Skip to main content

A Brief History of Existential Threats to Open Source

How times have changed. In the early 2000s Steve Ballmer famously called Linux a “cancer”. But Microsoft was not the biggest threat. A debate was raging that threatened to sow confusion, fracture the community, and derail open source as a whole. Should people who modify open source software be required to open source their changes as the GPL requires? Or should they be free to do as they wished even if that meant keeping their changes proprietary? The fight was over developer freedom vs user freedom, with the Free Software Foundation in one ring, and Apache Software Foundation in the other. Without a united front open source was doomed — or so Microsoft hoped.

For a while Red Hat had shown the way to successfully fund open source projects: Give the software away for free and sell support and services. In this model the choice of license was largely irrelevant, the code wasn’t generating the revenue anyways. The debate fizzled and the two sides largely agreed to disagree and coexisted peacefully. BSD licensed software ran happily on a GPL licensed Linux kernel and GNU Userland. It seemed “free as in beer” was sufficient even if it wasn’t quite what Richard Stallman and the FSF had in mind. The predicted demise of open source was averted. Red Hat gained ground in the server space while Microsoft floundered.


The Red Hat model worked flawlessly in a world where everyone ran their own servers and installed their own software, but a change was in the air. The whole business of buying servers and installing software was a major pain point, and Amazon presciently predicted companies would spend billions to avoid it. If Amazon was managing your deployment and running your database for you — there was no longer a need to pay for support from the vendor. Amazon would handle any problems that came up.

A challenger appears…#

Red Hat took the golden parachute and sold out to IBM, but the smaller open source companies were left with a problem. Without a business model their massive VC investment would never be justified. Most tried to hang on to their open source roots and invent new “open source” licenses. Such as MongoDB and their “Server Side Public License”, but without OSI approval and with significant community backlash this effort has largely failed.

Instead the backers of popular open source databases have abandoned open source completely. Leaving access to the code a vestigial homage to their open source roots. Such “source available” and “open core” licenses have seen limited adoption and the question remains if they will further dilute the “freedoms” Richard Stallman once demanded. Where once users had the right to “run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software.”, now they may only study.

An Unlikely Savior…#

Just when it appeared Open Source was once again doomed, Amazon threw yet another curve ball. If the entities behind the open source software it used weren’t going to keep it open, Amazon would take over and maintain it themselves. Today Amazon announced “Open Distro for Elastisearch”. Using powerful language such as, “The maintainers of open source projects have the responsibility of keeping the source distribution open to everyone and not changing the rules midstream” (emphasis mine). It appears open source has once again prevailed.

But Amazon is a mixed blessing. If authors starting new open source projects know Amazon will take over if they ever get big enough — will they continue to create new open source projects? Questions remain for Amazon as well. If they achieve a monopoly on running and supporting the software — will they get the benefits of open source in the form of outside contributions? For every Red Hat customer there were many more running the software without support and contributing upstream. In a world where companies outsource operations fully to Amazon will this dynamic continue?

An uncertain future…#

Open source was meant to liberate us, and for a while it appeared to defy gravity. A scrappy young student in Finland could take on Microsoft’s operating system Monopoly. But it appears now that Goliath has learned to harness David’s stone. The lesson of the past decade is clear: If you don’t host the customer’s infrastructure you won’t be the one to support their open source software either — even if you wrote it.

One thing is certain, this new world is much kinder than the Microsoft monopoly of the 90s. At least we can fix the bugs that annoy us every day, we’ll just run it on Amazon hardware.

As for KeyDB? We're proudly open source. Check us out on GitHub