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Chef, the infrastructure automation tool, has today revealed that it is going completely open source. In doing so, the project has ditched the loose open core model.

The news is particularly intriguing as it comes at a time when the traditional open source model appears to be facing challenges around its future sustainability. However, it would appear that from Chef’s perspective the switch to a full open source license is being driven by a crowded marketplace where automation tools are finding it hard to gain a foothold inside organizations trying to automate their infrastructure.

A further challenge for this market is what Chef has identified as ‘The Coded Enterprise’ – essentially technologically progressive organizations driven by an engineering culture where infrastructure is primarily viewed as code.

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Why is Chef going open source?

As you might expect,  there’s actually more to Chef’s decision than pure commercialism. To get a good understanding, it’s worth picking apart Chef’s open core model and how this was limiting the project.

The limitations of Open Core

The Loose Open Core model has open source software at its center but is wrapped in proprietary software. So, it’s open at its core, but is largely proprietary in how it is deployed and used by businesses.

While at first glance this might make it easier to monetize the project, it also severely limits the projects ability to evolve and develop according to the needs of people that matter – the people that use it.

Indeed, one way of thinking about it is that the open core model positions your software as a product – something that is defined by product managers and lives and dies by its stickiness with customers. By going open source, your software becomes a project, something that is shared and owned by a community of people that believe in it.

Speaking to TechCrunch, Chef Co-Founder Adam Jacob said “in the open core model, you’re saying that the value is in this proprietary sliver. The part you pay me for is this sliver of its value. And I think that’s incorrect… the value was always in the totality of the product.”

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Removing the friction between product and project

Jacob published an article on Medium expressing his delight at the news. It’s an instructive look at how Chef has been thinking about itself and the challenges it faces. “Deciding what’s in, and what’s out, or where to focus, was the hardest part of the job at Chef,” Jacob wrote. “I’m stoked nobody has to do it anymore. I’m stoked we can have the entire company participating in the open source community, rather than burning out a few dedicated heroes. I’m stoked we no longer have to justify the value of what we do in terms of what we hold back from collaborating with people on.”

So, what’s the deal with the Chef Enterprise Automation Stack?

As well as announcing that Chef will be open sourcing its code, the organization also revealed that it was bringing together Chef Automate, Chef Infra, Chef InSpec, Chef Habitat and Chef Workstation under one single solution: the Chef Enterprise Automation Stack.

The point here is to simplify Chef’s offering to its customers to make it easier for them to do everything they can to properly build and automate reliable infrastructure.

Corey Scobie, SVP of Product and Engineering said that “the introduction of the Chef Enterprise Automation Stack builds on [the switch to open source]… aligning our business model with our customers’ stated needs through Chef software distribution, services, assurances and direct engagement. Moving forward, the best, fastest, most reliable way to get Chef products and content will be through our commercial distributions.”

So, essentially the Chef Enterprise Automation Stack will be the primary Chef distribution that’s available commercially, sitting alongside the open source project.

What does all this mean for Chef customers and users?

If you’re a Chef user or have any questions or concerns, the team have put together a very helpful FAQ. You can read it here.

The key points for Chef users

Existing commercial and non-commercial users don’t need to do anything – everything will continue as normal. However, anyone else using current releases should be aware that support will be removed from those releases in 12 months time. The team have clarified that “customers who choose to use our new software versions will be subject to the new license terms and will have an opportunity to create a commercial relationship with Chef, with all of the accompanying benefits that provides.”

A big step for Chef – could it help determine the evolution of open source?

This is a significant step for Chef and it will be of particular interest to its users. But even for those who have no interest in Chef, it’s nevertheless a story that indicates that there’s a lot of life in open source despite the challenges it faces. It’ll certainly interesting to see whether Chef makes it work and what impact it has on the configuration management marketplace.

Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.