How OpenChain can transform the supply chain

How OpenChain can transform the supply chain

The OpenChain Project's open source compliance standards aim to make supply chains simpler, faster, safer, and more efficient.

How OpenChain can transform the supply chain
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Internet Archive Book Images. Modified by Opensource.com. CC BY-SA 4.0

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OpenChain is all about increasing open source compliance in the supply chain. This issue, which many people initially dismiss as a legal concern or a low priority, is actually tied to making sure that open source is as useful and frictionless as possible. In a nutshell, because open source is about the use of third-party code, compliance is the nexus where equality of access, safety of use, and reduction of risk can be found. OpenChain accomplishes this by building trust between organizations.

Many companies today understand open source and act as major supporters of open source development; however, addressing open source license compliance in a systematic, industry-wide manner has proven to be a somewhat elusive challenge. The global IT market has not seen a significant reduction in the number of open source compliance issues in areas such as consumer electronics over the past decade.

The majority of compliance issues originate in the midst of sharing multiple hardware and software components across numerous entities. The global supply chain is long and the participants are simultaneously intertwined and disparate. It is possible to have companies making hardware, companies making software, and companies doing both, all collaborating around a relatively small component. The products that result are often outstanding, but the challenge of keeping track of everything is substantial.

Complexities of supply change compliance

Compliance is not a device or code issue. It is a process challenge that spans multiple organizations.

Open source presents a specific challenge in the global supply chain. This is not because open source is inherently complex, but because of companies' varying degrees of exposure and domain knowledge. By way of example, the staff of a company developing a small component that requires a device driver may be entirely unfamiliar with open source. One mistake, one misunderstanding, and one component deployed in dozens of devices can present problems. Most compliance challenges arise from mistakes. Few, if any, originate with intent.

Ultimately, solving open source compliance challenges involves solving open source compliance in the supply chain. This is no small task: There are thousands of companies in play across dozens of national borders using numerous languages. Because no single company makes a finished device, no single company can solve the compliance challenges. Therefore, the global supply chain must align behind certain shared approaches.

Compliance is not a device or code issue. It is a process challenge that spans multiple organizations.
Awareness of this fact and the provision of a practical solution are two different matters. It takes time for ideas and suggested approaches to percolate and mature. It takes input from lawyers and managers and developers and political scientists. It takes, in short, a while for a community to bounce ideas back and forth until a simple, clear approach can be found. This is how the OpenChain Project came to be.

The OpenChain Project

The OpenChain Project, hosted by The Linux Foundation, is intended to make open source license compliance more predictable, understandable, and efficient for the software supply chain. Formally launched in October 2016, the OpenChain Project started three years earlier with discussions that continued at an increasing pace until a formal project was born. The basic idea was simple: Identify recommended processes for effective open source management. The goal was equally clear: Reduce bottlenecks and risk when using third-party code to make open source license compliance simple and consistent across the supply chain. The key was to pull things together in a manner that balanced comprehensiveness, broad applicability, and real-world usability.

OpenChain conformance

There are three interconnected part to the OpenChain Project:

  • a Specification that defines the core requirements of a quality compliance program,
  • a Conformance method that helps organizations display adherence to these requirements, and
  • a Curriculum to provide basic open source processes and best practices.

The core of the project is the Specification. This identifies a series of processes that help ensure organizations of any size can effectively address open source compliance issues. The main goal of organizations using the OpenChain Specification is to become conformant; that is, to meet the requirements of a certain version of the OpenChain Specification. A conformant organization can advertise this fact on its website and promotional material, which enables potential suppliers and customers to understand and trust its approach to open source compliance.

OpenChain Conformance can be easily checked via a free, online self-certification questionnaire. This is the quickest, easiest, and most effective way to check and confirm adherence to the OpenChain Specification. There is also a manual conformance document available for organizations whose process requires a paper review or disallows web-based submissions. Either online or manual conformance can be completed at a pace decided by the conforming organization, and both methods remain private until a submission is completed.

The OpenChain Curriculum helps organizations meet the training and process requirements of the OpenChain Specification. It provides a generic, refined, and clear example of an open source compliance training program that can either be used directly or incorporated into existing training programs. It can also be applied to various processes for managing open source inside an organization. The OpenChain Curriculum is available with very few restrictions to ensure organizations can use it in as many ways as possible. It is licensed as CC-0, effectively public domain, so it can be remixed or shared freely for any purpose.

A strong backing community

The OpenChain Project provides a compelling approach to making open source compliance more consistent and more effective across multiple market segments. However, good ideas need implementation, and in open source this inevitably hinges on a supporting community. Fourteen Platinum Members currently support the OpenChain Project's development and adoption: Adobe, ARM, Cisco, Comcast, GitHub, Harman, Hitachi, HPE, Qualcomm, Siemens, Sony, Toyota, Western Digital, and Wind River. There is also a wide community of almost 200 participants on the main mailing list that listen, share, and remix ideas.

At its core, the OpenChain Project is about providing a simple, clear method of building trust between organizations that rely on each other to share code and create products. Any organization that is OpenChain Conformant is aligning behind key requirements that its peers agree are required in a quality compliance program. It is about confirming overarching processes and policies, while allowing the specifics of each process and policy to be crafted by each organization to suit its specific needs.

The OpenChain Specification is at version 1.1 and is ready for adoption by any organization that creates, uses, or distributes open source code. The online conformance is free of charge, and the mailing list and work team calls are open to everyone. This is the first time there has been a single, unifying approach to addressing the challenge of open source compliance in the supply chain, and it has the potential to be truly transformative for the industry.

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About the author

Shane Coughlan - Shane Coughlan is an expert in communication methods and business development. He is best known for building bridges between commercial and non-commercial stakeholders in the technology sector. His professional accomplishments include establishing a legal department for the main NGO promoting Free Software in Europe, building a professional network of over 200 legal counsel and technical experts across 27 countries, and aligning corporate and community interests to launch the first law review... more about Shane Coughlan