Enterprise Software Buyers Beware: the Trickery of Open Core Cloud

Enterprise Software Buyers Beware: the Trickery of Open Core Cloud

This is part of Solutions Review’s Premium Content Series, a collection of contributed columns written by industry experts in maturing software categories. In this submission, Instaclustr Chief Product Officer Ben Slater shares his take on the current debate between open core and open-source and offers a few ways to avoid open core cloud trickery.

SR Premium ContentLeaders responsible for selecting cloud technologies that will shape the fate of their businesses for years to come likely have considerably savvy at seeing through vendor deceptions. That said, some in the industry rely on a certain hubris to achieve their aims, and can make for murkier-than-usual vetting. The most nefarious of these are arguably so-called “open core” vendors, who trade on the goodwill earned by pure open-source technologies while offering solutions that belong to an entirely less respectable category.

True Open-Source Software Delivers on its Promise

A 2021 report from Red Hat found that true open-source software has overtaken proprietary options as the most used solutions among enterprises. Cloud technologies show even more of a tilt toward open-source, as these collaborative community-driven solutions offer more direct access to the latest innovations and simply higher-quality software, in many cases, vis-à-vis proprietary alternatives.

For any cloud-stack buyers still wary of open-source due to the counterintuitive fact that these free products outperform paid proprietary ones, the ability to easily try out, experiment, and prototype using freely available open-source technologies should quell any concerns. Mass adoption of open-source by many of the largest and most successful enterprises out there provides another compelling proof point. Proprietary software stands in sharp contrast to open-source’s ease of entry; instead, it brings high capital expenditures from the start of a project, inflexible licensing that hems in usage and exploration, and real risks of vendor lock-in.

Recognize Open Core Traps for What They Are

The false notion that a free product can’t possibly offer more value than a paid one is the backbone of an entire “open core” industry that enterprise cloud software buyers need to be aware of. Open core vendors take freely available open-source projects and add on their own proprietary features and support, as well as steep fees for licensing. These vendors present their offerings as including all the advantages of open-source – such as the ability for enterprises to directly own, control, and port their own code as they wish.

All too many enterprise decision-makers walk into this trap without ever seeing it coming. Most often, the deception only becomes clear when enterprises do try to leverage their software as if it was open-source, only to finally recognize that they’re walled in by both vendor and technical lock-in. The advertised allusions to retaining open-source advantages were all a fabrication (at best).

While related to open-source, open core code is an entirely different and quite proprietary animal. It isn’t portable. In many cases, code even technically belongs to the vendor. These harsh limitations are no accident: they’re the hooks that sustain the open core business model. Ultimately, these deceptive tricks hold enterprises as customers against their will. It’s no shame on enterprise leaders that fall for these traps, which have been carefully refined to hide their dangers. Of course, open core vendors will tell enterprises they’re always free to leave – it will simply cost the price of losing the code now foundational to their solutions and beginning again elsewhere.

Note that open core vendors don’t provide any migration assistance whatsoever, as enterprises might rightfully expect from a true partner.

Open Core Vendors are Desperate Because Their Model’s Demise is on the Horizon

Open core vendors win over unsuspecting enterprise buyers by highlighting features unavailable in the competing pure open-source versions their offerings are based upon. However, open-source communities regularly pursue and add new features to those free versions. In scenarios where an open core vendor does in fact create a worthy innovation, expect its related open-source project to include the same features soon enough.

This continuing process turns the tables on open core vendors and gives them a taste of their own medicine, leaving them feeling trapped and without good options. In time, pure open-source solutions will capture any worthy territory they had staked out as proprietary, eliminating their purported reason to exist. Unfortunately for enterprise software buyers, this circumstance only makes open core vendors more deceptive and desperate in the meantime.

Open-Source Communities are Taking Back the Software They Built

Another unfortunate practice that enterprise cloud software buyers must be watchful for pertains to true open-source vendors that aspire to introduce proprietary business models. Enterprises may in fact already use and rely on particular open-source technology, only to learn that the vendor behind the solution is shifting to proprietary licensing. While such vendors always say the right things in lip service to their ongoing open-source commitment and how the change isn’t a big deal, it’s a big deal. Enterprises that are less than vigilant can suddenly find themselves locked into open core-like circumstances.

On a positive note, open-source communities are now showing their willingness to say enough is enough and thwart vendors’ license-switching schemes. A recent case of a data search and analytics solution offers a clear example. When the vendor announced its move to less open-source licensing, the community quickly decided to go its own way, pursuing its own robust fork that would remain fully open-source.

That community is now introducing advanced enterprise-grade functionality all its own, fully taking the reins of the technology and winning enterprises to the true open-source offering. In vetting open-source technologies, enterprise software buyers should be sure to gain a healthy awareness of licensing details, and should certainly understand any reported licensing shenanigans and counterplay by the community.

Successful Open-Source Software Adoption Means Keeping Your Eyes Open

The dangers of deceptive open core offerings and the powers of pure open-source are becoming clearer to enterprise decision-makers. The task for enterprise cloud software buyers is challenging but simple: don’t buy what open core schemers are selling. In fact, by opting for the right free and open-source solutions for your enterprise, you don’t have to buy anything at all.

Ben Slater
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