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‘The cloud is the great enabler of open source’

Written by Tue 19 Mar 2019

Are the major cloud providers risking the future of open source by reselling code as proprietary service? Or are Common Clause tags and SSPL licences undermining open source integrity? On the Techerati stage at Cloud Expo Europe 2019, panellists were asked for their thoughts on the row gripping the developer community

AWS, the cloud arm of ecommerce giant Amazon, sells another company’s services without so much as a dime in return. Outside the world of software development, this practice may resemble a clear cut case of theft. Not in the open source community.

AWS ElastiCache repackages code developed and released by Redis Labs under an open source license, one that does not prohibit repackaging and reselling as a managed service. In fact, the principle of “free redistribution” is the first clause one encounters in the official definition of open source:

“The license shall not restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs from several different sources. The license shall not require a royalty or other fee for such sale.”

The price of liberty

Nevertheless, as the MSPs consolidate their stranglehold over the cloud market, an increasingly large and loud number of open source companies are pushing back by drawing attention to the practice. They argue that the old licensing model is no longer fit for purpose and that, long-term, the repeated repackaging of code without contribution or remuneration is unconducive to the future of open source communities.

Redis Labs was the first of a number of open source companies to change its licensing model. In August last year, it transitioned modules on top of its core database to an Apache2 license modified by Commons Clause license (which it rebranded in February as Redis Source Available License (RSAL) to distance itself from Apache).

The new license still preserves the right of competitors to modify code. But crucially it forces those that wish to use the code in a “database product, caching engine, stream processing engine, search engine, indexing engine or ML/DL/AI serving engine” to buy a commercial license.

Just days before announcing RSAL, Redis Labs announced it had raised an additional $60 million in funding. It didn’t take long for CEO Ofer Bengal to claim the sum represented wide approval of its new licensing move.

Redis Labs is not the only one feeling shortchanged. Open source database provider MongoDB has switched its license entirely to a Server Side Public License (SSPL). Compared to Commons Clause, that prohibits third parties from selling changes, SSPL requires them to contribute changes, a condition MongoDB says it will preserve the long term sustainability of open source.

Neither move has gone down well in the developer community. Both companies have been accused of betraying open source principles, unfaithfulness analysts argue risks eroding trust. If anyone can create their own open source definition, the argument goes, trust goes out of the window, and the wheels of collaboration and innovation stop spinning.

And as other commentators have noted, getting on the wrong side of the thousands of engineers who would otherwise praise your software is a risky marketing move, something MongoDB knows too well. In January, MongoDB’s NoSQL database has was dropped by open source juggernaut Red Hat.

Open source licensing is also already tediously complex. Even before these latest agitations, Oracle has been in a longstanding legal battle Google for copyright infringement over the use of Java APIs. So understandably the new licensing changes have not struck a chord with large portions of the open source community, who much rather stick to the one, original, open source model.

‘Vendor lock-in’

Speaking at a panel discussion discussing open source on day one of Cloud Expo Europe 2019 in London, Christopher Walker, senior cluster system manager at Queen Mary, University of London offered a different take on the debate.

Christopher said developers should be “very careful of lock-in”, arguing that future innovation will be stifled if developers opt to use the managed services provided by MSPs instead of opting for their open source originals.

“The concern I have is lock-in, so public cloud is great but if all you are using some proprietary interface, you are kind of stuck, if you can choose somebody else, that’s great, the big concern is whether you can do that,” he said.

While vendor lock-in was acknowledged as a concern, others were keen to point out that major cloud providers have been the great enablers of open source innovation.

Based on GitHub contribution analysis conducted last year, out of the three public cloud providers 4,550 Microsoft employees actively contribute to open source and 2,267 Google employees. Although comparatively less active, it’s hard to argue that Amazon has done no heavy lifting when it comes to open source innovation as 881 of its employees contribute.

‘The great enabler’

One panellist, James Mcleod, software engineer lead at Lloyds Banking Group, offered a bracing corrective to the claim that the likes of AWS and Azure are stifling innovation.

“Cloud providers are an absolute enabler to open source by providing an infrastructure to engineering that allows the entire open source ecosystem to grow at pace,” he said.

“So, any decision to retain work built upon open source projects is completely outweighed by the absolute benefits of cloud to the overall open source community.”

The debate continues.

Written by Tue 19 Mar 2019


AWS Cloud mongodb open source public cloud redis
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