tall order for even the best developers.
Python is one of the best examples of why open source software is important. Python is scalable, flexible, performs well, and supports rapid development. It’s also extremely easy to learn. While proprietary software can meet these requirements, it’s not easy, and will usually take longer.
Some of the world’s top applications are written in Python, including:
Without Python as an open source programming language, the above applications and their respective tech companies would not have become the dominant application in their niche.
If you’re into new projects, keep an eye on these groundbreaking open source Python applications in the works. Remember, all open source projects begin as an unknown.
Now that you know open source software pretty much powers the majority of the tech world, you’re probably wondering how it could be a security risk. For instance, why would Mozilla create an open source browser (Firefox) if it’s not secure?
Here’s the truth about cybersecurity. All applications – proprietary and open source – share the same risks. Hackers find and exploit vulnerabilities and use phishing and spear-phishing tactics to gain unauthorized access to accounts that will help them further exploit a vulnerability.
Although the risks are the same, there are several factors that make open source software more vulnerable.
The key to preventing security breaches is knowing your part in the shared responsibility model. Contrary to popular belief, software developers aren’t entirely responsible for security.
The responsibility for security isn’t shared because everyone should contribute – it’s actually impossible for a developer to fully secure an application because the moment an end user installs software, they create new security risks that only exist in the hosted environment. Software developers simply don’t have control over what end users do with their software.
Once an application is installed, the end user must secure the application. This involves maintaining a secure hosting environment, installing updates, installing patches, and controlling access.
Keeping an application secure once installed and in use is easier said than done. Most security breaches are caused by user error. Any application can be breached by the simplest mistake, and it’s almost never a true “hack.”
For example, say a company fires an employee and fails to revoke their access to the company web server. That employee can log into the network using their valid credentials and delete important databases. They can also download customer data from company databases and sell it on the dark web or use it directly for identity theft.
The reason people view open source software as more vulnerable than proprietary software is the fact that developers don’t always assume responsibility for security. For instance, not all open source developers release timely patches or updates. They also don’t always tell users how to implement secure installations.
Many open source projects are launched as experiments by inexperienced developers with limited to no security knowledge. Even experienced developers aren’t security experts and many don’t have a security expert on their development team.
Large corporations are better at following the DevSecOps model, which includes security in every stage of development. Although DevSecOps is ideal, embracing this culture shift takes experience and money beyond the scope of many open source projects.
Most open source software is completely free, which means the developers aren’t getting paid to work on the project. Some projects are sponsored, but that’s rare. Developers who don’t get paid for their work usually have day jobs and don’t have a full commitment to their free projects.
The only way to avoid some of the biggest risks is to choose your open source software wisely. For example, if you find a content management system and the last release was made five years ago, you probably don’t want to run your website with that software. However, software that gets regularly updated and has a large community would be less risky.
Now that you know why open source software is considered risky, there’s another side to the story you should know about.
There’s one important reason open source software can be more secure than proprietary applications: crowd-sourced problem/solution.
For example, when five thousand people are modifying an application, all the bugs will become known faster. It’s like accelerated crowd sourced beta testing. Beta testing is one of the most important phases in software development. Not testing enough is one of the main reasons software projects fail.
With proprietary software, someone can discover a bug and exploit installations for months or years before someone else finds the same bug. Depending on who finds the vulnerability, it might not be reported to the developer. This creates an ongoing risk that won’t end until the developer learns about the vulnerability.
However, when someone discovers a vulnerability in open source software, that vulnerability won’t last long. With thousands of developers working with the code, it’s only a matter of time before other developers discover and report the vulnerability to the developer.
If you’ve been avoiding open source software because you’ve heard it’s not secure, hopefully this article will help you understand how you can mitigate the risks. Essentially, as long as you implement security on your server and tighten down access, you shouldn’t have a problem using open source applications. However, it’s best to consult with an IT security pro to make sure all your bases are covered.
Open source software has major potential. In fact, it’s been changing the world for decades. The open source software revolution began with Netscape in 1998 and has been supporting forward movement ever since.
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Ryan is the VP of Operations for DEV.co. He brings over a decade of experience in managing custom website and software development projects for clients small and large, managing internal and external teams on meeting and exceeding client expectations–delivering projects on-time and within budget requirements. Ryan is based in El Paso, Texas.