The fight to keep open source truly “open” ⁠— open source providers need to stand up

The forces that shape the open source community are undergoing a degree of transformation. Throughout 2018, even the biggest internet platforms and companies were making significant moves towards this way of working; organisations such as Facebook, JP Morgan and Walmart were amongst those not only adopting other open source software, but also releasing their own code to the wider public, in the true spirit of collaboration. We have also noticed some M&A activity taking centre stage. Microsoft, for instance, completed its acquisition of GitHub, while IBM took over Red Hat, marking one of the biggest acquisitions in the history of business technology.

However, as more projects get embedded into profitable business applications, we are beginning to see new trends in the space. Powerful vendors are pushing their own marketing agendas and monetising what should be freely available, leading open source providers to build walls around their code, limiting the extent to which companies can enrich, police and contribute to any given project, in a vicious cycle. This is the case with Amazon, for instance, which was able to profit from Redis Labs’ software without giving back to its open source community. In response, Redis Labs created a new software license that dictated clear restrictions on what could and could not be done with its software.

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With such prominent shifts in attitudes in this space, it raises the question of whether open source should, truly, remain “open”. The advent of associations such as the Continuous Delivery Foundation clearly demonstrate that there are members of the community who want this way of working to collaborate for the greater good, and will champion developers’ freedoms. Yet, if we step into the other side, we must ask ourselves: If companies place restrictions on this software to protect their community, is it still truly open? Should these companies be allowed to set restrictions in the first place? Who has the authority to decide?

Bound in red tape: the privatisation of open source

With more companies catching on to the ability to monetise open source by selling add-on support and enterprise services, huge technology players are scrambling to get into the scene. To demonstrate just how critical open source is to the software industry, in 2018 alone GitHub was bought for $7.5 billion, Salesforce purchased Mulesoft for $6.5 billion, and — the largest deal of them all — IBM took over Red Hat for $34 billion.

Though the support and interest from these tech behemoths also serve as a welcome testament to the benefits of open source, it can also catalyse a wider, cultural shift within the open source community. As more companies monetise and take over open source software, this shift changes the fundamental values and platform that the software was founded upon. Instead of championing the freedom for any developer to modify, enhance and improve source code, these acquisitions monetise open source projects without giving opportunities back to developers; ultimately creating silos and rifts in the open source community.

Take, for example, the battle between Amazon and Elasticsearch. As a result of Amazon Web Services integrating Elasticsearch’s code and search functionality into its own computing services, Elastic began to regulate how its code was shared — specifically, that its full product suite could not be used without payment, and its code could not be openly shared. These types of market shifts are becoming increasingly commonplace, and are set to completely reshape and redefine the values that open source was established upon. Providers such as MongoDB, Redis Labs, and Confluent have also followed in the wake of Elastic, and have all shifted towards more restrictive licensing agreements. If more open source providers continue to wrap red tape around their code and limit its use, it will only create greater divisions within the community and can potentially alter the future of the industry forever.

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Charting the course: Keeping open source open

The benefits of keeping open source open far outweigh its cons. Allowing developers from all backgrounds and training practices to review and modify code means that it is constantly being improved, in turn allowing the entirety of the industry to benefit from innovation, better security and healthy competition. It also gives developers greater mobility. Not only does open source software means developers are free to train and practice in any type of coding language they please, but also that these non-proprietary coding languages become increasingly popular and in-demand; granting developers flexibility in their work and career.

Open source platforms — specifically those that remain true to its roots — are so valuable that it can attract hordes of venture capital funding, even if there are no immediate prospects for monetary returns. Jocelyn Goldfein, a partner at venture capital fund Zetta, pointed out: “There’s probably at least two dozen venture firms that invest a lot in open source now.” Nowadays, the default question isn’t why a platform would be open source — rather, why wouldn’t it? This shift in mindset from investors should signal to providers that open source should not be discussed as a monetised business model, but rather as a development model — one that grows from within the community of its users.

Initiatives such as the Continuous Delivery Foundation are also dedicated to developing open source projects, and give back to the communities behind them to keep the flame of true open source alive. They ensure that open source remains free to use and available to all; ultimately facilitating innovation on a scale that cannot be matched by the tech titans walled off by exclusive, proprietary software. Jenkins, for instance, would not have experienced its incredible success without the support of the open source community — by keeping the software open, the community was able to create over 1,500 plugins for Jenkins, catalysing an uptake in its adoption.

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Food for thought

Two clear principles are emerging in this space. One one hand, there are providers who, in the interest of competition, are placing regulations and limitations on how their code can be used. On the other, there are those who remain true to the core of open source and continue to share their software freely.

These are the types of questions that will continue to come up as open source adoption continues to grow. Open source providers — and the communities behind them – will have to discuss this debate, as it will decide the future of the industry. Only time will tell which will prevail, but one case is for sure — open source would never have succeeded without the inclusive ethos and richness it brings to the technology industry.

What does remain clear is that the old open source business model, while clearly commercially viable, is officially over. The future model is now either Open Core or SaaS. Investing heavily in both approaches while also contributing greatly to the wide open source ecosystem is the future. The collaborative approach to developing open source code has proven to be a winning strategy for constant technological innovation, and cannot be denied.

Written by James Strachan, distinguished engineer at CloudBees

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