Is open source leadership helping Google?

Google’s huge commitment to open source projects shows in GitHub contributor counts, while AWS’s strategy has been making open source easy for customers to use. Who’s winning?

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Google’s love for open source has never been a secret. Though I once made the mistake of taking Google director Chris DiBona to task for not doing even more, the reality is that no company contributes more to open source than Google. This was underlined by new data from the Open Source Contributor Index (OCSI), which found that in July 2022, Google moved past Microsoft in the total number of employees contributing to open source projects on GitHub.

Of course, that’s just data for GitHub, which doesn’t include big projects like Drupal. It may also depend on employees self-identifying with their corporate email addresses or simple repository hygiene. Yes, yes, and yes. But those aren’t the best questions to be asking about open source contribution data. The real question is whether open source contributions matter at all.

On-ramps to where?

Wait, what? I can’t possibly mean that, can I? I mean, open source is generally considered an unalloyed good, right?

Well, sure. Open source is good. It’s a great way to collaborate on code, giving us community-driven Kubernetes, for example. It’s also a great way to recruit or find a job. It’s also an important way to undermine competitors by making a free alternative to a competitor’s for-pay product.

This, however, is also where open source may be breaking down.

I’ve talked about “open source on-ramps,” which is the practice of open sourcing complements to one’s proprietary cloud service. Google, in particular, has done this exceptionally well. Brookings Institution fellow Alex Engler once highlighted this, arguing that “for Google and Facebook, the open sourcing of their deep learning tools (TensorFlow and PyTorch, respectively), may have [the effect of] further entrenching them in their already fortified positions.” It’s also at play in the open sourcing of Kubernetes, which is a long-game strategy of enabling multicloud portability, the perfect approach for a cloud provider trying to make up lost ground against a dominant incumbent (Amazon Web Services) and a strong second (Microsoft Azure) that boasts a much stronger enterprise position.

Based on Google’s strong cloud earnings the past few quarters, it seems to be working. But is it working better than AWS’s strategy?

Open source and customer obsession

AWS has never made its strategy a secret. In pursuit of its foremost Leadership Principle “Customer Obsession,” the company takes on the “undifferentiated heavy lifting” of managing infrastructure for its customers. This same strategy applies to open source and is implied in a comment made by former AWS engineering executive Tim Bray: “I have a load of sympathy for the virtuoso engineers who created these wonderful pieces of [open source software]. But here’s the thing: I have at least as much for the customers who (let’s take [Apache] Kafka for an example) just need reliable high-performance streaming.”

AWS takes on the task of making that open source easily consumable by customers. Some have suggested that AWS “strip mines” open source, taking but giving relatively little back. This has never been true and reveals significant misunderstanding about how AWS operates. It’s also the case that AWS has become increasingly active in a widening array of open source projects and in taking on a greater burden to build its own, such as OpenSearch.

AWS still doesn’t contribute at the scale of Google or Microsoft. Customers don’t seem to care. Perhaps they should. Perhaps enterprises should inspect who’s doing what behind the scenes to bring code such as Kubernetes or Kafka to market. Maybe they should tally up contributor counts because, in a very real way, the more a company contributes to a project, the better it can support a customer now and in the future by steering the road map and ensuring close fidelity to the main branch of code. Years ago, Google’s Sophia Vargas pointed to similar reasons for Google’s involvement in open source communities: “As participants in the ecosystem, our intentions are twofold: give back to the communities we depend on, as well as expand support for open source overall.”

The Amazon approach clearly worked, given its multiyear headstart on cloud. Open source, the tool of the underdog, now seems to be enabling both Microsoft and Google to catch up. Perhaps this is a way of suggesting that although open source contributor counts definitely don’t guarantee success, they can play a part in long-term, customer-obsessed strategies and help reshape markets. At least, that seems to be what Google, in particular, is betting on.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.