How HashiCorp's license shakeup seeded a new open source rebel

We're really just getting started, says OpenTofu community member

Interview HashiCorp might be less than impressed with the rise of the Terraform fork, OpenTofu, but where Hashi sees challenges, the maintainers of the open source project see opportunities.

OpenTofu sprang into existence following HashiCorp's 2023 decision to adopt the Business Source License, thus taking its popular Terraform infrastructure-as-code tool from open source to source available. The source remains freely available, and you can do what you like with it, so long as that doesn't compete with HashiCorp.

Sebastian Stadil, co-founder of DevOps automation outfit Scalr and an OpenTofu community member, tells The Register that the "timeline of events is kind of interesting."

"We had known in the community that Hashi wasn't executing how they wanted to execute, and we knew [from Hashi employees] that there was a lot of internal turmoil and stress.

"But then Hashi decided that their approach was going to be to compete on license and not on execution of product. We'd expected them to assign more people to building products and beat us on execution."

By "us," Stadil means the community building on top of Terraform.

"And so when they changed the license to BSL, we were surprised they were taking that approach."

Stadil describes the decision as both unfortunate and an opportunity for the community. While change might be bad, there had long been a desire to bring Terraform under the umbrella of the Linux Foundation. With HashiCorp holding the reins, changes that did not fit with Hashi's commercial vision were unlikely to make it into the project. However, once forked, those requests could start flowing.

"There were a lot of capabilities that people had been trying to get into Terraform that were never accepted into Terraform because they competed with some functionality in terms of cloud," Stadil explains.

"And so ... they're monetizing commercial products – which is entirely within their rights – but that means that the velocity at which Terraform was improving was kind of limited by that kind of tension.

"So the opportunity was to take all that goodwill from the community that had been trying to improve Terraform and say, 'Hey, we've got this project, it's a fork of Terraform, it's now under the Linux Foundation umbrella, and we will have a community-driven approach and not a vendor-driven approach.'

"A great example of that is in the 1.7 release; we'll have client-side state encryption."

The Register contacted HashiCorp for its take on Stadil's statements, but the company did not wish to comment.

There were other factors contributing to OpenTofu's swift appearance following the license change, Stadil tells us.

"The CNCF [Cloud Native Computing Foundation] has a policy that to build any CNCF project, the toolchain has to be 100 percent open source. So when you're building Kubernetes, when you're building any of these projects, the entire toolchain has to be open sourced so that anybody can run it without any licensing issues.

"Terraform was very widely used in the build process for almost all these projects... and so suddenly the CNCF was in a situation where they can't use Terraform any more. So the Linux Foundation needs a fork to happen, or they just keep using the last open source version of Terraform."

During a 2023 interview with The Register, HashiCorp CEO David McJannet pondered the role of foundations amid the licensing furor. "I would ask them what their role is," he mused. "Is their role to accept forks of products by commercial vendors?"

As for the CNCF, the group's CTO, Chris Aniszczyk, told us at the 2023 Shanghai Kubecon that the CNCF has "an interest in kind of supporting, openly governed multi-vendor stuff."

Stalid says of McJannet: "He's a great guy ... I sympathize with him; he's in a very difficult situation. But, at the end of the day, Terraform is not open source anymore. OpenTofu is. And the CNCF has that requirement."

Stadil does not describe the CNCF as a slow-moving organization – indeed, the breakneck speed at which the foundation has pivoted to AI is undeniable – but he says there had been a desire for HashiCorp to donate Terraform to the foundation for a long time. "HashiCorp," he says, "didn't find that to be in their interest."

"So when they decided it wouldn't be open source anymore, and we put out the manifesto, and we put out the fork, the Linux Foundation had already wanted a project under its umbrella, and so we went very, very fast."

"There were already a lot of people that wanted this to happen."

While the formation of OpenTofu was announced in 2023 by the Linux Foundation, the team is also eager to huddle under the CNCF umbrella. Stalid explains that licensing remains an issue. "The CNCF has a policy that all projects in the CNCF have to be Apache 2.0 licensed. But because OpenTofu is a fork of an MPL project, OpenTofu is also MPL licensed. And so the CNCF board has to make an exception to that policy so that OpenTofu can join the CNCF."

Stadil says that five years of long-term support are on the cards, although it could end up being three years once a decision has been made. The release cadence has certainly been impressive since that first branch.

But could adding features that have spent years on the community's wish list lead to another open source problem – burnout?

Stadil says: "I think this is the first time I've even heard of burnout. On the contrary, if there's any burnout, it's probably on the HashiCorp side!

"On our side, this is very liberating. We can now get patches into the project. We can now build cool stuff on top that HashiCorp didn't want us to build before. So we're very far from burnout – we're really just getting started!" ®

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