Elastic CEO reflects on Amazon spat, license switch, and the principles of open source

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While the value of open source software (OSS) is obvious to most people, community-powered software often finds itself at the center of many heated discussions, covering everything from security vulnerabilities to license changes.

In early 2021, one of those big “hot potato” OSS talking points grew its head when Elastic announced that it was transitioning its database search engine Elasticsearch from the open source Apache 2.0 license with Kibana’s Visualization Dashboard. Owned “available source” license. The move comes a long way, and it follows a host of other previous “open source” companies that made similar switches to protect their business interests – Mongodib in 2018, and Kokrochdib a year later, to name a couple.

With Elastic’s Releasing Brohaha now settling into the dust (mostly), VentureBeat caught up with the co-founder and CEO. She Banon To get his thoughts on what was going on: why they changed the license; What an impact – if any – it has had on its business, and what it really means to be a “free and open” company (vs. “open source”).

License to search

Companies typically use Elasticsearch for any application that relies on accessing and retrieving data or documents – a search engine used by some of the world’s largest companies, from Netflix to Slack. As the main developer of the project, Elastic – headquartered in the Netherlands and the US – sells premium features and fully managed services on top of ElasticSearch.

The “problem” with a pure, fully-licensed open source license is that anyone – such as large cloud vendors – can take that software and do more or less whatever they like with it. This includes the sale of premium or hosted services at the top of the open source project, cutting off the main producer and project maintainer (e.g. resilient) together. This makes sense on many levels, as it helps cloud vendors build a stickier platform and enables its customers to access all their computing services from a single provider. But for the main project maintainer, that means he puts a lion’s share of spadework into the project, including security and specialty upgrades, without receiving any rewards.

But when a third-party builds a commercial service on top of an open source project, it can also cause a lot of confusion, with end users often not clear which version of product they are actually using. And it goes back to the origins of what Elastic’s move was – it was about avoiding the confusion between Elastic’s own commercial ElasticSearch offer and Amazon.

Amazon launched the Amazon ElasticSearch service in 2015. At the time, Amazon’s chief technology officer announced – in a tweet that was later deleted – that it was in partnership with Elastic. This is something that Bannon has previously resented, noting that there is no such partnership. In a blog post back in January, Ben wrote:

Imagine our surprise when Amazon CTO tweeted that the service was rolled out with us – it wasn’t. And over the years, we have often heard that this confusion continues.

Amazon CTO tweet

Above: Amazon CTO tweet, which was later deleted

Image Credits: Screenshots by Elastic

What’s in the name?

The road to a major reshuffle of the elastic in January was a long one. In early 2019, AWS announced the launch of a new “open distro” for Elasticsearch in partnership with other notable companies, including Netflix, which was introduced as a “value-added” distribution (i.e. no fork) that is 100% open. Was the source. And backed by AWS – it also comes with the promise that it will continue to send any code contributions and security patches back upstream to the original Elasticsearch project.

But why launch this distro when ElasticSearch was already open source? For that we have to go further back.

In 2018, Elastic announced that it was creating code from a proprietary product called X-Pack that is open to anyone to view and contribute to. This is commonly referred to as “open source” instead of “open source”, but it serves to “muddy the water” between open source and proprietary code, according to Amazon VP Adrian Cockcroft, who wrote in a 2019 blog post:

Since June 2018, we have seen a significant mix of proprietary code in the code base. While Apache 2.0 licensed downloads are still available, there is a dire lack of clarity on what open source care customers are getting and what they can rely on.

For example, release notes or documentation do not specify what is open source and what is proprietary. Enterprise developers may inadvertently apply fixes or enhancements to proprietary source code. This is difficult to track and manage, can lead to license breaches and termination of rights immediately.

And that was the culmination of the Shenanigans that finally, in January, Elastic had its license for Elastic Search and Kibana changed – and it didn’t have to wait long for a response. Just a week later, Amazon announced that it would begin work on the open source elastic search fork, which will be shipped under a completely new name, OpenSearch, which finally hit the market in July.

“It simply came to our notice then [license] Change – it was just painful, “Ben told VentureBeat. “The problem is that a lot of customers don’t necessarily have to focus on the details and differences between Elastic’s ElasticSearch offering and other third-party ‘A-A-Service’ offers.”

So while Elastic may push an update or patch out for its Elasticsearch, it is not necessary that it immediately enter into a third-party offer. By forcing a clear distinction between the two versions of Elasticsearch, Elastic was protecting its brand and reputation.

“Amazon used the Apache 2.0 (open source) license and provided the service, they are fully entitled to do so – it’s perfectly fine and legal,” added Ben. “There were some things that we had a problem with that went beyond using software. Calling the service ‘Amazon Elasticsearch Service’ – you go to any trademark lawyer, they will tell you that it is a trademark infringement, and this has caused confusion in the market. Especially as Amazon and AWS advanced, [the confusion] Just became huge. And that’s problematic. “

But if it was just a case of trademark infringement, Elastic couldn’t just tell Amazon Not at all Using the name Elasticsearch in its own service? In fact, it was a refuge that the company was actively pursuing – Elastic filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Amazon in 2019. But the problem was that, using considerable resources in the process, the lawsuit takes a long time to resolve; According to Bannon, changing the license was a way to speed things up and get Amazon to stop using the ElasticSearch brand in its own product offerings.

“The legal process was dragging its feet – to be honest, I was really frustrated with the progress,” Bano said. “The wheels of justice will take their turn, and it will, but at the end of the day, we had users who were confused – users and consumers sometimes did not know what to do. [Amazon’s Elasticsearch or Elastic’s Elasticsearch] Which is, what features are being used where. They would go to the Amazon ElasticSearch service and think it was something we give back.

Believe it or not, this is a very common problem in the open source sector – PrestoDB Fork PrestoSQL was forced to change its name to Trino last year when Facebook claimed ownership of the trademark “Presto”. And just last month, StreamLabs OBS, the livestreaming software provider, had to delete “OBS” from its name after it was called by the open source OBS project on which it is built. Ultimately, it was about avoiding brand confusion, with the OBS project’s Twitter account revealing that some of its support volunteers faced demands for refunds from “angry users” when it was actually a commercial Streamlabs product for which they paid.

Principles of open source

There were a few surprises when Amazon announced its plans for the ElasticSearch Fork – “We fully expected that to happen,” Benoit said – but Elastic had already promoted its commercial offer to protect it against any future open source curfews. This largely involved investing in its own IP, such as its security and application performance management (APM) capabilities, which it had already released under a “free and open” license instead of an OSI-approved Apache license.

Simply put, customers weren’t required to use elastic because of its open source license, which is why its revenue has been steadily rising in the 12 months since it switched.

“I think people were involved with Elastic because of the quality of the products and the quality of the community that we’ve built around Elastic, to be completely honest, not around a licensing license,” Banon said.

However, it is noteworthy that some companies other than AWS Did Consider releasing Elasticsearch, including CrateDB developer Crate.io, which announced in February that it was transitioning from Elasticsearch to “Elasticsearch’s full open source fork.”

Whenever any company switches to its open source license, it almost always relies on at least some in the community. But Bannon said that despite some disappointments, he did not see any real impact from a business or community perspective.

“I think the vast majority of the open source community was totally fine with our change,” Benn said. ,[And] The metrics we track, like the number of downloads, meetups, community engagement, things along those lines, everything stays the same – and it’s really growing. “

What Bano said is the most important principle of open source – it’s not about licensing.

“As a company, we have never considered open source as a business model – open source is not a business model,” he said. “The first principle of open source applies to GitHub, for example – you use open source to connect with the community, you use open source as a way to create communities, you use open source to collaborate with people.”

To the casual observer, it seems that Elasticsearch is against any third-party that Elasticsearch offers “A-A-Service”, but that is not the case. Other companies, including Google and Alibaba, already offer Elasticsearch-as-a-service in direct partnership with Elastic.

“If you take the software and offer it as a service, I think having skin in the game is healthy for both of us,” Benn said. “This means that when we fix a vulnerability that has major implications if you are providing ‘A-A-Service’, we will contact you and work with the seller to do that.” . It’s very easy to do, because SaaS is the tide that lifts all the boats. “

So does Bannon really care that its main product is no longer “open source” in the purest sense of the word?

“I don’t think it’s important – ‘free and open’, I’m fine with that,” he said. “These things can be very distracting, and then you lose really important things. Are we still connected to our community in the same way? Are we still connected to them on GitHub? If these things are still true, I’m fine. “

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