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Our journey toward becoming an active open source contributor.

If Bosch can do it, you can do it too

5 min
Developers working at a table. Source: Bosch.IO

Since the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), a growing number of traditional companies have put “open source” on their agendas – to the astonishment of software companies, who now find they are no longer the only ones dealing with this issue. This raises the question of how to maintain and encourage this openness on the part of traditional companies, who so far have been more focused on controlling their own assets and technologies.

Bosch and open source: how we got here

Kai Hudalla

Kai Hudalla was working at Bosch on solutions for the Internet of Things in application domains like smart home, energy management, e-mobility, and automotive long before the IoT became so popular and ubiquitous. He is actively involved in several Eclipse IoT projects. One of these is the Eclipse Hono project, the aim of which is to provide an integration platform for connecting millions of devices to the cloud. Kai is a regular speaker at conferences and enjoys cooking. He also likes playing golf – whenever the weather permits.

Bosch has always benefited strongly from open source software, but we had difficulties when it came to playing a more active role in the open source community. Various concerns were voiced: from legal problems and questions of product quality through to fears about ensuing delays in the development process.

Despite all this, we began seriously ramping up our involvement in the open source segment around five years ago. Since then, we have launched Eclipse projects targeting some of Bosch’s key areas of interest. That includes the Bosch IoT Suite – our IoT software platform – the core of which is being developed in open source projects by Eclipse IoT.

Bosch’s overall goal is to make sure that our IoT business does not depend on the proprietary technology of any of the big IoT platform vendors but instead relies on technology that is open, publicly available and thus not under the control of a single player in the market. As a result, we broke with our traditional approach to software development: moving away from proprietary software and toward open source.

Consequences of an open source strategy

Developing software in open source projects has far-reaching consequences for a company – especially if it previously focused on developing its own software in-house. In light of our IoT platform, it became clear to us that our business model could no longer be restricted solely to selling software licenses if the source code of our software was available on GitHub and could thus be used by anybody. That is why we offer the Bosch IoT Suite as software as a service (SaaS). In other words, we operate the Bosch IoT Suite services professionally in the cloud. Customers can book the services and pay to use them.

The move to open source meant we had to think about the “crown jewels,” as it were: components that are available only as commercial offerings. Our approach here was that special components should be based on an open source project. We didn’t want to leave any functions out of the open source project that could be addressed only by a commercial offering.

Finally, we also had to be aware that there could be points of friction between a company’s interests and those of the open source world. Whereas a company is interested in implementing certain functions and doing so according to its own priorities, the open source community may have a quite different set of priorities. We had to grasp that we can draw benefit from other points of view; they can potentially show us new ways of solving problems.

Creating suitable foundations

Steffen Evers

Dr. Steffen Evers is director of open source services at Bosch.IO. He leads the team that provides development services for open source software essential to the company and consults on strategy, community work, software management, and compliance processes in the area of open source. For nearly 20 years, Steffen has researched, taught, and promoted open source development and supported various companies in the use of OSS to achieve their business objectives.

Companies wanting to be successful in the open source environment first have to construct the right framework. In 2014, we set about putting the topic of open source on a sound foundation within our company. We first had to draw up a set of rules – rules that defined processes, for example. Who has to give approvals? What training do associates require before they can make a contribution? The goal was to keep the risks manageable – eliminating them altogether is out of the question. But it is possible to create a set-up in which everyone knows how to conduct themselves in the open source context.

At the same time, the set of rules had to be implementable in practice. If developers first have to spend weeks battling with processes before they can write even one line of code, then we have lost touch with reality. It’s the same thing when a developer wants to make regular contributions to a project, but has to obtain the necessary approvals constantly.

When we announced at EclipseCon 2015 that were becoming a Strategic Member of the Eclipse Foundation, we had already implemented our set of rules. What’s more, we had done a lot of important groundwork. We were already in contact with other companies with a view to evaluating the potential of an IoT-cloud infrastructure based on open source software. This led to the Eclipse Hono project, which both Bosch and other companies collaborated in from the very outset.

It was very important for us to find allies well before embarking on a project like this. It resulted in substantially stronger commitment on our part. As a consequence, it didn’t look as if we were simply making our proprietary software available to the open source community.

Bosch - 3 steps from use to open source to champion
Our journey from open source user to champion.

Consequences for the business sectors

In addition to the effects it has on the company, greater involvement in the open source segment also filters through to the work processes of the different business sectors.

1. Developers

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Developers are no longer confined to working in the filter bubble of their own company – they work with other developers “out in the real world.” They have a big opportunity to learn from others. On the other hand, every developer has to be aware that he or she is now visible to the outside world. That means having to cope with greater responsibility. After all, when you contribute source code to a project, everyone knows who wrote it. That means, in particular, you have to learn to deal with justified and unjustified criticism from other developers, even from complete strangers. What’s more, patience is needed when answering questions.

2. Sales

The sales story is changing. In the majority of cases, it’s no longer about the special features you have to offer. This is because, in the open source context, technical functions frequently arise that are more or less comparable with others. Accordingly, the USP focus should no longer fall on the features. Rather, the distinction now lies in the software’s openness, independence, and adaptability.

3. Marketing

When the commercial product is marketed, we now need to focus on the underlying open source projects. The interaction between the open source software and the commercial products can typically be broken down into two aspects: the technologies are developed in open source projects and the commercial products often combine a whole range of these technologies, supplementing them with special features.

The marketing strategy initially has to start with the open source projects. When, in the next step, the focus shifts to specific utilization, we can make the link to the commercial product, which can be tailored to the customer’s particular requirements. That means lower implementation costs for the customer.

The customer must always be aware of the close link between the commercial product and the open source technology. The two should not be seen as entirely separate elements.

A complex process

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The latest teknowlogy | PAC RADAR on IoT platforms based on open source rated the Bosch IoT Suite "best in class".

Read the report

Positioning a company in the open source world is a complex process, similar to climbing a ladder. Initially, you are simply using open source software without actually contributing anything. At some point, you compile your first bug reports and contribute your first bug fixes – all very modest in scope. With time, you begin developing more complex features and slowly start heading down the path to becoming an open source champion, setting up and managing your own open source projects.

But the development from open source user to open source champion mainly reflects the technical perspective. Many more aspects are in play across the process as a whole: you have to adapt your business models and corporate processes to reflect your commitment to open source; and, last but not least, the transition will have consequences for the way different business sectors work.

Without doubt, committing yourself as a company to the open source community means a lot of hard work. But there’s one thing we’re sure of: if Bosch can do it, you can do it too.

More on open source

Get more information on why we pursue an open source strategy to transform the IoT.

Check out this overview of the benefits of open source.

Eclipse Hono 1.0.0 was recently released. Learn more about its features.

Working with different open source projects is getting easier. Let us introduce you to our pre-integrated Eclipse IoT package.

Open source consulting: How you can profit from jointly developed solutions.