A New Generation of Engineers: Why Open Source Really Matters

babbage-analytical-engineWe face a challenge maintaining British excellence in computer engineering. It is an industry where we excel, but last summer the BBC reported that we face a “retirement cliff”, with the average age of an engineer in Britain now being 54 years. It is not for a lack of jobs. In a period where graduate salaries have fallen, salaries for engineering graduates have been rising. A study by the former editor of Business Week, John Byrne, found that Engineering was the most common degree discipline of millionaires, with the sub-discipline of computer science in 8th place.

The UK has a long and distinguished track record with computers.  This is a country that gave us the first computer (Babbage’s Analytical Engine), the first programmer (Ada Lovelace) and the first programmable digital electronic computer (Colossus at Bletchley Park). In the late 1940’s, where there were three computers in the world, two were in the UK—EDSAC in Cambridge and ‘Baby’ in Manchester (the other was the Harvard Mark 1).  We could even exploit them commercially—the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) was the world’s first business computer.

The simple fact is that we have skipped training a generation of engineers. While in the 1980’s, computers were fashionable, by the 1990’s we were content to be users. The old secretarial skills course became the GCSE in IT, and we bored children with learning word processing under the pretence that they were learning about computers.  And just as significantly, we have also taught a generation that computes are secret black boxes, that they should not be privileged to understand.

Yet despite this, UK computer engineering is still a power house.  Take apart any modern smartphone, and you’ll find a processor designed by ARM (Cambridge), graphics from Imagination Technologies (Kings Langley), Bluetooth & audio from CSR (Cambridge) and high speed data from Icera (now part of Nvidia, but based in Bristol).  Even where you do find a US company like Broadcom with a chip in there, it was largely designed in their Bristol and Cambridge R&D centres.

When we look at those modern companies, we see them run by engineers who grew up with the BBC Micro.  The question is where to find the generation to succeed them.

Now the BBC Micro was not a free or open source design.  The concept really didn’t exist—the GNU Manifesto wasn’t published until a year or two later.  But it was still the case that at tremendous amount of software was made freely available, and school age programmers were encouraged to experiment.  As the noted educationalist Miles Berry has observed, the free and open source paradigm is perfectly matched to education, where experiment and exploration should be encouraged.

There is no single way to address the issue. The ditching of the old IT curriculum was a good thing, even if its replacement has not yet been fully thought out, and government policy has still to make it through to classroom teaching. Initiatives like Young Rewired State help bring youngsters into technology outside the school system.  The emergence of Arduino, Raspberry Pi and a host of other computers, all of which use free and open source software (if not hardware) is a strong move to an educationally rich environment.  Perhaps most exciting is the LowRISC project, taking free and open source design right into the processor silicon itself.

My company, Embecosm together with RS Components has been supporting the excellent #techmums initiative that was founded by Dr Sue Black. As existing initiatives show, the reason children get involved with technology is often because their parents are interested. So #techmums aims to give confidence to mothers by running a range of introductory workshops, in which they gain skills and are introduced to the excitement of technology. Empowering and inspiring women, in the hope that their children will then be encouraged to take up technology.

Last year, between us, we supplied 100 Shrimp Persistence of Vision kits (free and open source software and hardware) to #techmums, and in partnership with the BCS and Ravensbourne we ran two workshops. The first of these was to train the #techmums trainers so that they can run workshops themselves. The second was for a group of mothers in Greenwich, East London. I’m delighted to report that both of the workshops were a great success, as clearly evidenced in the smiles of all those who took part.

One more step towards the next generation of engineers.  And all with the help of free and open source software and hardware.

Dr Jeremy Bennett is Treasurer of the Open Source Consortium.  He is also Chief Executive of Embecosm, a software consultancy developing the next generation of free and open source compilers for chip manufacturers around the world.

Open Source at CloudExpoEurope 2015

CloudExpoEurope took place over a two day period, from the 11th to the 12th of March at ExCel, London. It is the largest cloud event in the world, demonstrating the most current and innovative cloud technology solutions

redhat-cloudexpo-standIt was clear to see how technology, particularly open source technology has evolved, not only in the technology itself but also in the was this is presented. These cloud technology revolutions are not being kept in the dark any longer. Instead they are being openly celebrated.

One of the big names exhibiting at the event was RedHat. A compact stand, RedHat had stripped away all of the unnecessarys that may have detracted from their brand, adding strength to their exhibit through a crisp, bright presentation. In addition to the popular and most well established Linux distributions, RedHat provide cloud infrastructure,  cloudforms,  Openstack platforms and more.

Greatly differing in their exhibit was Suse who used a jungle theme to compliment and enhance their memorable lizard logo. Their presentation successfullsuse-cloudexpo-standy balanced creativity and colour while maintaining a high level of professionalism. In addition to their Linux distribution, their offerings include Openstack private cloud and public cloud solutions as well as consulting services and support.

OW2 were represented at the event. Not only does this organisation deal with infrastructApphub-cloudexpo-bannerure software, but is also actively involved in the open source community, launching AppHub in January 2015, providing a neutral channel and support base for those involved in open source.

Also at CloudExpoEurope was
Edge-core, providers of network solutions. Edge-core also use the SMC brand- one of the industry pioneers with over 40 years of experience.
Cloudweavers, who have introduced their instant cloud, a self managed and private cloud which does not require any installation, is hardware independent and easy to set up.

A recurrent theme throughout the event was the modernisation of the image of open source cloud technology. A vast contrast to many ill-informed stereotypes about technology solutions, the open source exhibits were dynamiedgecore-stand-cloudexpoc, vibrant and current, delivering their information in a clear and approachable manner.

Rising profile of Open Source in retail tech

I visited the RBTE expo at Olympia on 10th March to gain a perspective of the progress of Open Source in retail technology, we were not disappointed with what we found.

RBTE 2015 LogoIt was clear to see the profile of Open Source is emerging within the retail industry. We found most exhibitors embed Open Source at some level within their offerings, this may be through cloud infrastructure, Android or Open Source developments.

Odoo stand at RBTE 2015Odoo, who topped the bill on the e-Commerce bootcamp, demonstrated how their software can enable the rapid implementation of an e-Commerce module within their business management suite of applications. Their stand featured the full end to end business management solution including point of sale, warehouse management and accounting with particular focus on the drag and drop website and e-commerce builder. Currently, the Odoo suite is provided under an Open Source AGPL license and is written in a modular Python framework. A partner channel provides implementation services, Odoo offer direct hosted sales and an enterprise contract guarantee.

Shopware stand at RBTE 2015Shopware made their UK début at the show, prominently and proudly displaying the words “Open Source”. This attracted much attention and conversation as passers by who may have heard of Open Source, and wanted more information, stopped to talk to the exhibitor. Shopware provide an Open Source e-commerce platform ,written in PHP ,which is popular across mainland Europe. The application is often used as a front-end on top of legacy ERP and database systems. They support an extensive set of plugins and an enterprise support option, the software is released under an Open Source license.

Akeneo stand at RBTE 2015Akeneo also made their UK début with their Open Source Product Information Management tools. Also created in PHP, the Akeneo tools enable data to be consolidated from multiple sources and made available to online applications, mobile apps and even printable outputs. The solution includes a powerful import and export function which enables it to connect with many ERP systems, databases and even CSV files. Akeneo provide their application through a BSD-style license and offer enterprise services.

Magento stand at RBTE 2015Last but not least is the Open Source powerhouse of e-commerce, Magento. Also a PHP application, Magento has a large community of integrators and developers to support and develop the Open Core and associated commercial modules. Recently acquired by Ebay Enterprises, Magento had a large presence, sponsoring the lanyards and taking a large stand space, shared with a selection of integrators.

Flapit imageAlthough not Open Source, one stand that also caught our eye was the Flapit cloud-connected departure board which displays real-time statistics taken from social media and other sources in the virtual world bringing them into a tangible form in the physical world. The Flapit display is just over half a meter wide and resembles a 1960s electronic calendar clock.

It was pleasing to see that the Open Source stands drew more than their fair share of visitors, leaving some of the more established names kicking their heels. This was in part due to to the contemporary and clean presentation style of the Open Source companies, and the intuitive and easy to use applications on offer.

chip hack day

An Introduction to FPGA Programming

London, 20-21 April 2013

Organised by OSC member embecosm

A two day introductory workshop on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA) aimed at complete beginners with no prior experience of hardware description languages (HDL) and FPGA workflows.

All original materials used in the workshop will be made available under open licences and published to GitHub.

Free FPGA development systems will be given to the first five teachers that both register and complete the workshop.

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oshug mtg April 2013

Open Source Hardware User Group Meeting

London, 18 April 2013, 6pm

This event is organised by our friends the Open Source Hardware Group

The second meeting of 2013 marking their third anniversary will feature a talk on writing embedded firmware and a panel discussion that will explore the future of open source hardware. Topics:

  • Writing firmware for the AVR: A Morse Code Beacon
  • Panel discussion: The Future of Open Source Hardware

Continue reading oshug mtg April 2013

Information economy consultation

Govt consultation on an information economy strategy

On 7 February 2013 The Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) opened a call for evidence on an Information Economy strategy. The working description is:

the part of the economy where digital technologies and information combine to drive productivity and create new growth opportunities across the whole economy

Our full response is available below, however in summary: we consider that in the same way that Cabinet Office failed in its open standards consultation to consider the consequences for the rest of the economy arising from its plans to make public services digital by default:

Overall we find the consultation to be poorly framed and fails to identify […] the interacting nature of its policy choices and account for their effects.

Here there is a similar failure to consider the interaction of the information economy strategy with online public services, specifically, the risk that poorly implemented Information Economy strategy will interact badly with the implementation of online public services, creating further blocks rather than enablers.

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Do you still need to understand why software should be open source? Part 4

We’re grateful to “The Register” for drawing attention to the latest licensing information regarding (non) transferability of Microsoft Office licences.

We think it’s worth reading in conjunction with:

not to suggest a narrative thread but as part of a broader canvas. After all there are documents from HMRC we can’t read, among other problems.

Continue reading Do you still need to understand why software should be open source? Part 4

Open Data Institute – try reading Coase’s Penguin

One of the roles any government professing liberal democratic values takes upon itself is to implement measures it considers will lead to a thriving market economy. While there are areas of modern life that some/many will consider cannot be met by relying on the market there does not appear to be a significant movement calling for a return to a planned economy.

Except, it would seem to the casual observer, when we are discussing the knowledge or information economy in which it is necessary to consider “thought-through market mechanics”.

Continue reading Open Data Institute – try reading Coase’s Penguin