Where Will DevOps Go if IBM Doesn’t Make Terraform Open Source Again?

Where exactly will devops go if IBM doesn't make terraform open source again? Learn more in the narrative below....
Where Will DevOps Go if IBM Doesn’t Make Terraform Open Source Again?
Written by Brian Wallace
  • The DevOps community prefers working with open source software (OSS) because of the customization and freedom it enables. That’s why developers and open source advocates welcomed the news that HashiCorp had been acquired by IBM, given that IBM has a reputation as an OSS-friendly organization. However, weeks after the acquisition announcement, it is still unclear if Terraform and other HashiCorp products might actually revert to open source licensing.

    IBM’s ecosystem encompasses many significant contributions to open source projects including the Linux kernel, Java, Cloud Foundry, OpenStack, as well as Kubernetes. It also supports various blockchain, AI, and IoT projects. The optimism over the possibility of Terraform returning to its open source roots is definitely not unfounded.

    Still, IBM remains mum about its plans for Terraform. And given the $6.4 billion it shelled out to buy HashiCorp, there are reasons to be less excited that open sourcing will happen anytime soon. Reasonably, IBM would have to recover its investment in the newly acquired assets, and it is not easy to immediately shut down potential revenue sources.

    Amid these uncertainties, it makes sense to wonder if IBM’s decision regarding Terraform’s license will have significant impact on the direction of DevOps as a whole. 

    The Rise of Open Source Alternatives

    One of the crucial reasons why open source is a hot topic in the context of IBM’s purchase of HashiCorp is the rise of open source alternatives. At one point, Terraform enjoyed the renown of being the industry standard Infrastructure-as-Code (IaC) management tool. However, when HashiCorp announced Terraform’s switch to a Business Source License (BSL) after many years of being open source, many users – and infrastructure companies – expectedly sought other options.

    One popular Terraform open source alternative is OpenTofu, which is actually an open source fork of Terraform. This and other alternatives have been slowly eating into Terraform’s market share. If IBM succeeds at making the most of owning Terraform, the company will need to retain Terraform’s existing users while attracting more. Terraform, with its BSL license, could have a hard time competing with open source options.

    Many in the DevOps community have indicated their intentions to move to open source IaC alternatives. Some have already started exploring other options in response to Terraform’s BSL license change. Searching for alternatives is common practice in DevOps, and IaC-based cloud provisioning is no different.

    DevOps and Open Source 

    DevOps and open source are not historically or technically intertwined. Open source already existed years before the concept of DevOps was born. However, in modern software development, the two appear to have become an inseparable duo.

    This connection can be attributed to the goals and capabilities that they share. Both DevOps and open source value transparency while emphasizing collaboration. Additionally, they thrive on building large communities.

    DevOps and open source have transparency or openness as part of their DNA. Open source software gains the trust of users and the support of developers because their source code is readily available for anyone to examine and modify. Issues in the software are quickly spotted and addressed, and improvements are more effectively introduced because of this transparency. In the case of DevOps, transparency in processes and communications is a must to ensure success, especially when it comes to identifying and fixing problems.

    When it comes to transparency, both DevOps and open source foster collaboration. Disparate teams of developers work together to improve a software project in the same way different teams in DevOps work closely together to break down the silos that emerge between development and operations teams, accelerating procedures and outputs.

    Moreover, DevOps and open source unmistakably need a large community to flourish. It is important for a large community of developers and users to continuously improve an open source software project. Likewise, DevOps greatly benefits from the sharing of insights, best practices, and support from the different teams and the DevOps community in general.

    Impact of IBM’s Decision on DevOps 

    So what happens to DevOps if IBM decides not to revert Terraform to an open source license? It is unlikely to mean an immediate end to Terraform’s use. It will be inconvenient or even challenging for some to abandon Terraform and get acquainted with new tools. However, in general, DevOps will advance and evolve just like it has done with its ecosystem of tools, developers, and projects.

    Terraform may be a leading tool in the field of Infrastructure-as-Code management, but it has not ascended to a level that allows the tool to influence the direction of an entire software development model or approach. The DevOps community is resilient and resourceful. It can easily find alternatives for tools it can no longer utilize. 

    It is also worth noting that a lack of familiarity with new tech is no longer that big of a concern for most organizations at present. There are many products as well as managed solutions available to help organizations integrate new tools into their environment for cloud provisioning management, governance, and automation. 

    It is not the tools that define DevOps. It is also not the specific organizations or users. As an approach, DevOps continues to be part of modern software development because of the culture it propagates. After all, the DevOps mindset emphasizes processes over tools. This does not mean that tools are unimportant, as the right tools are necessary for the efficient implementation of practices. However, it is necessary to stress that tools do not set the course for DevOps.

    If more users abandon Terraform to switch to an open source alternative, DevOps will move forward with whatever new tools supplant Terraform as the standard. Teams that embody the spirit of DevOps can easily adapt and adopt new tools integrated into their systems and processes.

    DevOps, Beyond the Brands

    Ultimately, the onus is on IBM to make sense of the $6.4 billion they spent on acquiring HashiCorp. DevOps can continue to thrive even without Terraform returning to its open source license. It would be great if Terraform continues to be a major player in IaC management and for developers to continue supporting it. However, the DevOps community will not pivot or stop moving forward just because a favorite open source tool is now a paid solution.

    Open source and DevOps are indeed closely knit, and Terraform had emerged as an open source poster child before HashiCorp decided to change it to a BSL license. However, there are far too many open source alternatives that can take Terraform’s place, making Terraform’s departure from open source somewhat insignificant. On the other hand, if IBM does manage to build a viable business model out of an open source Terraform, that would be an impressive accomplishment indeed.

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