More Open Source Lingo (Hello, Fork!)
ATLANTA–As expected, the annual get-together of cable’s technical community steamrolled a fresh mound of terminology into the field of view.
This year’s batch, wafting up from the SCTE Cable-Tec Expo two weeks ago, seemed less about tongue-twisting gibberish, and more about lingo swapping — particularly as it relates to the Wild West that is “open source” everything.
Here’s an example. “Intellectual Property leakage.” Abbreviated, IP leakage. Important: If life gives you cause to say it, do not say aloud the abbreviated version. Learn from those of us who fell prey to this linguistic trap, too many times – it’s but a variation of “it seems like IP everywhere!”
Intellectual property leakage is another early reason why cable technologists used to avoid dabbling in the open source software common to The Big Internet. Open source stipulates a “votes with code” mindset — participants contribute their efforts into a big, open repository, for anyone else to dip into.
This was seen as particularly risky when it came to set-top boxes, which contain things just too sensitive to be open. Like how encrypted signals are decrypted, for instance. Or how they tie fairly directly into things like billing data.
That all changed with the RDK – the Reference Design Kit. As was confirmed by panelists on an “RDK in Action” panel during Expo, RDK is the cable industry’s first real example of open source inside the set-tops and gateways cable operators buy to lease to consumers.
Concerns about being infected by the stuff of The Big Internet, coupled with the worries of Intellectual Property leakage, are why RDK is technically considered “shared source.” The difference between “open source” and “shared source,” very simply? The license. RDK community members gain access to the source code repository by signing a (zero dollar) license.
Then there’s the fork. Forks matter greatly in open source/shared source communities. This is more “fork in the road” than “put a fork in it,” although generally speaking, forks are bad. They happen when an open source effort decides to take a different technological course. Then, everyone who uses that code must decide: Take the fork, or stay on the original course?
This happened in September with one of the core components in the RDK stack – the web engine – which forked to a Google-built effort called “Blink.” Experts at the RDK panel at SCTE marked the development as “no biggie,” explaining that a tenet of RDK is to stay at the tip of the developments in the open source elements it selected. In other words, if Blink is deemed better, then so it shall be.
Bottom line: Cable going open source in its leased electronics is a new way of thinking about how it sources equipment. It’s part of the overall transition of the cable operator as an integrator, to the cable operator as an innovator, to quote Time Warner Cable SVP/technology Matt Zelesko, who added: “This is a key trend. It’s really important.”