Open Source Is Good for (Almost) Everybody?
Last week, Elasticsearch found itself back in the news for switching its open source license. A few years back, company execs expressed dismay as other competitors (notably the cloud giant Amazon Web Services) took the Elasticsearch and built competing products with it. AWS even forked the project. And earlier this month the company took action: The new license is markedly more restricted than the former very permissive Apache license, in that it straight up restricts cloud service providers from offering Elastic software as a service. This, of course, has raised a lot of questions in the community about whether a true open source license can restrict what the software can and can not be used for. But will Elastic be better off? Time will tell.
Completely incidentally, we ran across a number of similar stories this week that shows how open source software can benefit users in multiple ways, while at the same time offering more ambiguous results for the companies that created the software.
Take Linksys for example. The company found incredible success in the late 2000s by offering Wi-Fi routers for the emerging home market, and was acquired in 2003 by Cisco for half a billion dollars. But when doing its due diligence, Cisco found that Linksys, by way of a hardware supplier, had violated that GPL open source license, namely by using Linux code in the WRT54G router without providing its modifications to that code for public access. As a result, Cisco had to pay the Free Software Foundation a reparation fee. But more importantly, it had to release the source code, which sparked a whole generation of hardware hackers modding their WRT54Gs. The WRT54G became such an icon in the open source community that Cisco offers it to this day, as TNS culture reporter David Cassel pointed out in a post from last Sunday, “The Open Source Lesson of the Linksys WRT54G Router.”
CentOS was another piece of open source software that sparked a lot of joy in people, though it made its actual source, Red Hat, nervous. When it was first created in 2003, CentOS was a clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Red Hat offered the open source packages of RHEL, but users had to compile and build it themselves — an arduous task. So a group of open source lovers started offering their own builds of the Red Hat software, and CentOS was born. Turns out a lot of people needed an enterprise-grade Linux distro, but couldn’t afford the subscription fees that came with RHEL: CentOS grew so popular, however, it actually dwarfed RHEL usage, at least on the internet. Today, CentOS is the third most widely used distribution on the internet, powering 17.3% of all servers, according to W3Techs. It is far, far more pervasive than even RHEL itself, powering only 1.7% of all the sites.
Over time, Red Hat took control of the CentOS project, using it as a sales channel, though it allegedly still made Red Hat (and later IBM) marketing teams nervous, so, in December, they killed the distro in its current form, and instead upgraded to be a cloud native distro, “CentOS Stream” with rolling updates. In effect, the rolling updates moved the project away from guaranteeing enterprise stability for its many users.
Now, one of the original creators of CentOS, Gregory Kurtzer, is heading back to the drawing board, creating another free, open source clone of RHEL, called Rocky Linux. And he vows not to let this get gobbled up by corporate interests. To be fair, since mutating CentOS, Red Hat has introduced two new free editions of RHEL for small workloads. But these releases don’t address the considerable market that can’t afford, but still need, a rock-solid Linux distribution (high-performance computing and cash-strapped scalable startups are two use cases that come to mind).
Thanks to open source, enterprise computing is getting used by many more people around the world. But will Rocky Linux, out of Red Hat’s control, benefit Red Hat itself? Only time will tell.