March 11, a Vice President at Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s cloud computing behemoth, published a blog post announcing the release of its own version of Elasticsearch, a powerful open-source software search engine tool.
Elastic is a public company founded in 2012 that is currently worth over $5 billion; the vast majority of its revenue is generated by selling subscription access to Elastic’s search capabilities via the cloud. It’s based in Amsterdam and employs more than 1,200 people.
In the blog post, Adrian Cockcroft, VP of cloud architecture strategy at Amazon Web Services (AWS), explained that the company felt forced to take action because Elastic was “changing the rules” on how its software code could be shared. Those changes, made in the run-up to Elastic’s 2018 IPO, started mixing intellectual property into Elastic’s overall line of software products.
Elastic did not explain its strategic shift at the time. But industry observers interpreted the changes as a response to increasing competition from AWS, which had incorporated Elasticsearch’s code and search functionality into its own suite of computing services.
Elastic isn’t the only open source cloud tool company currently looking over its shoulder at AWS. In 2018 alone, at least eight firms have made similar “rule changes” designed to ward off what they see as unfair competition from a company intent on cannibalizing their services.
Open source software has been one of the biggest success stories of the software industry. In 2018 alone, Microsoft’s purchase of the open source software development platform GitHub for $7.5 billion, Salesforce’s purchase of the open source company Mulesoft for $6.5 billion, and IBM’s blockbuster $34 billion purchase of the Linux vendor Red Hat proved that open source is a crucial part of the larger software industry. And there is growing acceptance that the collaborative model of developing open source software is a winning strategy to meet the tech industry’s need for constant innovation. So, when the likes of Amazon start accusing companies of not playing fair, people notice.
Sharone Zitzman, a respected commentator on open source software and the head of developer relations at AppsFlyer, an app development company, called Amazon’s move a “hostile takeover” of Elastic’s business. Steven O’Grady, co-founder of the software industry analyst firm RedMonk, cited it as an example of the “existential threat” that open source companies like Elastic believe a handful of cloud computing giants could pose
The reaction to Amazon’s move wasn’t all negative. Some veterans of the open source community praised Amazon’s defense of open source values, while pointing out the fundamentally messy contradictions of Elastic mixing commercial priorities with open source principles. And fundamentally, adopting open source code is entirely legal.
These critics see Amazon’s decision to recreate Elasticsearch as opportunistic . behavior. Amazon, they say, is leveraging its dominant power in cloud computing in order to unfairly reap intellectual property. In doing so, AWS is striking at the Achilles’ heel of open source: lifting the work of others, and renting access to it.
What happened to Elastic, Zitzman says, fits into a “long-standing trend of AWS rolling out managed services of popular open source technology, or replicating such technologies… This move is a text-book commoditization move — providing Elastic’s premium services for free.” Or as Salil Deshpande, a managing director at Bain Capital Ventures and an investor in multiple open source companies, puts it: “It is clear that AWS is using its market power to be anti-competitive.”
Some notes – most people who defend open source viciously as it is, formed by some idealists years ago actually have full employment at either universities or at closed source companies. It’s easy to be idealistic with a full belly.
This fits in well with a talk I gave in Zagreb in 2017: Open Source XOR Money about the problems facing the Open Source community, especially the financials.
In 2019 I gave another talk called “Break it up!” about the growing anti-competitive monopolistic powers of the big 5 tech companies.
It’s interesting to see how these subjects are suddenly flaring up in conjunction with each other.