How open source makes lock-in worse (and better)

Lock-in is an inescapable reality of enterprise computing, and open source just might make it even worse. Find out why Amazon's recent troubles getting off Oracle's database could be instructive.

Video: Open source software is the future of enterprise technology Enterprise companies use open source code because it's useful, reliable, and community vetted. TechRepublic contributor Matt Asay explains the big reasons open source is the future of enterprise tech.

For open source companies desperate to figure out a business model that scales with the adoption of their ostensibly free software, Amazon's recent troubles getting off Oracle's database could be instructive. One way to look at Amazon's struggles is through the lens of "proprietary software creates lock-in," but this isn't actually helpful. Why? Because open source creates similar lock-in, and that's something open source entrepreneurs might want to consider.

SEE: Software licensing policy (Tech Pro Research)

Let me out, Larry!

Open source creates lock-in? Surely not! Well, surely yes, at least in the enterprise. Why? Because enterprise computing doesn't like change. As hard as it is to get an enterprise to embrace new technologies, once they do, they tend to stick around forever. Remember when mainframes died a decade or two back? Except, of course, they didn't die: Enterprises continue to spend billions each year on old-school tech that had its day back when Flock of Seagulls was still on the radio.

Fast forward to Amazon vs. Oracle.

Amazon, with a multi-billion dollar database business of its own that directly competes with Oracle's, had every reason to move off the legacy database vendor. And yet it didn't. Year after year, Amazon wrote massive checks worth tens of millions to Oracle, its stated enemy. Finally, on November 9, AWS chief Andy Jassy said that Amazon's consumer business finally weaned itself off Oracle's data warehouse for Amazon Redshift, and was getting close to moving all other applications to Amazon Aurora and DynamoDB.

Why did it take so long? Oracle tried to make believe it was because of how advanced its database is: "We don't believe that Amazon Web Services has any database technology that comes close to the capabilities of the Oracle database."

Maybe. But that's not the point.

SEE: Amazon Web Services: An insider's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The point is that despite AWS having databases that dramatically exceed Oracle in terms of running modern, hyperscale applications, it's hard to move an application to another database (or operating system, or cloud, or...). It's not a question of proprietary vs. open source bits—it's simply a matter of "entanglement," as Gartner analyst Merv Adrian once described to me:

When someone has invested in the schema design, physical data placement, network architecture, etc. around an older-school tool, that doesn't get lifted and shifted easily. This thing that is connected to these other 73 other things? If you move the database you're going to have to deal with all that other stuff.

Got that? Bits are bits are bits when it comes to enterprise lock-in. The license isn't the problem.

Open up to (benevolent) lock-in

In fact, if anything, open source may create more lock-in precisely because of its permissive licensing. Because open source is an easy download away, it gets into the enterprise more easily than proprietary software, which may involve countless rounds of golf with the CIO and cumbersome budget talks. Even better, once in the door, an open source project tends to spread throughout an enterprise as employees move to different areas of the company and take their love of MongoDB or Kubernetes or [insert open source project of choice] with them, or simply as teams share success stories.

SEE: How to choose and manage great tech partners (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

At this point, a savvy open source vendor has an opportunity.

That opportunity comes from helping an enterprise manage their open source abundance. Given that they're already committed to using an open source project, what could an enterprise do to make it easier for them? AWS, for example, has turned open source databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL into database services, making it even easier to scale them and drive greater adoption within an enterprise. Red Hat, for its part, has made it easy to patch and otherwise manage Linux (among other things) at scale.

Given the inescapable reality of enterprise lock-in, with open source or proprietary software, open source vendors should perhaps reconsider attempts to make more of their software closed source and instead look for ways to make the not-going-anyway-anytime-soon open source software easier to use, manage, scale, etc. Take advantage of abundance and lock-in, in other words, rather than playing a scarcity game.

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By Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.