by Claudio Grass via Claudiograss.ch
Interview with Bernd Rodler
Those who know me and who have read my writings before will be very well aware of how important the topic of decentralization is to me and to my way of looking at the world, at our societies and our economies. I truly believe that there is no future to be had, at least not one that respects human dignity, should we continue down this same path of top-down control, mindless conformity and blind obedience to technocrats, bureaucrats and career politicians. Free competition, of goods and of ideas, free speech and free choices are the way forward.
While a lot of people might agree with these principles in theory, only a few are prepared to and capable of making inroads in that direction in practice. This is why I was so happy to have the chance to talk with Bernd Rodler, the founder and Chairman of the Board of VNC AG – Virtual Network Consult AG. Born in Bavaria, Germany, he is now a Swiss citizen and lives in the Canton of Zug. Apart from his extensive experience in the software and IT industry, Bernd also has a deep understanding of economic principles and political history. He is an advocate of Open Source software, but also open mind, meaning freedom of thought, and individual liberty.
Claudio Grass (CG): To start with a basic introduction for readers who might not be too tech savvy, could you give us a brief summary of the products of VNClagoon and what differentiates them from mainstream competition?
Bernd Rodler (BR): First of all, what drives us at VNC is the goal to offer a secure communication and collaboration stack to people and organisations.
Our company is named VNC – Virtual Network Consult and was founded 20 years ago, at a time when topics around virtual and learning organisations came up. I was fascinated by the outlook of having small, even atomic entities and teams that are connected within virtual organisations, to share knowledge and build, as we called it, an „informational pyramid“. Data, information and knowledge lead to innovation. And innovation is what businesses and societies need to foster. If your readers are interested in our vision and mission, they can read more about it here.
After many years, the archetypes Virtual & Learning Organisations are even more important. We added the third archetype of Open Source software.
Today, the VNClagoon software stack consists of a variety of integrated products for communication and collaboration, such as a messenger (comparable to WhatsApp), a video conferencing tool (like Zoom), email, groupware, task & project management, file sharing, a secure alternative to Twitter called VNCsocial, a content collaboration software similar to Slack and many more.
VNClagoon today has become an acknowledged alternative to well-known closed source and / or SaaS-only applications offered by Microsoft, Zoom, WhatsApp, Google and others. This is the feedback we are getting from the market.
As we never planned to reinvent the wheel, VNClagoon is based upon best-of-class open source technologies and is 100% Open Source itself. The products are transparent, auditable and can be operated wherever the customer wants – in public Clouds like the Google Cloud Platform, in private Clouds of Governments or enterprises and also on-premise in the data center of your choice. This is contrary to the business model and strategy of closed source vendors, who often aim to „lure“ the customers to their own servers to totally control them. We do not want to „own“ our customers‘ data. But that is just our approach and belief system.
CG: Why is open source safer and what advantages does it provide to users?
BR: Before answering this question, let me confess that during my IT carreer I was indeed involved in closed source software from e.g. Microsoft, Intergraph and other big players. For a very simple reason: there was no real open source business software these days.
In 1991, Linus Torvalds started this fantastic Linux project and prior to that, Richard Stallman came up with the idea of GPL, the general public license. Thus, a new model to deliver software code in an open and transparent manner came into existence. Stallman can be quoted with the famous phrase: „If you think about open source, think free as in free speech, not free beer.“ After GPL and the first Linux kernels gained ground, more and more open source based business software was developed.
Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer then called open source a „cancer“. That was the predominant opinion among business leaders in those times. And we did not agree. That was the time when we decided to leave the Closed Source world and focus on Open Source only. Why did we make that choice? Well, we strongly believe that Open Source has loads of advantages compared to Closed Source software. Let me mention some of these advantages briefly.
The most important aspect for us at VNC is the openness, thus accessibility, of the entire code. How can you adapt software, integrate and fix security issues, as well as bugs, without having the chance to deal with the code directly? We definitely could not have developed this huge stack based on Closed Source software.
This allows us to be performant in terms of time-to-market, either by integrating other Open Source components or by developing the required functionality ourselves. This brings along tremendous cost effectiveness. The TCO of open source is way below closed source components. As mentioned before, the software is not for free, but constitutes a valid business model.
In terms of security, Open Source has obvious advantages: open code is regularly and permanently reviewed by the community. Auditors may check each and every line of code and testify on leaks, backdoors and so on. In my opinion, the most brilliant software developers and DevOps engineers in the industry can be found in the Open Source community. Which is logical, due to the fact that openness attracts open minded and smart people, who then are driving innovation.
What is the future? Closed source is coming to an end. Web servers, mobile apps and cloud business software are increasingly built on Open Source tools and platforms. So I dare to state: the future of software is Open Source.
CG: Over the last decade, we’ve seen a rapid acceleration in the consolidation of “Big Tech”, resulting in just a handful of companies effectively dominating the sector and the wider market. In your view, does this stifle innovation and progress?
BR: We all know that bureaucracies are doing well when dealing with standardized processes and huge amounts of data. Large corporate entities – with a handful of exceptions still run by the founders – are kind of bureaucracies in themselves.
But we have never seen significant innovation coming from monolithic, monopolistic organisations that are beyond competition. Innovation always derives from small entities that allow discussion, trial and error and team work. By opening up the results of their work, namely „code and ideas“, in an open source manner, they are permanently challenged by their peers, as well as their customers.
Therefore, we are absolutely convinced that the future is Open Source, not only in software development but even beyond. Thus, real innovation and progress happen beyond Big Tech.
Claudio Grass (CG): A lot people still consider it safer to go with a huge, established corporation, thinking these solutions would be more reliable and robust, especially for business applications. What is your take on this view?
Bernd Rodler (BR): This is a perfectly understandable view, at least from the standpoint of a manager applying the „cover your a…“ strategy. Who can blame him if the SAP project fails? Well, they are the market leader. So it can not be his fault.
On the other hand, I have been in the IT business for more than 20 years now and during that time, many large, even world leading corporations like Enron, WorldCom and Yahoo collapsed or merged or fell apart. And I don‘t want to even think about all the products that were discontinued or taken off the market, which created tremendous problems for the customers using them in mission critical environments. Not to mention the blackmail with ever increasing software license prices.
So, I doubt that large corporations are stable per se. To the contrary. The entire world is on steroids today. Innovation requires speedy adaption and development processes. These have become incredibly fast compared to even five years ago, so that large units seem to be standing still. The hierarchies that you need to overcome before reaching a conclusion and decision means you are always a bit if not too late.
That‘s probably the reason why VNClagoon is winning projects against the Goliaths of the industry.
CG: Looking at some of the bigger shifts we see in Tech and in the ways in which everyday citizens interact with the online world, either for business or for personal uses, would you agree there’s been somewhat of an “awakening” surrounding security risks and privacy issues even among those of us who are far from experts?
BR: I hope and I think that there is indeed a reconsideration or „awakening“. If we look at the massively declining numbers in terms of subscribers at corporate media and the increasing number of followers, subscribers, readers in the so called „new media“, I am convinced that people are smarter than many believe. And people seem to loathe mind control and censorship.
Also in business, we see a significant increase of requests stressing the topic of security and privacy. Astonishingly, there are more from Government clients than from enterprises. Which is weird or it might show that dependencies from investors, shareholders, hedge and other funds are extremely strong.
CG: Given that few of us have the technical skills and the know how to effectively mitigate those risks and to evaluate the different services and solutions that are on offer, what are some of the key features and parameters that we should be looking for or what’s some of the basic knowledge we should familiarize ourselves with?
BR: A good question and difficult to answer. We definitely have to overcome this state of digital illiteracy. If you do not understand the basics of software, encryption, AI, you can not make sound decisions. I believe that coding should be taught in school like mathematics. At the same time, I urgently recommend an education in philosophy, ethics and history, as well as geo-politics. IT is a global power. If you do not understand what the interests of large players could be, you might end up as a slave of technocracy.
I could also throw in some buzzwords or phrases: encrypt your data, select your provider carefully, use Open Source tools only, do not expose yourself on Facebook and similar networks. But these recommendations are not easy to follow for everybody. If organisations like the NSA want to spy on you, they have a hell of a lot of tools at their disposal. I surely believe that encryption of data is key to protect your privacy. But do Governments allow encryption at all? Is the encryption algorithm closed source? Then just forget about it.
What’s also important to highlight here is that protecting yourself often means losing comfort and convenience, which most people don‘t like. The only way to combine security and comfort is by establishing an ecosystem of decentralized providers with a variety of user friendly, useful tools offering the positive aspects of e.g. social collaboration. We opt – as I stated already – for decentralized but interconnected products. Technically, this is feasible.
Decentralization is another archetype besides Open Source. It is a must.
The bigger problem is the business model, as providers have to pay for servers and network access. Users want everything for free, but everybody has to be aware that nothing is free. The biggest price you pay is giving up your data. How can parents accept that their children are monitored by AI in the background, and I mean that literally; every one of their key-strokes, their voices and faces? Imagine that this will be already enough for employers to decide whether they are going to hire this individual.
But in the end we also need to make sure wrong-doers will be held accountable in case of severe data breaches. And the great invention of Technology Assessment (German: „Technikfolgenabschätzung“) needs to be revived. Not everything we can technically do is the right thing to do. We need to use technology in a sense of pro-humanism and not trans- or post-humanism.
GG: If you had to make a prediction about how the future of online collaboration and communication looks like, would you expect it to be predominantly decentralized or do you think centralized, top-down systems will prevail?
BR: There is no room left for centralized and closed systems, I am sure of that. Non-monopolistic and decentralized systems will be the best practice not only for technology but also for society at large. Subsidiarity, for example, made countries like Switzerland so efficient and successful.
Leave the responsibility to the level it belongs to. And definitely not to a detached board of directors, politicians, or other wannabe „One World Government“ leaders.
Claudio Grass, Hünenberg See, Switzerland