Software Engineering

HashiCorp vs OpenTF: Everything You Need To Know

A few weeks ago, HashiCorp’s move to a Business Source License (BSL) set off a big conversation about the future of open source. The OpenTF Manifesto emerged as prominent opposition to HashiCorp’s decision, but not everyone is on board.
Published on
September 6, 2023

HashiCorp's announcement of their intention to transition Terraform's license from the Mozilla Public License (MPL) to the Business Source License v1.1 (BSL) sparked widespread concern.

Shortly after this announcement, OpenTF, a community group, emerged, advocating for, the restoration of Terraform's open source license. HashiCorp, which went public in 2021, chose not to backtrack on their licensing decision, prompting the OpenTF group to take drastic measures.

Decoding BSL:

The Business Source License, unlike a strict open-source license, imposes some restrictions on the software's usage. While the source code remains available, it's not "open" in the traditional sense.

This transitional license can convert to an open-source license after a set period. The switch to BSL signifies that while anyone can view, modify, or distribute the software, certain commercial uses, especially directly competitive ones, might require obtaining a specific license from the creator.

Why Did HashiCorp Change Their Licensing?

Terraform’s pivotal role in scripting infrastructure as code cannot be understated. HashiCorp’s co-founder, Armon Dadgar, explained the rationale behind their licensing change, emphasizing collaboration and expressing concerns about certain vendors’ approach to open-source projects.

For HashiCorp, it was about preserving business interests while upholding the essence of open-source. HashiCorp is not the first to adopt a less-permissive software license. Other notable entities like Cockroach Labs, Elastic, MongoDB, and Redis Labs have undertaken similar measures, aiming to create barriers for their competitors.

In HashiCorp's defense, the primary aim of BSL is not to block usage but to protect against direct competitors that might utilize HashiCorp's own innovations against them.

HashiCorp emphasizes the transition's purpose as a means to better control the commercial uses of their source code, intending to nurture their vibrant community without hindering their contributions. Given that this ecosystem—from providing downloads to free module hosting—incurs significant costs, a measure of protection is seen as necessary.

Who is behind OpenTF?

Two weeks after HashiCorp's announcement, OpenTF declared the creation of a Terraform fork named "OpenTF". The group emphasized that multiple engineers, spanning a variety of companies (including competitors), collaborated in this effort.

OpenTF boasts a plethora of backers including Gruntwork, Spacelift, Env0, and claims to have the support of over 100 companies, 10 projects, and 400 individuals since the manifesto's publication. Prominent figures like Kelsey Hightower, a staunch open-source advocate, have lauded the community's capacity to respond to such pivotal shifts.

Sebastian Stadil, co-founder and CEO of Scalr, positioned OpenTF as the true continuation of the original Terraform project, indicating that HashiCorp was the true "fork" due to their licensing change. OpenTF intends to remain with MPL, despite their expressed preferences for the Apache 2.0 license.

Ohad Maislish, founder of Env0, highlighted concerns for Terraform's future under the BSL. He predicted a potential shift in community focus, with businesses seeking open source alternatives and the gradual decline of independent tools. He underscored the significant contributions OpenTF affiliates have made to the Terraform ecosystem in the past.

Industry Reactions and Perspectives

Joseph Jacks of OSS Capital, while acknowledging the controversial nature of HashiCorp's decision, referred to the longstanding history of such licensing models, noting that the BSL was created over a decade ago.

He believed that founders have the prerogative to make such license changes, especially if it's seen as a strategic business move. The open source community is no stranger to licensing debates and forks; the Hudson and Jenkins saga is a testament to that.

OpenTF's Future Trajectory

While the momentum behind OpenTF is evident, the group has communicated that they're in the preliminary stages of developing their alternative to Terraform.

They've set clear timelines, aiming to unveil the fork's repository in the ensuing 1-2 weeks. However, this doesn't signify an immediate release. The group promises both alpha and stable releases in the near future, ensuring the community stays informed and engaged.

OpenTF is actively seeking to align itself with The Linux Foundation, aiming to eventually integrate into its subsidiary, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. Despite the enormity of the Terraform project, the transition and maintenance have been smooth, thanks to the experienced contributors within OpenTF.

The governance model under the Linux Foundation's framework is still a work in progress. They've taken initial steps, like electing a Technical Steering Committee, and are looking to define roles for the many contributors that have joined

Not Everyone's On Board with OpenTF

Some believe that the manifesto's portrayal of BSL is biased, favoring entities that face the most significant direct impact from the BSL decision.

Furthermore, there's a sentiment that the primary supporters of OpenTF, notably from competitive businesses, have influenced the narrative with profit-driven motives.

Many expressed concerns about the potential ramifications of supporting OpenTF. Their main points were:

  • A biased and distorted presentation of the license: Many companies like suggested that the OpenTF Manifesto may distort the implications of the BUSL license. They believed that only those companies offering competitive products to HashiCorp's offerings would be affected by the license change.
  • Potential ecosystem cost of a fork: They expressed concerns about the possible schism in compatibility between the major release and the fork. This could lead to confusion, duplication of effort, and potentially a blow to Terraform's overall adoption.
  • HashiCorp’s Contribution: The company underscored the massive investment HashiCorp makes in supporting the Terraform community, enabling billions of provider and binary downloads annually, free module hosting, and maintaining major cloud Terraform providers.
  • Stifling competition: Many argued that while certain companies have built their tools leveraging HashiCorp’s ecosystem, it is unfair to expect HashiCorp to bear all the costs while competitors benefit from their efforts.

Several people on Reddit and Hackernews, agreed with some of the concerns raised by, emphasizing improvements in Terraform's usability and security but criticizing their new pricing model.

Such sentiments highlight a broader industry challenge: balancing the benefits of open source and community contribution while attempting to maintain a sustainable business model.

The Larger Implications for Open Source

The HashiCorp and OpenTF controversy highlights a more extensive debate within the open-source community. Licensing changes, especially those that can be perceived as restricting openness, can spark controversy and lead to significant community rifts.

The emergence of OpenTF as a fork and its significant traction further underscores the delicate balance organizations must strike when attempting to commercialize open source tools.

Future of Terraform and Open Source Software

As the industry watches the unfolding events between HashiCorp and OpenTF, several lingering questions emerge. Can an equilibrium be achieved between preserving open source principles and ensuring business sustainability? How will the broader open source community respond to similar challenges in the future? And most critically, as the Terraform ecosystem divides, which path will hold the most promise for developers, enterprises, and the broader community?

The ongoing story between HashiCorp, OpenTF, and the industry reflects the interplay of open-source evolution, commercial goals, and community expectations. Only time will reveal the lasting impacts of these decisions on the Terraform ecosystem and the open-source world at large.

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