HashiCorp CEO talks license changes and the role of foundations

Open Source or Source Available? Does anyone really care?

Interview Controversial cloud wrangler HashiCorp came out swinging last week at its San Francisco HashiConf shindig when the topic of licensing came up.

The event featured plenty of product announcements, alongside the inevitable smattering of AI, but the topic of that license change and the appearance of at least one notable Terraform alternative was never far away.

As a reminder, HashiCorp made a sudden change in licensing policy in August, moving to the Business Source License (BSL) rather than full FOSS. The crux of the change was that while the source code remained available, it could not be used for commercial purposes without buying a license.

In an interview with The Register, HashiCorp CEO David McJannet was keen to emphasize that the company was now all about being source available.

He said: "We're very clear in our language: our license is source-available."


We attended HashiConf, and the words 'open source' seemed to be pretty much everywhere, even if that is - by its own admission - not what HashiCorp is necessarily about so much anymore.

When challenged, McJannet continued: "We're talking about nuances that I'm not sure many people outside of the OSI understand or care about.

"By the strict definition of OSI, you'll certainly notice we're very clear that our products are source available."


"For all intents and purposes, they're open source unless you happen to be a commercial vendor trying to monetize our market," McJannet opined.

It's a curious distinction that has caused consternation and head-scratching within the community. As far as HashiCorp is concerned, its approach is very much a possible future as far as the whole of open source is concerned.

When asked if more companies might adopt the BSL or similar, McJannet replied: "I don't know what else the alternative is for a lot of these startups.

"I talk to them all the time. They are genuinely puzzled with respect to how to do this over the long term. Because the minute they get popular, companies with more distribution embed their R&D inside their products. Let's just say it's a very current topic."

McJannet also pondered about the role of foundations amid the furor.

"I would ask them what their role is," he mused. "Is their role to accept forks of products by commercial vendors?"

Shortly after McJannet's comments, the Linux Foundation made a lengthy post titled "How open source foundations protect the licensing integrity of open source projects" - a thinly veiled swipe at the HashiCorp approach.

Using the example of the Linux kernel, the Foundation's GM of Projects Mike Dolan said in the post: "Part of the greatest value that open source foundations bring is the creation of a neutral collaboration hub for everyone participating in, and taking a dependency on, a project."

"The Linux Foundation (and others like it) offer their communities: distributed ownership, a level playing field, de-risking open source, and open community governance"

Similarly, Chris Aniszczyk, CTO of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation told The Register in an interview during the 2023 Shanghai Kubecon: "We have an interest in kind of supporting, openly governed multi-vendor stuff."

"Source available," he said, "is not open source."

The words of Dolan and Aniszczyk are unlikely to worry HashiCorp too much. However, the forking of Terraform into OpenTofu should cause a sleepless night or two, even if the company insists its customers could not care less about the license change.

Publicly, the biz protests that its open-source rival is more the result of rivals annoyed about losing access to the source code than anything else.

However, as other companies look to HashiCorp and companies like it when pondering how best to move forward, the concept of open source does seem very much at a crossroads.

Rather than inviting criticism of HashiCorp for its move, perhaps McJannet has a point: what is the role of foundations as licenses proliferate and the code is forked? ®

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