How many energy companies have a policy against the use of so-called ‘Open source’ software in their activities? Amanda Brock, chief executive of OpenUK, says it’s a common prohibition – but she suspects that a closer look will reveal that the prohibition is out of date. She says, “they are using it, but don’t understand that they are”. It is now commonplace in engineering, banking and other sectors, she says.
OpenUK defines itself as the UK organisation for the business of Open Technology, including open source software, open source hardware and open data. Currently, on this issue, “Utilities are in the place the tech sector was ten years ago,” says Brock, but energy is about to become an area of focus for OpenUK. It wants to work with UK energy companies on taking an open data approach, similar to the experience of open source banking in the finance sector, to encourage more competition and innovation in the market. And at the end of this year it will take open source to COP26, combining it with data centre design to explore how it can meet carbon neutral goals and how taking an Open Source approach to design can speed up the adoption process.
Open Source is software that is distributed with its source code. Programmers who have access to source code can change a program by adding to it, changing it, or fixing parts of it that are not working properly. Code is usually stored in a public repository and shared publicly. Anyone can access the repository to use the code independently or contribute improvements to the design and functionality of the overall project. Using that approach will mean companies thinking differently about how they procure and manage software, Brock says when we meet virtually.
What is it?
The idea of Open Source dates back decades, but applications surged when GIT – software for version control, which tracks changes in any set of files – became a common tool for co-ordinating work among programmers collaboratively developing source code. That gave birth to common spaces where GIT could be used (such as GitHub), and Brock says this “Has made a huge difference to adoption. People can take something from there and try it without having to talk to a legal or procurement team. Once they have tried it they can say ‘now we want to build some services around this’ and they avoid a learning curve”.
Brock says a second huge step-up came as users shifted their computing to the cloud, which brought Open Source to the mainstream, because says “90% of the public cloud is open source”. Microsoft said 15 years ago that Open Source was a cancer, but is now the single biggest contributor in lines of code, according to Brock. They have seen a shift in the business model away from royalty licencing.
A recent report by OpenUK illustrated how pervasive Open Source is becoming. It says Open Source is a significant force in enterprise software today, powering the Cloud, scores of ‘tech unicorns’ (ie Google, Facebook etc), and companies valued at more than $1bn. In the UK it names users such as new banks Monzo and Starling, media companies News UK, The Guardian and the Financial Times, Ocado’s warehouse robots and many others.
Largely without it being widely known, the UK has been an important player in the Open Source option in Europe. Brock explains, “Between 2010 and 2015 we had policies that were world leading and have been picked up by other countries”. It slipped down the UK’s list of priorities – Brock says when governments change, “there are usually things that get ignored that were big on one government’s agenda and that is what happened to Open Source”. Europe started to pick it up, and the European Commission announced in 2018 that it was spending nearly half a million Euros commissioning a report on Open Source across Europe. The EC found around 490k developers – Open Source activity is measured in the number of developers at work and the number of lines of code written – but that was Pre-Brexit and Brock says the UK had the lion’s share. Following OpenUK’s investigation, she says that in the UK “We have a couple of hundred thousand people working on it”. Despite the large numbers of individuals, it has been an invisible industry because the developers are within global companies or companies not known as Open Source developers. What is more, she says, “We haven’t built an ecosystem around them” that turns individual projects and developers into an industry for UK plc.
Although Open Source applications are not as high-profile as initiatives like the UK’s Open Data programme, a steady stream of projects are under way.
OpenUK recently joined LF Energy, a Linux Foundation project seeking to accelerate open-source technology to help the energy and transport industries digitalise and decarbonise faster. Other UK entities such as the Turing Institute are already members and so are European network companies RTE, Alliander, Energinet and TenneT. Brock said of the move, “OpenUK joins LF Energy in a positive step to promote smarter use of data within the utilities and energy sectors, powered by open-source approaches. We are pleased to be actively engaged with the UK energy sector and support the vision for more efficient use of data, technology and infrastructure based on open principles.”
Among projects supported by LF Energy are:
• Hyphae, a microgrid initiative to automate the peer-to-peer distribution of renewable energy. It will use Sony CSL’s Autonomous Power Interchange System software, which automatically distributes locally-produced renewable energy over a DC grid, for AC grids.
• Grid eXchange Fabric, Alliander’s smart systems platform, formerly known as Open Smart Grid Platform. This technology-agnostic industrial internet of things (IoT) platform allows operators to collect data and monitor, control and manage smart devices on the grid.
• The Energy Market Methods Consortium, developing standardised methods, linked to open source code, to enable demand flexibility as a resource. It has three working groups: CalTRACK to standardise measurements of meter-based changes in consumption; GRID to provide methods for relative impacts to load shape for claimable savings and forecasting net grid impacts; and SEAT, which leverages differential privacy to enable a range of data-driven policy and market-based use cases.
• The OpenEEmeter project quantifies monthly, daily and hourly changes in energy consumption, from behind-the-meter building interventions, to define consistent transactional units for distributed energy resources, ensure transparency and enables markets for behind-the-meter flexibility.
• Service-based Open-source Grid automation platform for Network Operation of the future (SOGNO) is a project creating microservices for the next generation of data-driven monitoring and control systems with a multi-vendor/supplier solution.
• Power System Network Operations (PSNO), is a utility-driven working group looking at a set of analytical tools and applications to monitor and control the future power system. The system would identify potential system issues in advance and either present potential remedies to the operator or deploy them automatically.
Changing the approach
Open Source requires a fundamental rethink on companies’ relationship with software supply. It means companies do not make an ‘all or nothing’ one-off choice on a large bilateral software supply contract with a major supplier. It is a different type of commitment, changing from paying for software to being part of its development and paying for services or for maintenance of software infrastructure that you co-own.
Brock says “The word people use is co-opetition – it is not used a lot in the UK but it will be – where you have non-differentiating projects where companies will come together, invest cash and human capital to create something that is non-differentiating. They use that collectively to create a de-facto standard in a much more efficient and faster way.”
In a digitalised world “what sharing does is remove the need to compete at that level. You will differentiate yourself with user experience but the base level doesn’t need to differentiate.”
She compares it to roads and bridges. In fact for the power sector there is a ready-made analogy, in the networks across which power market participants deliver their products. The difference is that in the case of software, changes can happen much more quickly, and the Open Source platform is responsive in a way that neither a physical network – nor a support contract for a proprietary system – can be.
Brock says, “Generally it takes two to five years for a sector to engage and understand the value of this openness and that you are able to do your own thing with it but develop it collectively. You are not wedded to an outdated model of licensing, you can maintain and develop it yourself and as you want to have feature development you can do that yourself too”.
OpenUK’s initial report on the UK industry included this comment from Cheryl Hung, VP Ecosystem, Cloud Native Computing Foundation, who highlighted the pace of change in the industry: “There’s two major ways open source adds to the bottom line. One is that it means that companies don’t have to build, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel for everything so they can save a lot of the time that they would have spent on that and just use open source software. The second part is that they can be along for the ride, as open-source software improves over time, they get all of the benefits of that improvement without having to invest their own effort into improving it.”
What’s the problem?
Companies who have a prohibition against Open Source often cite fears over cybersecurity and Brock acknowledges that it is a critical issue, but says it is one that applies to every industry. “You now have a world that is digitised that is entirely dependant on software. It is critical and it will be the biggest topic for the next few years”. But she thinks it is “A bit of a red herring for open source” and the answer is finding a way to collaborate and manage it, rather than trying to do it in silos.
She explains, “Software is inevitably open to vulnerabilities and attack and it is an issue we have to collectively manage. If you look at closed systems, you have no idea what’s in them and you have no idea how to access it, so if there is an attack and you are a customer you have no control, you have no say and you have no input.” She adds, “You have to rely in the contract and that is only as good as the wording. And in the supply chain you will have small companies forced to sign up to massive vulnerabilities – who knows if they can stand behind them?” Having access to the code is better, she says, because you can collectively fix it, and fix it faster.
When Brock talks about the sectors already using Open Source she refers to outcomes, systems that do things like billing or EV charging. “These interfaces across sectors are a massive puzzle to unwind,” she says.
“You control it by having policy. You control it by having procedures about how you bring it in and how you manage it well. There are already good processes in place that you can pick up and learn from by dealing with open communities. Generally they want to help with the transition because they view it as an inevitability and a good thing.”
She adds, “Someone very senior described it [Open Source] to me recently as like gravity. It’s all around you and you can’t escape it. Better to work with something than try to reject it.”