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Open source: Bringing joy to the intelligent automation and low-code world

Analyst guest post Jason English of Intellyx -- Part 3 of 4 in the Gen2 RPA series

Gen2 RPA Guest post

Back in 2001, when open source software was still young, then-CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer declared it to be “a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.”

The little Linux kernel that caused all that angst with a handful of part-time tinkerers has now exploded into a universe of open source software (or OSS) built upon millions of person-hours worth of contributions. Ironically, Microsoft is one of today’s biggest champions of Linux, and the enterprise-scale adoption of OSS in general, having contributed its own ubiquitously used VS Code IDE.

Until recently, most open source tools seemed to live nearer to the ‘roots’ of the software supply chain, making core operating systems, infrastructure automation and development tools more accessible and reusable for technical users. OSS was the domain of geeks constantly building and improving projects, not of business professionals using the application functionality itself.

Perhaps the myth that systems of process and systems of record contained the types of proprietary workflows and sensitive data that couldn’t be entrusted to a loosely-organized free-for-all of individual open source enthusiasts held OSS back from the business automation space.

That objection is now falling away, as the event horizon of open source efforts is starting to reach the frontiers of the RPA, IA (intelligent automation) and low-code market spaces. What is causing such rapid growth in contributions to this space, and what impact will the advance of OSS make on automation in the near future?

Shifting work away from proprietary systems

Businesses constantly demand transformative new application functionality – but inevitably, this requires overcoming the inertia of existing proprietary systems, along with deep programming and integration labor. Any company with a history has already accumulated multiple layers of technology for handling business processes and data, from core monolithic systems to SaaS platforms.

The idea of screenware automation is nothing new, but dedicated RPA tools appeared on the scene in the mid-2010s at just the right time. As most companies sought to scale up their agility for designing and executing on business processes at cloud scale, the ability to have ‘extra sets of hands’ to quickly repeat manual work across multiple application interfaces and disparate services became popular.

This first generation of RPA vendors had a key shortcoming – they offered closed systems, so once processes were captured, they could only be run within the vendor’s proprietary work automation servers as well. Furthermore, editing the captured processes to allow dynamic behavior often required ‘ripping off the cover’ and doing difficult customization work – making changing processes even more difficult.

Well-established open source projects like Linux and Kafka and Ansible are great mature projects, but to get involved in improving them now, coding skills and an understanding of internal data structures, system architectures, networking, security and the like would be required. Now open source tooling is starting to bridge the skills gap and bring automation into the fold.

Software testing provides a great entry point for newer participants, because it isn’t about coding, it’s about doing. Testing executes a series of human and machine actions, and validates results. So why not put that concept to real work as a repeatable automation framework? Robot Framework is an interesting open test automation project that planted the seeds for the next generation of automation.

Robot Framework uses the Python language, which makes its resulting code quite human readable. The simplicity of how properties are declared and the abstraction of real work processes as code brings Robocorp’s RPA project down to a skill level that is as easily approachable for new community members, as it is highly productive for experienced developers.

The power of community

As many as 30 million individuals have contributed an incalculable amount of time toward open source projects that are now in production around the world – a 2019 paper estimated the current value of OSS at more than $118 billion.

Technically, any vendor could throw an install on npm, and a bit of their code on GitHub with a code of conduct and call it an open source project, but the real success of a project is defined by the level of engagement and variety of perspectives that arise within its community.

An activated community will spontaneously collaborate – sharing tips, problems, demos and work product in forums, newsgroups, media channels, Stack Overflow and git repos. No vendor should act as the single source of truth anymore.

The community of one automation project like Robot Framework can also generate synergies with other OSS products, with fascinating results for delivering on the promise of RPA.

Take for instance this cool story from Robocorp’s Jani Palsamäki pulling together several open automation tools to instrument a React front-end, or this video where “RPA Jargon Buster” Tolani Jaiye-Tikolo and her architect friend Devashish demonstrate a license plate reading app built over the weekend using open source test automation, machine learning and OCR tooling.

Future proofing systems and processes

Google had to introduce Kubernetes – simply because there was no other way for this tech titan to overcome the near-total primacy of AWS in cloud computing by itself. [Honeypot posted a great documentary about it here.] here.] 

By contributing their internal container orchestration tech to the entire development world and inviting global collaboration, they were able to usher in industry-wide adoption of an open-source cloud-native architecture far faster–and more sustainably–than they could have ever done using a proprietary approach.

Much of the value of open source comes from its ability to harden systems over time, thanks to thousands of practitioners encountering and working around any critical issues that arise in production.

Enterprise customers often prefer OSS because it mitigates vendor lock-in and de-risks investments in the processes they build atop it, as the most successful projects are more likely to continue to receive community support and improve the future utility of each program or workflow that is added.

There’s no guarantee an open source project will remain relevant forever, but it is extremely unlikely a useful one will be abandoned. Compare that to the end-of-support notifications and abandonment we have all experienced from vendors.

When an OSS project like Robot Framework is incubated by a foundation, that means it is being battle-hardened through code reviews, experimentation, refinement and real-world stress testing. The community of practitioners and vendors can then combine that project with other automation and orchestration tools to make it an essential part of a Gen2 RPA solution.

The Intellyx Take

No matter who you work for, or what digital process you are designing and automating, letting your development teams get involved with OSS at any level is now a key recruitment and retention factor in the war for talent.

Attend an open source forum like KubeCon for cloud-native computing, or the upcoming Robocon for Robot Framework practitioners, and you will find an unparalleled level of sharing and genuine camaraderie going on.

After all, the most enjoyable part of success in reaching your own intelligent automation goals may well be realized by helping others succeed in this new, open world.

© 2022 Intellyx, LLC. Intellyx retains editorial control over this content. At the time of publishing, Robocorp is an Intellyx client. Image courtesy of Robocorp license. Intellyx, LLC. Intellyx retains editorial control over this content. At the time of publishing, Robocorp is an Intellyx client. Image courtesy of Robocorp license.