Commentary: The industry used to look to Red Hat to define open source success, but the cloud has made things more complicated.
We are in a strange, somewhat unpredictable period in open source that may have been caused by a diminution of Red Hat’s influence on the industry over the years. On Twitter, Brianna Wu asked men over 40 to comment on “structures” [that] existed in your life to teach you how to be a good person.” The answers include things like Boy Scouts. A similar kind of question can be asked to developers and “open source structures … to teach you how to be a good open source citizen.”
When I started open source, the obvious answer to almost every question was “Red Hat”. What is the right way to build a business in open source? Watch Red Hat was the stock response. What is the correct way to argue for code freedom in open source? Again, look at Red Hat.
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Over the past 10 years, Red Hat has lost its status as the center of the wider open source community, though not through its own fault; instead, other institutions have supplanted Red Hat’s authority without replacing it. We don’t seem to be getting any better.
How to disappear not so completely
AWS VP – and, perhaps more relevant to this position, former Red Hat engineer – Matt Wilson correctly identified a few: good open source stuff coming from red hat over the years. And he has just as well claimed that Red Hat contributors “like Kevin E. Martin are still advocating for graphics drivers from FOSS, which have been around since 1998. And still win wins for the wider community.”
And yet, Red Hat no longer defines open source success, whether in business or in code. The largest open source contributor? That’s Google if we define it as added lines of code, or Microsoft if we define it in terms of the number of employees active on GitHub. Even the much-maligned AWS is more active contributor to open source than Red Hat. You can perform this analysis yourself using the open source project that Fil Maj created†
On the business side, it’s about the same. Not only do the major cloud providers contribute more code, they also make a lot more money with and from open source than Red Hat. Deep Discovery CTO Russell Jurney has argued that it is this: shift to the cloud who fundamentally devalued the open source ethos that prevailed during the Red Hat years: “The shift to cloud computing is reducing the number of companies that straight away investments in open source with different orders of magnitude and concentrates control over companies indirect investments in the hands of a few middlemen who lack the same incentives as individual companies who ensured that their ethical participation†
He may be right that the shift to the cloud has destabilized the way open source was built, but it’s hard to see how his argument holds up in the face of mega-investment in open source across the cloud landscape. , especially when we include companies that provide services over the cloud, such as Netflix and Facebook. These companies that sell services, not software, have revenue models that make it much easier for them to be a major contributor to open source. Open source entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Levine once claimed there would never be a Red Hat againwhich the industry first took offense (“Of course there will be!”) and then showed indifference, because Red Hat was no longer the marker for success.
Teen [open source] wasteland
Without a Red Hat as our accepted standard, we don’t seem to have a North Star as an industry. Or maybe we have several. Is that a bad thing?
It can be a mess sometimes. †[Y]younger dev[elopers] today are about POSS – Post open source software. **** the license and board, just connect to github.” So spoke RedMonk Co-Founder James Governor, And So Gone open source licenses on GitHub† It’s hard to ignore the continued decline of intentionally licensed open source code on GitHub, although it would be unwise to think that somehow this means developers don’t care about openness in code. But that openness is generally about access, not distribution.
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Also, while Red Hat set a standard, it was never universally followed. Way back in 2007, SugarCRM was adopted CPAL, which required visible attribution or “badgeware” of the SugarCRM logo to prevent commercial forking. Over the years, there have been numerous so-called Open Core approaches to licensing. While there has been a lot of discussion about such licensing approaches, customers didn’t seem to pay much attention to them. Whether it’s post-open source GitHub kids or quasi-open source companies, there no longer seems to be one accepted way to “do open source”.
I once thought this mattered. Very much. I’m not sure anymore.
On the one hand, I loved the clarity of the Red Hat era. On the other hand, I like experimenting with whatever this current era may be called. No, I don’t like any of these experiments, and you probably don’t either. I also have no idea where we will land. The new normal on the business front seems to require a fully managed cloud service to make using open source easy, but we don’t seem to agree on how to get it all licensed. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Or, like Matt Yonkovit from Percona spoke out“The evolution and changes in open source are good, scary, disturbing and welcome all in one.” He is right.
Disclosure: I work for MongoDB and used to work for AWS, but the opinions expressed herein are mine alone.