Amazon Web Services, the retailer’s massively profitable cloud computing arm, has a reputation for taking open source software projects developed elsewhere and selling them as paid services. Furthermore, Amazon is seen as lagging behind rivals like Google and Microsoft when it comes to contributing to open source.
Altogether, these dynamics add up to a sometimes-strained relationship between Amazon and the open source community.
But last week, at its annual Re:invent conference, Amazon’s cloud announced a new project that could signal something of a shift in attitudes, as it launched a service called Firecracker. It’s open source and available on the popular GitHub service, meaning would-be contributors can download, modify or use the code however they want.
To be sure, AWS does contribute to major open source projects like Linux and Kubernetes, and it has many of its own on GitHub. Still, many developers feel that Amazon doesn’t give back enough. In fact, in 2017, Amazon only had 134 active employees on GitHub pushing code to only 158 top projects, compared to Microsoft and Google, which have hundreds more employees contributing to hundreds more of the top projects.
And Amazon has been reluctant to adopt major open source projects like Kubernetes, a mega-popular developer technology born out of Google. In late 2017, Amazon finally jumped on the Kubernetes bandwagon— many months after companies like Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM had already embraced it themselves.
With Firecracker, though, Amazon Web Services could be extending something of an olive branch to the open source world, as it takes technology developed for its own use and turns it into what could be its biggest cloud-computing open source project to date. A spokesperson for the company tells Business Insider to look out for Amazon starting more of its own open source projects and contributing to more projects, too.
“Amazon hasn’t been known for contributing a ton of open source. Now, here’s capable technologies built in-house, and they’re making it available,” Dan Kohn, executive director of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation industry group, told Business Insider. “Things like Firecracker are great indications of Amazon investing in open source.”
What Firecracker does
In a nutshell, AWS Firecracker, allows developers to securely launch micro virtual machines (microVMs), a software program that behaves like a completely separate computer. These microVMs can load in a fraction of a second, compared to traditional VMs that can take much longer to load and consume more memory. Users can even run thousands of microVMs at once on the same machine (or machines), letting them run huge apps at large scales.
“We don’t want our customers to make hard decisions between security and functionality,” Holly Mesrobian, Director of Engineering at AWS Lambda, said on stage at Amazon Web Service’s annual conference on Thursday.
Amazon Web Services developed Firecracker internally to increase the speed and efficiency of its other services. With Firecracker, a microVM can be launched in as little as 125 microseconds, and Amazon plans to speed it up next year. Firecracker already runs on Intel processors, and there will be support for AMD and ARM chips starting in 2019.
To run these microVMs, Firecracker uses the Linux Kernel Virtual Machine, or a virtual machine built on Linux, a popular open source operating system and the biggest rival to Microsoft Windows in the data center.
A good start, but tensions are still high
The general response of the open source community seems to be that the release of Firecracker is a good start, but that there are still reasons to be wary of Amazon.
Recently, software company Redis Labs announced it would adopt a new licensing clause that would curtail major cloud providers from making money off of its open source projects — a measure taken largely in response to AWS taking the Redis database software and packaging it up as a paid service.
“[It’s] good to see Firecracker being open sourced. A good move, although other open source projects continue to be poached on,” Manish Gupta, chief marketing officer of Redis Labs, told Business Insider.
To Gupta’s point, Amazon announced at Re:invent that it would take the Kafka open source project and resell it to its customers as a paid service.
“AWS entering the space is a win for Apache Kafka and represents the emerging consensus that Kafka is the de facto standard foundation for a company’s streaming platform,” Jay Kreps, a co-creator of Apache Kafka and CEO of Kafka-based startup Confluent, said in a statement. “While AWS’s offering helps organizations get started with Kafka, we’ve found this is just the beginning of the journey.”
Still, if AWS continues its strategy of selling open source software, it could validate the smaller companies behind the original software, says Sanjeev Mohan, a senior director and analyst with Gartner.
“I have a theory that the rising tide lifts all ships,” Mohan told Business Insider. “The market is exploding. Everyone has an opportunity to do well. Amazon doesn’t need to sever relationships with the competitors. In fact, Amazon has given more credibility to that industry.”
Likewise, The Information recently reported that Amazon is developing a new cloud service based on the open source database MongoDB. MongoDB, the company that develops the namesake software, also recently announced a new license of its own for open source projects, although this was more directly in response to China-based cloud providers including Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu.
While Amazon hasn’t said anything about a MongoDB-based service, Eliot Horowitz, CTO and co-founder of MongoDB, believes that such a service could serve to demonstrate the excitement around open source. He says he’s not too concerned about too much competition, as MongoDB and AWS have a strong partnership. Besides, he says, if AWS does sell such a product, it couldn’t match the features or focus of MongoDB’s own version.
“It’s a testament on how much people like MongoDB. Who knows what will happen? Anything they offer would have to be significantly weaker,” Horowitz said.
The future of Amazon and open source
Whether cloud providers selling other vendors’ software hurts or helps them, AWS launching Firecracker is another sign this year of the major tech titans investing in open source. It follows Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub, IBM announcing it will acquire Red Hat, and VMware announcing it would acquire Heptio, which works with Kubernetes.
If Amazon is serious about continuing in open source, it’s going to have to change its mindset to really thrive, say some in the open source community.
“AWS definitely has an evolving relationship with open source,” Joe Beda, founder and CTO of Heptio told Business Insider. “Building a business around open source is tricky. It requires a level of trust and understanding who your customers are without upsetting them…The key to be successful is to be open on where you stand.”