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(Chef Photo)

Chef hopes to bring a little clarity to the future of its open-source and commercial software work Tuesday by taking a cue from the most successful open-source business model yet developed.

Later this year Seattle-based Chef will release a brand-new commercial product called the Chef Enterprise Automation Stack, which will be an enterprise-friendly distribution of Chef’s open-source work. Current projects and products — including Chef (now Chef Infra), Automate, Habitat, Workstation, and InSpec — will be released or relicensed as open-source projects under the Apache 2.0 license.

That means all of the code for the Enterprise Automation Stack will be developed within the open-source community, while Chef will package and deliver that code in a way that companies without world-class infrastructure talent can use. This is similar to how Red Hat, one of the earliest open-source companies in the tech industry, built itself into a $34 billion life raft for IBM by providing enterprise-oriented versions of Linux and Docker to companies that couldn’t or wouldn’t take on the task of integrating open-source projects into their businesses.

Barry Crist, CEO, Chef (Chef Photo)

“We’ve been giving some thought to what business models we want for the next big chapter of the company,” said Barry Crist, CEO of Chef. There have been some twists and turns on this path for Chef, which struggled for a few years as it dealt with the rise of cloud computing and containers before retooling its products and posting what Crist has said was one of the best quarters in Chef’s history at the end of 2018.

Before this change Chef — like a lot of other open-source companies of its era — sold commercial products based on proprietary code that added features to the open-source projects at the core of its product strategy. Current and potential customers often found it confusing, however, to figure out which product features came for free and which required a commercial license, said Corey Scobie, senior vice president of product and engineering at Chef.

“Despite the fact that our projects were all open source, that answer was different for every aspect of our portfolio. We wanted to substantially simplify that line,” Scobie said.

Corey Scobie, senior vice president, products and engineering, Chef. (Chef Photo)

Current commercial customers of Chef won’t have to do anything right away, but Chef will stop supporting those current products 12 months after Tuesday’s announcement. In the interim, those customers can of course sign up for two different bundles of Chef’s projects under the Enterprise Automation Stack that will be “cost neutral” to existing customers, or license distributions of individual open-source projects such as the flagship Chef Infra project, Scobie said.

Customers that are using Chef on Amazon Web Services won’t see any change to the Opsworks product available through the cloud leader, and partnerships with Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform are also unchanged.

Users who have built infrastructure around the existing open-source versions of Chef’s products will have to either acquire a commercial distribution of the software or work together in the open-source community to create a public distribution, which would technically be a fork of those projects. That’s unlike what Red Hat has done with Linux, sponsoring the Fedora distribution to ensure free access to the software.

However, there are a lot of large companies and independent developers that contribute to Chef’s open-source projects and might be willing to take on that challenge. And should that come to pass, “Chef wholeheartedly supports that approach, and will enthusiastically support and contribute to it if and when it does,” according to a company representative.

It has been an interesting year for enterprise tech companies built around open-source projects. As cloud computing has changed how end users build technology infrastructure to suit their needs, some open-source companies have come to believe the cloud companies are blocking their access to potential customers by releasing versions of open-source projects as cloud services, and changed their licensing terms to make that harder to do.

This has kicked off much debate about what it truly means to be open source and whether or not open-source development is destined for a future controlled by the whims of major cloud companies, since it could be much harder for independent companies to match their efforts. Open-source software has always been community driven, but more and more people are wondering if that is starting to look like a gated community.

Chef co-founder Adam Jacob, who stepped down from the company earlier this year but remains on the board, has been a vocal opponent of the restrictive licensing approach chosen by Redis Labs, MongoDB, and Confluent. Companies that encourage the free use of open-source projects to market commercial venture-backed releases of important enterprise-grade features were trying to create a “funnel strategy” for their salespeople, he told me last November.

“I think this is a good validation of where the actual value in our company comes from,” Jacob said in an interview last week. “There’s significant value in the production of the product itself, but there’s more to the product than just the software.”

Individuals using Chef’s projects or companies that want to evaluate it inside their operations will still be able to get a free limited-use license to the commercial distribution. However, if you want to use “the software to deploy or test systems or software in any environment that is used to get things to your production environments for commercial gain,” you’ll now need a commercial license, the company said.

Chef has raised $105 million from venture capital companies such as Ignition, DFJ, and Battery Ventures, with the last round of $40 million coming in 2015. The company generated cash during the second half of 2018, Crist said in an interview with GeekWire last year.

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