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Unbeknownst to many, the world’s leading enterprise cloud service providers like Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, and Amazon Web Services, all use a troupe of open-source software in their tech stacks. From Kubernetes to Linux to PostgreSQL, open-source software is ever-present in cloud services, allowing CSPs to keep the wheels running at no additional cost.
To offset the cost that these providers save by using open-source software, many of the companies contribute to them. Google has been vocal about its love of open-source software offerings, and is one of the most active contributors to open-source. However, it seems that Amazon is now catching up to its customers in giving back to the community, finally righting the scales on open-source responsibility.
Shift from customer-focused service
Amazon is well-known for their ‘customer obsession’ strategy and has often made this their first priority when providing services. However, the public discourse against their free ride of open-source softwares has grown in the past few years. Open-source advocates have been vocal about their disdain towards AWS’ ‘strip-mining’ of open source technology.
Strip-mining is a term used to denote the strategy of ‘intercept and monetise’, where Amazon takes an open-source project, ‘steals’ the code and creates a proprietary paid service based on it. A prime example of this is the Elasticsearch incident from 2015. AWS forked an open-source project created by a company named Elastic, building a product named Elasticsearch on top of it.
After fighting the case in court, Elastic was forced to change their licensing from a permissive Apache License V 2.0 to a different license system called Elastic license. However, this still did not stop Amazon, as they simply forked the repo, combined it with another software called Kibana, and released the resulting product as an open-source project called “OpenSearch”.
This is just one of the many cases where Amazon has taken open-source software and repurposed it for its own use. However, it seems that this strategy is now changing, as AWS has climbed to the top 5 in open-source contributions over the last year.
While Google and Microsoft dominate the leaderboards in first and second respectively, the third and fourth position is taken up by Red Hat and Intel, both open-source giants in their own right. Considering Amazon’s sluggish attitude towards supporting open-source, it seems they shouldn’t be in the top 5, yet they are.
AWS open-source contributors’ growth. Source: OSCI
When looking at the data provided by the Open Source Contributors Index, it is clear when AWS pivoted to their open-source contribution strategy. Up to 2019, the number of open source contributors consistently stayed below 250, but spiked to 852 in March 2021. Today, it has 14.9% more contributors than it did in 2021 – around 2700 – and is the only company that has seen a positive growth in contributors in this time period.
Top 4 open source contributors’ decline. Source: OSCI
Microsoft, Google, Red Hat and Intel have all cut down on the number of open-source contributors over the past few years. So the question remains – what drove Amazon to contribute so heavily to open source?
Pivot to open-source-as-a-service
While open-source projects offer ease of access and no licensing costs, it often costs significant resources to keep them running in an enterprise tech stack. This is due to the fact that there is no ever-present support to take care of obscure bugs and issues that might arise. Some companies, like Red Hat, saw this as a market in need of a business model, and began offering open-source-as-a-service.
In this business model, the company takes over the support and documentation responsibilities while offering open-source software. It now seems that AWS has also seen the benefits of this business model, if not for profitability, for customer focus. Vertically integrating open-source software into their tech stack offers multiple advantages, the primary among them being ease of use.
By contributing to and maintaining open source repositories, Amazon does not need to rely on community contributors to fix bugs, nor do they need to package the software into a new web service. Matt Asay, vice president of developer relations at MongoDB, who has had prior experience working at AWS, stated, “The company has always been great at running open source projects as services for its customers. As I found while working there, most customers just want something that works. But getting it to “just work” in the way customers want requires that AWS get its hands dirty in the development of the project.”
Indeed, many of the company’s new offerings leverage the power of open-source in a sustainable manner. One only needs to look at the new AWS Bedrock services – an effort to bring foundational models into the hands of AWS customers. Even some of the models offered on the Bedrock service are open source, such as Stability AI’s StableLM and Stable Diffusion.
Whether it is for the sake of customer satisfaction or removing technical debt, Amazon is now catching up to its competitors in terms of giving back to the community. Moreover, this new strategy allows for the creation of a new business model for AWS, moving past wrapping open-source projects in proprietary skins.