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BIG open-source love Microsoft and Google? You still won't catch AWS

Code alone won't win the day

By Matt Asay, 30 Mar 2017

Open source wasn’t supposed to matter in the cloud. After the Free Software Foundation’s failed attempt to rein in network-delivered software services, some wrung their hands and waited for the open source apocalypse. Instead of imploding, however, open source adoption has exploded, with ever more permissive licenses rising to largely eliminate the need to contribute anything back.

And yet, perhaps counterintuitively, many do.

More oddly still, the mega clouds, run by Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, are starting to compete on the basis of open source. No, not open source as in “giving away their core code.” As Hadoop founder Doug Cutting put it to me: “While [their cloud] services may be based on open source, they are generally proprietary.” And by generally he really means “always.”

Yet each of the major clouds clearly views open source as central to their strategies, albeit in very different ways. AWS perhaps markets its open source bonafides the least, yet contributes an impressive amount of code.

The ultimate question, however, is whether any of it will matter. Wearing openness on their cloudy sleeves. Though Microsoft Azure has been positioning itself as a friend to open source for years, it’s really Google Cloud that has made the most fuss over open source recently. The recent Google Next event was an open source love-in, following on the heels of Google joining the Cloud Foundry Foundation back in December (not to mention a serious corporate-wide commitment to actively contribute to and support open source communities).

As Redmonk analyst Fintan Ryan picked up, Google Next was rife with “messaging around being community players, working heavily with existing communities, [and] building new ones.” Why does this matter? According to Ryan’s colleague, James Governor, Google’s open source outreach threatens AWS because open source companies will likely find it a more welcoming home. It also could crowd out Microsoft Azure’s own open source outreach.

More specifically, Google has been opening up key projects related to machine learning and AI, as it seeks to differentiate Google from AWS and Azure with a healthy dose of big data smarts. Rather than simply offer ML or AI as a service (which, incidentally, it does offer), Google has been open sourcing the tools necessary to power such services. Things like TensorFlow, Kubernetes, and more have combined to mark Google as a hub for cloud-based data science. As the thinking seems to go: “Everyone should want to run like Google. Here’s how.”

Not only does the open sourcing of such code help Google brand itself, but it also sets up the Google Cloud as a natural place to run such services at scale.

We loved open source first! Microsoft, meanwhile, surpasses even Google when it comes to its (relatively newfound) love for open source, according to GitHub data. With more than 16,419 contributors (compared to Google’s 12,140, as of September 2016), Microsoft is making up for its early animus toward all things open. Specific to Azure, Microsoft early on decided that it needed to appeal to developers, speaking their love language: open source software.

Today, Microsoft Azure is awash in open source. Indeed, this was one of Microsoft’s early competitive differentiators from its cloud competition, even as it sought to break with its proprietary past. This meant an early embrace of Hadoop, Drupal, and more, while more recently giving a bear hug to Docker (and Linux).

Partly this reflects a real change of heart at Microsoft, as it sought relevance with modern developers. Partly it’s simple survival: open source has often been the preferred tool of the underdog, as would-be usurpers attempt to open source away the core value of their larger competitors, even as they offer an open complement to their own proprietary services.

Don’t try to steal our open source thunder Which leaves us with Amazon Web Services, a company so dominant in the cloud that it arguably needn’t bother with open source. After all, AWS actually supplants the promise of open source, in many ways, giving developers the ease-of-deployment and flexibility long associated with open source. If we hone in on what developers want, as called out in an Andreessen Horowitz podcast, convenience and community summarize most of what they value:

Andreessen Horowitz slide

And yet...AWS does quite a bit with open source.

Not enough to satisfy some, like analyst Krish Subramanian. Others, like Yaron Haviv, fault AWS for merely “putting up a show” around open source, rejecting its contributions as “lip service,” not measuring up to the value that it derives from open source. This isn’t a helpful way of looking at things, though, as Hadoop founder Cutting argues: “Expecting contribution to open source proportional to benefit from it is insanity.”

Even if we put a premium on open-source contributions, we can probably blame AWS marketing more than its engineering for the alleged gap in contributions. Just as Google is getting more play out of its AI/ML work, despite Amazon having worked on AI and ML for many years, it’s also likely true that AWS talk about open source pales in comparison to its actions around open source.

In fact, from a business perspective, open source is a companion to the AWS business model. AWS builds services using open source (MySql, Tomcat) and contributes a meaningful amount back to the projects they use (Xen, Linux, Docker, Chromium, MXNet,). From the hypervisor to the operating system to the database, if AWS builds on it, they also contribute to it. AWS has also followed suit on deep learning contributions by releasing its own Deep Scalable Sparse Tensor Network Engine (DSSTNE).

So while it’s far to say, as Kenn White posits, that AWS is “less visible” in its open source outreach than, say, Google, it’s also true that AWS’ open source impact remains “significant.”

To further its interest in getting more involved in open source, and making more noise around it, AWS recently hired former Netflix cloud chief Adrian Cockcroft.

Cockcroft knows the value of both using open source and marketing the use of it. At Netflix, for example, he dramatically improved Netflix’s ability to hire high-quality engineering talent by positioning Netflix as a hot-bed for open source development.

Yet none of this addresses the most obvious question: who cares?

Does openness matter?

At a superficial level, each of the major clouds competes on the basis of open source. But not really. Ultimately, as SAP global vice president Floyd Strimling questions: “Does anyone really care [who wins the open source contributor award] as long as the cloud is scalable, available, and cost competitive?” In a word: No.

Ultimately, developers just want innovation at a maximum of simplicity and a minimum of price. No open source contribution can obscure this fundamental purchasing calculus. So far, AWS is earning dramatically more in the cloud than its more visibly open source-friendly competitors, suggesting that developers are comfortable with AWS as a platform. Maybe this means they’ve delved into AWS’ contribution history and feel comfortable with its track record.

Or maybe (and more likely) they just don’t care. ®

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