Microsoft’s GitHub acquisition: What it means for you

Microsoft’s acquisition of GitHub was, not surprisingly, met with loud voices of suspicion and horror in the open source and cloud computing world. Many in the developer community were horrified that Microsoft, often considered the archrival of open source, now has ownership of GitHub, a platform that’s the face of open source outside of Linux. There are reasons for concern, but rather than go only with knee-jerk reactions of disapproval, let’s analyze Microsoft’s GitHub acquisition from every aspect. And that’s what we will do here.

Microsoft’s GitHub acquisition: Why?

First, looking at it from the perspective of Microsoft, there are many reasons for the acquisition.

From DevOps to GitOps

Microsoft’s GitHub acquisition
Flickr / Matt Biddulph

Microsoft, like every cloud vendor, wants to be the most well-integrated platform to build and deliver applications. This means having the most comprehensive end-to-end CI/CD pipeline. Today, CI/CD, while dominated by tools like Jenkins and Spinnaker, starts off with GitHub as the first step. This process is now called GitOps.

The idea of GitOps is to make software development more developer-centric. This means focusing on the step of building and committing code to a Git repository, and from there a series of automated steps result in the code being tested for quality and deployed to production. GitHub being the important first step in this process, it was a prime target for Microsoft.

Azure is the priority

Microsoft has a growing business in Azure. Though much smaller than AWS, Azure is second on the list of top cloud vendors, and Microsoft is betting on Azure gaining even more market share over the years ahead as cloud computing becomes more pervasive.

Developers have a say in choosing a cloud vendor, and if Azure can make it easy for developers to move code seamlessly between GitHub and a CI/CD pipeline powered by Azure, there’s a sizable business opportunity for Microsoft.

Playing nice with open source

Microsoft is on a path to reverse many years of bad moves against open source. To this end, becoming the most active contributors to open source projects on GitHub in 2017 was a great achievement for Microsoft. Additionally, Microsoft has hired many leading open source celebrity developers like Brendan Burns and Jessie Frazelle. Microsoft is shifting spend from big sales teams to developers to fuel its Azure platform. Considering all this, buying GitHub lines up as just another instance of Microsoft doubling down on open source.

Concerns about GitHub’s future

Despite this show of commitment to open source, there are still concerns and questions about how Microsoft will handle GitHub post-acquisition. For a start, Microsoft has already announced that Nat Friedman, creator of Xamarin, and an open source developer himself, will be the new CEO of GitHub going forward. Nat recently hosted an AMA (ask me anything) session on Reddit, where he answered many concerns around the integration of GitHub with the rest of the Microsoft ecosystem.

Ownership of code

Much of the fear and concern about Microsoft’s GitHub acquisition stems from the assumption that Microsoft will now own or at least control all repositories on GitHub. This has translated to Microsoft acquiring open source project rights and not just GitHub. However, this is far from the truth.

A user owns all code in their repository, and can even protect it under standard licenses like MIT, Apache, or GPLv3. This ensures that rights and ownership of the repositories are with the user, and not GitHub, or Microsoft.

Overlap with Visual Studio tools

In the Reddit AMA, many questions were about how Microsoft will handle the overlap between GitHub and seemingly competing or similar tools from Visual Studio. This includes editors like Atom, which GitHub users prefer, over Visual Studio’s VS Code. Similarly, VSTS (Visual Studio Team Services) is a suite of tools that includes Git, CI/CD, and an entire suite to manage the development pipeline.

There could be concerns from Visual Studio users who fear that their familiar VS tools would be retired in favor of GitHub. Similarly, GitHub users may have concerns about them being forced to adopt VS tools. Nat Friedman addressed these concerns by saying that development on these two platforms will not affect each other. This means users can use whichever editor they prefer — Atom or VS Code — and they can continue using the same Git tool they’ve been using — VSTS or GitHub.

Censorship and policies

Other questions are about how Microsoft will handle likely illegal GitHub repositories like emulators for Xbox and Nintendo. Safe to say that this would affect only a fringe group of users, but only time will tell how Microsoft will deal with these issues. The first course of action for Microsoft would be to follow GitHub’s existing policies on these issues and deal with them on a reactive basis. But how Microsoft handles these issues will be key to winning the trust of the open source community.

Monetization and integration

Microsoft's GitHub acquisition

Microsoft’s GitHub acquisition was not cheap — $7.5 billion — so it will be looking to make a profit from it at some point. How this plays out is the question. GitHub users fear that they’ll be forced to use Microsoft’s commercial products like Azure, Visual Studio, LinkedIn, and Microsoft Teams — all of which have potential opportunities for integration. Additionally, the developer-centric user interface, which is free of ads, is what made GitHub a crowd favorite that it is today, and users would hate to see this interface diluted with ads. Think SourceForge, which lets you host and download repositories for free, but with the cost of being inundated with ads at every step.

Nat Friedman understands this concern and assures that GitHub will not become a hoarding site for Microsoft’s advertisers. To be sure, there will be some form of integration between GitHub, and most likely Azure. How Microsoft executes this is key to it being helpful or annoying for users. If done well, Microsoft has a lot to gain as GitHub is the first step to the modern cloud-native toolchain.

GitHub alternatives

Despite all that Microsoft does to assure users, there are bound to be defectors. Companies like Google and Amazon, which are fierce competitors of Microsoft, have a presence on GitHub and may be reconsidering this. Whatever the reason, there are worthy alternatives to GitHub that wary users can try.

GitLab is the closest in terms of vision. Having a very open culture, GitLab is the first option for those looking for a GitHub alternative. They have much more than Git though, with their flagship offering being a comprehensive CI/CD platform.

Bitbucket is the most mentioned tool alongside GitHub. Created by Atlassian, it is part of other tools like Jira and Bamboo that help make software delivery easier.

Though there are alternatives, GitHub is unique in its take on code repositories and open source. It has become a standard for developers to release and share their code with the rest of the world. It’ll be hard to make a completely friction-free move from GitHub. But it’s always good to know that there are alternatives.

Open source tools may get a boost

Perhaps the biggest upside to Microsoft’s GitHub acquisition is that it affirms the value of open source. Over the past decade, open source has grown in importance in the enterprise. This deal shows that there is a monetary gain for those who create unique open source tools and solutions and carve out a niche for themselves like GitHub has. The biggest takeaway is that there’s a huge market for tools that serve developers and open source in unique ways. There’s now a big reason to go out and build a tool that may not make money immediately, but if it solves a big problem that developers face, you’re in business.

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