OpenTF begins HashiCorp Terraform fork, pledges donation

The vendor-led group says it wants to donate a fork based on the latest open source version of the infrastructure as code tool to a foundation, ideally the Linux Foundation or CNCF.

Fallout continued this week over HashiCorp's decision to convert its products from an open source to a Business Source License as a group of vendors and individual contributors said it has begun work on a fork of the Terraform infrastructure-as-code tool.

HashiCorp's Terraform has been a focus of especially intense controversy since HashiCorp disclosed the planned licensing change on Aug. 10. Within days, vendors such as Scalr, Spacelift and Env0 had spearheaded the creation of OpenTF and the publication of a manifesto calling on HashiCorp to revert the tool back to an open source license.

While HashiCorp officials did not name any companies in the blog post about the license change, they alluded to HashiCorp competitors that had taken open source code to sell products but hadn't contributed back. In response, OpenTF members said they had attempted to contribute to HashiCorp Terraform, but their pull requests had been ignored or rejected, especially after the company revamped its contribution review process in 2021.

Since OpenTF's formation, 100 companies, 10 projects and 400 individuals have pledged their time and resources to their effort, according to a post this week on the group's website. While organizers had initially emphasized that the best-case scenario was a change of heart by HashiCorp, no such reversal has occurred, prompting the group to begin work on a fork. The code repository for the fork has not been published but will become available in the next one to two weeks, according to the post.

"We completed all documents required for OpenTF to become part of the Linux Foundationwith the end goal of havingOpenTF as part of Cloud Native Computing Foundation [CNCF]," the post reads. "By making a foundation responsible for the project, we will ensure the tool stays truly open-source and vendor-neutral."

Four companies have pledged the equivalent of 14 full-time engineers (FTEs) to the project, and that number is expected to double in the coming weeks, according to the post.

"To give you some perspective, Terraform was effectively maintained by about 5 FTEs from HashiCorp in the last 2 years," according to the post. "If you don't believe us, look at their repository."

HashiCorp has not disclosed that specific number but has cited staffing issues as the cause of delays in Terraform contribution reviews in 2021.

The CNCF is open to potential contribution of the Terraform fork, according to an Aug. 25 post in an online forum by its CTO Chris Aniszczyk.

"Awesome to see how enthusiastic this community is!" Aniszczyk wrote. "We at the [Linux Foundation] are excited to work with the wider community to bring them under neutral governance like our many other foundations/projects. On the CNCF side, we welcome an application through the official processes when they are a bit further along with establishing their initial governance."

Terraform fork response mixed, but momentum builds

Some spectators to the ongoing HashiCorp Terraform licensing drama cheered the move this week, saying they hoped it would serve as a warning to other vendors about the consequences of changing open source licenses to closed ones.

"I'm a staunch supporter of open source, and I'm excited to hear that such a crucial component in the infrastructure space will continue to exist as such," said Anders Eknert, a developer advocate at Styra, a commercial backer of CNCF's Open Policy Agent project.

"Hopefully the fork will be successful enough to send a clear signal to other corporations thinking that going from open source to a proprietary license is a lucrative option," Eknert said, who emphasized he was speaking for himself as an individual open source supporter and contributor, not on behalf of his employer.

A member of the HashiCorp Ambassadors program, a group of non-employees that get inside access to HashiCorp's releases and a chance to influence development of its tools, also supported the move to fork Terraform.

"An open source fork of the newly not-open-source Terraform is a natural consequence of Hashi backing away from the open source community that has helped enrich them and get them to this point," said Kyler Middleton, senior principal software engineer at healthcare tech company Veradigm.

Middleton said she understands that maintaining software is costly and that HashiCorp wants to make money, but the original contributor license agreement she and others signed said that the software would remain open source.

"I'm excited to see the advent of OpenTF, and I'll be reaching out to them to see how I can help them with building a truly open source software in this space," Middleton said.

If the CNCF accepts donation of the Terraform fork, it would give the project "instant credibility," said Paul Delory, an analyst at Gartner.

"The most interesting possibility is that [the Terraform fork] acquires a new front-end that competes directly with Terraform Enterprise [TFE] and Cloud," Delory said. "Some IT shops don't like TFE -- it’s expensive, often prohibitively so, and some folks … preferred the developer experience of Scalr or Spacelift. … if OpenTF had its own user front end, some folks might prefer it."

Still, other industry watchers remained skeptical of the OpenTF effort.

Rick Rackow, expert SRE, TomTomRick Rackow

"So far nothing happened, basically," said Rick Rackow, expert site reliability engineer at TomTom, a geolocation tech company in Amsterdam. "You know how they say, 'Seeing is believing?' So far I'm not seeing anything except a manifesto and an announcement. They didn't join a foundation; neither did they create their own."

Creating a fork is easy, Rackow added.

"Keeping it alive -- and, [in the] best case, creating a flourishing community around it that at some point turns into its own thing -- is the hard part," he said.

Even if the fork flourishes, it can potentially bring about licensing complications for users in the future, Delory said.

"When commercial projects coexist alongside open-source forks, there can be cross-pollination of code," he said. "One adopts similar concepts from the other. This can get messy and make a lot of people mad."

Beth Pariseau, senior news writer at TechTarget Editorial, is an award-winning veteran of IT journalism. She can be reached at [email protected]or on Twitter @PariseauTT.

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