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Open Source / Software Development

Open Source Fights Back: OpenTofu Is the Entrée We Need

The Linux Foundation has lent its weight to preserve the right to fork and (hopefully) give pause to vendors that might follow in HashiCorp’s footsteps.
Oct 5th, 2023 10:38am by
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That HashiCorp’s Terraform would be forked after the company abandoned open source was inevitable. But the Linux Foundation’s embrace of the fork will make it successful and perhaps make other open source defectors think twice.

To quickly sum up in case you missed it: HashiCorp recently and abruptly changed the license for its popular open source projects like Terraform to the Business Source License (BuSL). BuSL is a source-available license that essentially poisons the well for any competitors but poses as an “open” license for casual use and tinkering.

It was, after a few warning shots, forked by the community as OpenTF. At Open Source Summit Europe, the Linux Foundation (LF) did something unexpected but brilliant: It gave OpenTF a home. LF also renamed it “OpenTofu,” which is a silly name but we won’t hold that against it.

The LF doesn’t always shy away from controversy, but this is the first time I can recall the foundation embracing a fork, much less one that hails from a member company. It was, however, entirely needed and entirely justified.

Abuse of Trust

Businesses, after decades of hard work, have learned to depend on open source and trust the licenses that the Open Source Initiative (OSI) has endorsed as compliant with the Open Source Definition (OSD). They understand those licenses, and they want the benefits they convey.

The LF has been a significant part of a larger movement in working to build that understanding and trust. Its members support the LF, in part, to maintain and grow the open source ecosystem — an ecosystem with built-in trust for open source that allows vendors to plug in and gain market share far faster than if they used non-open licenses.

There’s been a trickle of companies abandoning open source in the face of competition and lackluster business results. HashiCorp follows Lightbend, Elasticsearch, MongoDB and others in building a loyal following with open source and then pulling the rug out from under everyone with abrupt license changes. HashiCorp and Lightbend chose BuSL; Elasticsearch and Mongo chose the slightly better Server-Side Public License (SSPL).

In a tough economy, you could easily see where other vendors would follow suit. The LF spotted an opportunity to make that less attractive, and it should be applauded for taking it.

Why Open Source Purity Matters

Some vendors have tried to put forward the idea that we should stop being “purists” about open source licensing because it doesn’t really matter.

But it does, even if developers have forgotten why. For example, it still matters a great deal to the businesses that depend on applications they expected to use under FOSS (free and open source) terms and suddenly have to deal with new terms.

Allowing vendors to slide in non-open licenses after gaining widespread adoption is harmful to the industry, especially licenses like HashiCorp’s implementation of BuSL that forbids use that is “competitive to HashiCorp’s products.” What’s competitive? Well, that’s up to HashiCorp. Today it might be Amazon Web Services (AWS) , tomorrow it might be if you stand up an instance just for your organization. I can’t recommend depending on a company’s definition of “competitive” for production deployments when said company has already demonstrated a willingness to abruptly change license terms out of fear of competition.

This is doubly true with something like Terraform, which is part of the infrastructure and tooling companies and projects at the LF subsidiary Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) depend on.

Surprise license changes are disruptive all the way around. The intended target might be hyperscaler cloud providers, but those affected include a lot of projects and companies that have adopted the software in good faith.

The good news is that the community can exercise its right to fork on the last open source release of Terraform and prevent this from happening again.

The Right to Fork

As I said, it was obvious and inevitable that someone would fork Terraform. But the LF’s endorsement and embrace all but guarantee its long-term success — and, quite likely, Terraform’s failure.

“Fork” used to be something of a dirty word in open source circles. It was something done only as a last resort or if you were taking a project in a vastly different or niche direction. A competing fork was generally considered a bad practice.

But the ability to fork is sacred. It’s an insurance policy for the larger community, including businesses that deploy open source software, that everyone has the ability to pick up the software and continue using, improving and distributing the software.

It’s an all-purpose policy that allows for continuity if a project is canceled, abandoned, poorly governed or any other reason that a community feels that the original upstream is not meeting their needs.

Non-OSD licenses don’t give users the right to fork, at least not as equal participants.

It’s an important right to protect. Vendors may like to tout costs and convenience as primary selling points of open source, but the right to fork outweighs them all.

By backing OpenTofu, the LF has lent its considerable weight to preserve the right to fork and (hopefully) give pause to other vendors that might be thinking about following in HashiCorp’s footsteps. The LF made the right call, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if the OpenTofu fork eclipses Terraform in the future.

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