Why open source is essential in a cloud era

Open source technologies give developers transferrable skills that help vendors build standards-based products. Everybody benefits.

Why open source is essential in a cloud era

As cloud continues to boom, it’s easy—but wrong—to assume that it may supplant open source. After all, much of the reason open source took off was that it enables developers to “get stuff done” without having to route requests for software licenses through Purchasing and Legal. Yet developers still had to figure out how to host and manage that software in their data center. With the advent of cloud, everything about running software becomes easier.

So much easier, in fact, that some people, such as FaunaDB Cofounder Evan Weaver, argue that open source may no longer be necessary. “People aren’t interested in ownership of the code. They’re happy with a cloud solution,” he once told me in an interview.

Even so, as Honeycomb Cofounder and CTO Charity Majors argues, open source is actually more relevant than ever in the cloud era. Why? For starters, it helps developers keep control of their IT destiny even as they outsource it to cloud providers.

Opening up telemetry

OpenTelemetry (OTel) launched in 2019 to provide, among other things, standard ways to do instrumentation and logging. As Major notes, “OTel is an open standard for generating, collecting, and exporting telemetry in a vendor-agnostic way. Before OTel, every vendor had its own libraries, and switching (or trying out) new vendors was [really difficult].”

If you’re a vendor, this might sound great. Once a customer committed to your libraries, they were locked in and the revenue could presumably flow forever. By contrast, after OTel, developers and enterprises are back in control. “Since you can switch from vendor to vendor without reinstrumenting (!), it forces vendors to compete on the merits instead of relying on lock-in,” Majors writes.

That’s the developer value, but why would a vendor sign up?

When I was at AWS, we launched AWS Distro for OpenTelemetry. In discussing why AWS was getting into the OTel game, Alolita Sharma and Nizar Tyrewalla explained that “the OpenTelemetry project … makes it easier for developers to collect and send application metrics and traces to multiple AWS monitoring services” by providing “a single set of open source APIs, SDK libraries, and agents for capturing metrics and distributed traces from applications.”

In other words, although AWS could build its own observability service, it was better for customers to build on and contribute to an industry standard. It turns out that what’s good for customers can be very good (and easier) for vendors, too, even though Majors says OTel was arguably a “big step back, in terms of usability.” 

For developers and vendors making the OTel bet, the belief has to be that its swelling community will fix these issues, just as they did with Kubernetes, Linux, and more. But community innovation is not the only benefit of open source for OTel, or for open source in the cloud, generally.

Opening up the exits and on-ramps

For the primary benefit, we need to go back to Majors’ statement that “since you can switch from vendor to vendor without reinstrumenting (!), it forces vendors to compete on the merits instead of relying on lock-in.” This remains true even as we expand beyond OTel to databases, operating systems, and more. If you build an application with MySQL, for example, it’s going to be relatively fungible between clouds, as I’ve detailed. Yes, there will be differences, but far fewer than if you’d built an application on SQL Server and then needed to run it on Oracle.

Not only will the application be relatively portable, but the developer skills invested in learning that technology will be, too. Small wonder then that developers talk up open source as a way to make their skills even more valuable. As I’ve noted, “As important as it may be for developers to know the intricacies of a particular cloud vendor, many open source technologies (Kubernetes, Linux, PostgreSQL, etc.) give developers skills that transfer between the clouds.”

Although this may sound like only developers benefit, the advantage for vendors is equal or greater. With proprietary software, the vendor is forced to create a market for its product. In many areas, this will add the burden of competing against an open source alternative. With an open source standard like OTel, vendors can tap into a growing population of engineers qualified to help them build their OTel-based products while also having a much larger total addressable market as enterprises buy into the industry standard.

All of this is a long way of saying that it pays—for developers, employers, and vendors—to buy into open technologies.

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