CNCF's chief techie talks WebAssembly, AI and licenses

Or how one pesky press release ruined a vacation

Interview One victim of HashiCorp's license change was the vacation of Chris Aniszczyk, CTO of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation.

"I was in Italy, biking," he told The Register during an interview at the Shanghai Kubecon, "and my vacation was ruined."

He was referring to HashiCorp's August decision to switch licenses to the more restrictive Business Source License v1.1, which prompted an urgent need for both comment and a path forward.

"Source available," explained Aniszczyk, "is not open source."

With plenty of experience running a foundation, Aniszczyk was connected with the team behind OpenTF – a fork of Terraform. He said: "We're in the foundation business. We know how to do this. And, you know, we have an interest in kind of supporting, openly governed multi-vendor stuff..."

While getting a foundation up and running can be a challenge, it's impressive how quickly the community reacted to HashiCorp's announcement. However, there is still work to do.

Aniszczyk explained: "Anytime you have a new foundation, generally what happens is you have bootstrap committees ... like when Kubernetes started, there was a bootstrap steering committee for two years."

Things seem to be moving quickly now, however. Aniszczyk cited other examples, such as CNCF's experience when Grafana stepped back from Cortex and moved away from the permissive Apache license used by the CNCF. "They're free to do that, " said Aniszczyk, "but the original code base is still Apache and ... nature abhors a vacuum." And so other vendors stepped in.

However, while Aniszczyk noted that the number of companies switching to more restrictive licenses remains small, the trend cannot be ignored.

Blaming investor pressure for the changes, he said: "There's two ways of looking at it. Do you grow the pie, and get a smaller slice of that pie? And kind of work with your partners that are all trying to extract value there?

"Or do you hold the pie kind of hostage and try to extract as much as possible, just for yourself, but the pie ... gets constrained?"

Without naming names, Aniszczyk reckoned that companies which changed their licenses, particularly those with large communities, were looking to squeeze as much value as possible out of that metaphorical pie.

"It's a zero-sum game," he said.

Aniszczyk explained that a license switch risks breaking trust built up within a community: "And once you break that trust, it's very hard to get back."

Looking to the future, the CTO extolled the virtues of WebAssembly as a lightweight container technology. Recalling the technology's origins as a way of sandboxing browser tabs to avoid one tab crashing a web browser, he noted the evolution that has brought the platform beyond its origins into something to slot into the Kubernetes ecosystem.

Also, with an eye to the future, Aniszczyk noted the rise of generative AI in terms of code and generated text. "I used it to generate a press release for one of our previous projects," he said, "and it was 80 per cent good and 20 per cent what the [expletive deleted]?"

The same applies to code, where the AI is used as an assistant to produce a good chunk of the code (with proper attribution, of course), but a human is required for the tricky bits, particularly debugging and problem-solving.

The job of a software engineer is undoubtedly changing thanks to the impact of AI assistants, however, Aniszczyk had some reassurance: "I think the true art in software engineering is what happens when things kind of break."

"I think that's going to be a lot harder because it's just a lot more complicated."

Aniszczyk was also dismissive of perceptions that cloud expenses were driving customers back to their own datacenters, although he has seen an increase in the demand for tooling to keep track of cloud costs.

He said of the CNCF tools to track costs: "It's still early, still sandbox-ish. So it's not, you know, ready. But we'll see."

The demand for cost tracking tended to map to regional economic performance: "When the economy's great and things are booming, all of a sudden, people don't really give a [expletive deleted] about costs anymore. It's like, we're back in the good times, right? In bad times cost is... you know..."

A bit more important? However, with the seemingly relentless rise in cloud prices, could some companies be considering moving back to their datacenters?

Unsurprisingly, Aniszczyk was dismissive regarding moves to on-premises datacenters, noting that while some things might seem cheaper, users would be faced with management and infrastructure tasks taken care of by a cloud vendor.

"I just find that kind of amusing. Because, yeah, we know it's cheaper if you kind of do it yourself..." but keeping things up to date will cost money. Just as a move to the cloud required planning and thought, so too should repatriation.

"I don't think it's gonna be a big trend of like this whole, you know, repatriation; I think what's going to happen at the end of the day is there'll be more competition in the cloud."

Finally, Aniszczyk addressed the panda in the room, which is how the CNCF deals with projects made up of development teams spread around the world. The challenges range from the practical – ensuring meetings work for differing time zones – to the regulatory.

In the case of the latter, Aniszczyk sees opportunities. For example, certain services are blocked in China that are available elsewhere and vice versa. The issue must be addressed since China is second only to the US in contributions to CNCF projects.

"I think what it ends up doing is it forces you a little bit to build better software because it allows you to abstract, maybe, where things come from." Assumptions must always be questioned – what works in one place might not be so great in another.

"The reality is we respect the country we operate in and ... do our best..." ®

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