The Future of Open Source

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Last week in New York, the venture firm Accel held a ninety minute lunch for an audience of financial analysts and equity professionals, a reporter or two and at least a few industry analysts. The ostensible subject for the event was Accel’s Open Adoption Software (OAS) model, but the wider focus was what the future held for open source in general. Accel’s view on this subject, as well as that of the panelists at the event from Cloudera, Cockroach Labs and Sysdig, was that open source essentially has gone mainstream. As Jake Flomenberg, an Accel partner put it, “There is a massive shift going on in the ways technology is bought. Open source has gone from the exception to the rule.”

Setting the OAS model to the side for the time being, the larger message that open source has become the default choice in a wide array of infrastructure software categories isn’t difficult to sell. It is a message that was consistent with attendee sentiment at the most recent OSCON in Austin, the ApacheCon in Vancouver, and the Linux Foundation’s Collaboration Summit in Lake Tahoe before that. It is a message that Cloudera’s Mike Olson would presumably agree with; in 2013 in a piece entitled “The Cloudera Model,” he said simply, “you can no longer win with a closed-source platform.”

The idea that open source has effectively won within the enterprise is also consistent with RedMonk’s own views on open source. The only real difference is that this perspective, for my part, is better used to describe open source’s past than its future.

At the 2005 O’Reilly Open Source Conference, for example, I gave a keynote to the room full of developers entitled “so you took over the enterprise: what now?” Open source was not yet as common within the enterprise eleven years ago as it is today, but from our vantage point it had passed the tipping point, and its trajectory was assured. The decade since giving that presentation has done nothing but validate that original assertion, as open source projects and efforts to commercialize same have entered market after market, category after category, to the point where there are frequently more open source options available today than proprietary alternatives.

All of which has led to open source advocates taking a deserved bow for their success. It was by no means assured; certainly in the early days of RedMonk, there was major skepticism about the model in general, from its ability to sustain itself commercially to its vulnerability to everything from intellectual property violations to security exploits.

But just as open source is finally being recognized as the viable model we always believed it to be, it is facing competition that enjoys some of the same advantages over open source that open source had relative to proprietary software.

That competition is the cloud.

Competition is an interesting term to use, to be sure, because the cloud is built for the most part from open source software, and the cloud is such an important channel that it has elevated open source projects such as Ubuntu to first class citizen status. The presentation that Accel gave didn’t mention the cloud as a competitive threat, and the competition most frequently discussed by both Accel and its open source participants was proprietary software companies.

But if we step back, public market activity suggests that more concern is warranted. We know, for example, that Oracle, one of the standard bearers for proprietary software, derives less of its revenue from the sale of new software licenses every year. We also know that Amazon Web Services, which conflates open source, proprietary software and hardware, is growing quickly. Correlation may not prove causation, but it’s difficult to build the case that these two facts are unrelated.

Consider some of the differences in user experience when comparing cloud services to traditional on premise open source alternatives.

  • Convenience:
    Open source was used over proprietary software in many cases not because it was functionally superior or even because the source was available, but simply because it was easier to obtain. To get a closed source product, best case you needed to fill out long, involved registration forms; worst case you needed to talk to a salesperson and find budget. With open source, you simply downloaded what you needed and were on your way. What could be simpler? How about not downloading anything, but standing up a given piece of software already combined with hardware in seconds. Where open source once held the title of most convenient, it has long since ceded that to the cloud.

  • Complexity:
    Open source has long prided itself on representing choice: in any given category of software, users are free to pick from multiple, credible open source implementations. But that choice is an overhead, overhead that is multipled with each additional choice a user has to make. By comparison, cloud platforms typically have a default service available in a given category: one monitoring tool, one container engine, one storage array, one CDN and so on. Users that require more control have the ability to run the software of their choice on infrastructure they maintain, of course, but also can follow the path of least resistance and simply accept the default – which they don’t have to run.

    As an aside, this problem is one reason foundations like Cloud Foundry or the Cloud Native Computing Foundation are interesting, given that their focus is integrating disparate parts and projects.

  • Operations:
    Because many commercial open source organizations were built to compete with proprietary alternatives, convergent evolution has led them to look and behave in similar ways. In many cases, for example, the burden of getting a given open source offering stood up and integrated is left to a customer, or their high priced systems integrator of choice. Relatively few commercial open source organizations have services capabilities extensive enough to assist with more than initial configuration and setup: integration is an exercise left to the buyer. While cloud services are not a panacea, many of their services are by comparison more easily integrated with one another than independent on premise open source alternatives.

    Just as with proprietary software, cloud services can be sold against open source alternatives on a CAPEX vs OPEX basis; rather than pay up front for support and service, for example, these expenses can be born instead over time in the form of premiums above a base infrastructure cost. This may result in higher costs over time, of course, but the ability to amortize payments over time can be useful to cash-constrained business units or startups.

  • Data:
    While vendors both cloud and on-premise have been reluctant to invest in and market, at least overtly, telemetry and data oriented models, it is inevitable that they will in my view. If this should come to pass, it’s another advantage for cloud over on premise open source, because collecting data from datacenters you maintain is far less complicated than retrieving it from individual user facilities.

It’s important to differentiate, of course, between the outlook for open source and commercial open source. The prospects for the former remain reasonable, as it remains a fundamentally more viable methodology for most classes of software. The rise of the cloud may even accelerate the availability of certain classes of open source software, either because its authors are not in the business of selling software (e.g. Facebook/Cassandra or Twitter/Heron) or because commercial vendors seek to reduce customer fear of lock-in via public cloud implementations of OSS (e.g. Cloud Foundry, MySQL).

For commercial open source vendors, however, it is important to recognize that the cloud is at least as much threat as opportunity. Many of our commercial open source customers, whose primary business is selling to enterprises, have acknowledged this, and are ramping into the public cloud as quickly as they can. This rapid flight is creating strange bedfellows, in fact: several open source vendors admitted at OSCON that the best cloud partner in their experience was Microsoft – an interesting turn of events for someone who remembers that Jason Matusow needed security for his first appearance at the conference, so hated was the vendor at the time.

Does the cloud represent opportunity for open source as well? Undoubtedly. But the future outlook for open source, particularly those who would commercialize it, seems counterintuitively far more murky today than it was in 2005. Open source is rightly being heralded as the default, and having “won.” The difficulty is that in this industry, victories tend to be very short lived.

Open source has learned how to compete, and compete very effectively, with closed source. That’s its past. Its future will be competing with the public cloud, and the first step towards doing that effectively is admitting the problem.


  1. Called it!


    Is anyone really surprised by this? The effect of cloud on open source was an obvious path for any that thought about it.

    The big question will be how many entities build and/or run their own cloud services or applications. That market MAY be big enough to save key open source projects.

  2. What are your thoughts on the technical and community side of this equation? Obviously the analyst market is focused on what it all means for businesses who pay all our bills someday, but the “win” of open source means fundamentally different ways/models of how technology is made and changes. Is RedMonk – top analyst for open source – working on the technology change models rising from the plethora of foundations doing their coding & work in open and new ways?

    As a non-profit independent (Director at the ASF), I get your message here and at your ApacheCon keynote, but I wonder how it applies. Places like the ASF, Eclipse, SPI/SFC are truly here as organizations to create new software – no competition, no messy money directly involved in our projects (although obviously most projects are driven by paid corporate developers). How do the independent groups think about what cloud means to our community models, which are primarily based around individual technologies?

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