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.
Open-source software is defined as code that can be freely shared and modified by anyone. But now Elastic was telling customers that certain elements in its product mix could not be accessed without payment and that the code could not be freely shared.
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. Shay Banon, founder and CEO of Elastic, carefully defended Elastic’s new licensing practices, while at the same time making his unhappiness with Amazon crystal clear.
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.
But the notion that Amazon was presenting itself as an altruistic defender of the digital public commons rankled community veterans like Zitzman, who says that Amazon has a poor reputation for working with the community. (GitHub data shows that Amazon has far fewer employees than Microsoft, Google, or IBM contributing code to open source projects.)
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.