UPDATED 21:20 EDT / DECEMBER 18 2019


Amazon hits back at claims it’s abusing open-source software

Amazon Web Services Inc. has hit back at criticism that it’s taking advantage of open-source software projects by “strip mining” them and repackaging them as paid services.

Andi Gutmans, vice president of AWS analytics and ElastiCache, was responding to Monday’s New York Times article that said the cloud computing giant was benefiting by integrating open-source software pioneered by others into its own products.

That article gave a few examples, including that of Amsterdam-based Elastic N.V., which developed the open source Elasticsearch analytics search engine, and was rapidly expanding until AWS launched a rival paid service based on the same software in 2015.

According to the Times, Amazon quickly surpassed Elastic and began making more revenue by offering deeper integration with its other products. Elastic responded to that by offering premium features on top of its product, only for AWS allegedly to copy many of those features and make them available to its users at no extra cost.

Elastic is currently suing Amazon for violating its trademark as it calls its own product “AWS Elasticsearch.” Elastic’s case is that Amazon “misleads customers” by using the Elasticsearch name.

In his reponse, Gutmans argued that Amazon is not deliberately copying open-source software in order to profit from others’ labor, but is instead just giving its customers what they want.

“AWS customers have repeatedly asked AWS to build managed services around open source,” Gutmans wrote. “As we shared with the author, the argument that AWS is ‘strip-mining’ open source is silly and off-base.”

Gutmans pointed out that the entire ethos of open source is that those projects can be adapted and improved by others. “These open source projects enable any company to utilize this software on-premises or in the cloud, and build services around it,” he said.

He also pointed out that AWS itself is a major contributor to some of the biggest open-source software projects around, including Linux, Java, Kubernetes, Xen, KVM, Chromium, Robot Operating System, Apache Lucene, Redis, s2n, FreeRTOS, AWS Amplify, Apache MXNet, AWS SageMaker NEO, Firecracker, the OpenJDK with Corretto, Elasticsearch and Open Distro for Elasticsearch.

“AWS has not copied anybody’s software or services,” Gutmans insisted. “A number of maintainers of open source projects build commercial companies around the open source project. A small set of outliers see it as a zero-sum game and want to be the only ones able to freely monetize managed services around these open source projects.”

Reaction to the Time’s article and Amazon’s response has been mixed. On the one hand, several writers have chimed in to defend Amazon. An article in Tom Krazit’s MostlyCloudy argued that what Amazon is doing with open source is no different from supermarkets such as WalMart Inc. that offer their own, usually cheaper equivalents to branded products.

“AWS is a formidable company that offers a huge array of internally developed services, but there are still lots of customers who are willing to pay extra for better versions, as the performance of MongoDB’s Atlas cloud database over the last quarter shows,” Krazit noted.

On the other hand, Ben Golub, executive chairman and interim chief executive officer at cloud storage company Storj Labs Inc., and formerly CEO of Docker Inc., told SiliconANGLE in an email that criticism of AWS is justified. He said Amazon has been using open-source software as a loss leader for its infrastructure business for years, and that it has created serious issues regarding the sustainability of many of those projects.

Golub ought to know a thing or two about this, as his previous company, Docker, is a textbook example of a company that failed to monetize a popular open-source project, though to be fair, the company had other issues as well. Docker is one of the companies at the heart of the software container movement that has revolutionized the way in which modern applications are built.

Its popular development tool, the Docker Container Engine, underpins the majority of containerized application projects today. It’s available for free under an open-source license, with the company offering a premium version with extra features that help companies manage, secure and monitor their containerized applications.

Unfortunately for Docker, its business model failed to translate into profits and it recently sold its enterprise business to rival Mirantis Inc.

“While perfectly legal, this practice is making it almost impossible for open-source companies to build sustainable revenue streams,” Golub said. “Open source software drives over two-thirds of the workloads in the cloud, but the projects themselves do not receive a reasonable portion of the revenue generated. This is not only an issue for the open-source projects, but for the economy as a whole, as it threatens the sustainability of the open-source model.”

Some open-source companies may indeed be struggling from the competition, but Constellation Research Inc. analyst Holger Mueller said that’s likely because they haven’t provided the features and scalability that enterprises want.

“The problem with open source is that there is no inherent DNA to reduce complexity and that’s what enterprises and cloud providers need,” Mueller said. “Cloud providers like AWS, Azure and Google Cloud want to scale, and make assumptions and add-ons to open source in order to do that, and enterprises generally appreciate this, unless they create lock-in.”

Mueller said it’s up to the open-source companies competing with Amazon to “out-innovate them” on the features that matter most, and that they must also offer managed versions of their products in both the cloud and on-premises data centers. He said companies that understand this, such as Pivotal Software Inc. with its Cloud Foundry product, have already done well with this model.

“Enterprises want simplicity, scale and no lock-in, and this is the opportunity for software vendors in the cloud era,” he said. “It’s a proven path. We live in the era of enterprise acceleration, where enterprises need to move faster every year, and technology is the fuel for that. This means technology providers need to move even faster to succeed.”

Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr

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