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Infrastructure as Code / Operations

OpenTF: Disgruntled HashiCorp Rivals Fork Terraform

OpenTF supporters like Kelsey Hightower say that having a fully-compatible, open source alternative will only grow the market for Terraform and associated solutions.
Aug 29th, 2023 3:10pm by
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(Editors note: This post has been updated on August 29 with the latest developments)

When HashiCorp announced its decision earlier this month to move its ubiquitous Terraform infrastructure-as-code platform away from an open source license, the reaction from members of its community was negative, to say the least.

It didn’t take long before certain prominent members of the Terraform community released “The OpenTF Manifesto,” which called on HashiCorp to revert the change and commit to remaining open source for the foreseeable future. The manifesto promised that if HashiCorp didn’t acquiesce, they would fork the project. Last week, that assembly followed through, officially announcing the impending arrival of OpenTF.

The short version is that OpenTF plans to officially launch in a matter of weeks, with a stable release based on the last version of Terraform itself released under its original open-source Mozilla Public License (MPL) before HashiCorp changed to the Business Source License (BSL). OpenTF pledges that it will remain available as open source forever, and says that it’s started the application process to become part of the Linux Foundation and its subordinate Cloud Native Software Foundation. Importantly for users, OpenTF also promises that it will maintain compatibility with future Terraform releases “until the community wishes otherwise.”

OpenTF seems to have struck something of a nerve. At the time of writing, the OpenTF Manifesto itself has over 25,000 stars on GitHub, and over 500 signatories co-signing the document on the project’s website. Among the Terraform ecosystem, OpenTF’s biggest backers include Scalr, env0, and Spacelift — all of them companies providing tools for Terraform automation. Those three companies have jointly pledged to cover the costs of 13 engineers to work on OpenTF full-time. Other notable names among OpenTF’s most vocal supporters include Gruntwork, Digger, and CloudPosse, all of which help their clients get the most out of Terraform.

At least some of the project’s major patrons have gone so far as to claim that it’s HashiCorp that created the fork, not OpenTF. After all, OpenTF is working on the same software that its members had been using, under the same license it had previously been under.

“Our view is that we’re actually not the fork because we’re just changing the name but it’s the same project under the same license,” Scalr CEO Sebastian Stadil told The Register. “Our position is that the fork is actually HashiCorp that has forked its own projects under a different license.”

A Terraform Schism Is Born

HashiCorp has defended its decision to change Terraform’s license as a necessary step towards protecting its business, particularly from large cloud vendors who use its code to make and sell commercial products. In so doing, it became the latest in a parade of open source companies making similar moves, most recently including Red Hat. Somewhat similar to HashiCorp’s situation, Red Hat found itself targeted by rivals including Oracle and SUSE, who committed to joining forces for their own fork of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Fans of OpenTF say that the decision to fork Terraform is the essence of open source software in action: “The Terraform situation, and the community’s response, demonstrates the power of open source. The original maintainers made a decision a subset of their community doesn’t agree with, they forked the project, and will continue building in a foundation,” tweeted Kelsey Hightower, the well-known former Google Cloud distinguished engineer and major Kubernetes contributor.

Terraform was, is, and will likely remain the standard in the infrastructure-as-code market, which helped propel HashiCorp to the some-$5 billion valuation it enjoys on the public markets today. However, OpenTF supporters like Hightower say that having a fully-compatible, open source alternative will only grow the market for Terraform and associated solutions. If nothing else, having some competition is good for the industry, and in theory, should satisfy all parties.

Still, some are a little more wary of OpenTF’s prospects. As MongoDB’s Matt Asay notes in his regular column for InfoWorld, none of the major cloud providers have (so far) signed on with OpenTF. While he writes that the “idealism is palpable,” he notes that most of the truly successful, widely-used open source projects are backed by a corporate giant. The biggest contributors to Kubernetes, he writes by way of example, are Google, Red Hat, and VMware. Without sponsors of that scale, OpenTF might find it hard to grow in the way it hopes.

Either way, as more open source companies continue to shift their licenses in the name of growth, you can expect more of these schisms to form in their respective communities. If nothing else, it’s a clear sign of the gulf that’s opened up in the open source software industry as a whole.

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: Spacelift.
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