Suprising news - Microsoft acquired the developer platform GitHub

In June 2018 a headline surprised a lot of people around the world: Microsoft announces the purchase of the developer platform GitHub for $7.5 billion. GitHub confirmed the deal [1]. Wow! What a bomb. This is only the tenth multi-billion dollar acquisition of Microsoft in its history. Instantly quite a few important questions popped up in our heads – as developers and frequent users of this platform:

  • How will this change of ownership affect us and our work at GitHub?
  • Will we be able to access our code in the repositories in the future in the same way we did up to now?
  • Shall we keep our repositories there or create a backup of it?
  • What are the alternatives to GitHub that offer the same features?

This article targets to give you answers for that.

Looking back at services acquired by big players

In the past, the acquisition of competitors or other players has proven that it is not always obvious what is going on behind the scenes. What is normally announced as a strategic addition to the company’s portfolio often turns out to be different, and ends up with a discontiunation of service or decline in quality. As an example, you may remember the acquisition of SUN Microsystems by ORACLE in 2009 [5] that ended up in breakup of the development team of Solaris/OpenSolaris as well as the integration of Hotmail (1997) [4], Skype (2011) [3], LinkedIn (2016) [8] and NOKIA (2016) [2] into the Microsoft universe that led to quite a few dissatisfied users.

Idea behind the purchase

For the founders of GitHub it is a huge success story to develop a platform based on a revision control system to a place nearly every software project uses. With regards to current popularity former websites like SourceForge [20] and competitors like BitBucket [21] are quite far behind.

As announced by Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, the company aims “[to strengthen their] commitment to developer freedom, openness and innovation”. The aquisition of GitHub confirms the new course towards integration and openness of Open Source technologies and platforms that started with the takeover by Satya Nadella in 2014.

Even now, Microsoft is the most active organization on GitHub followed by Facebook and Docker [6,7]. Their commitment is visible in their collaboration with the .NET Core project as well as the C# Compiler, Xamarin [15] (cross-platform .NET development), code for Visual Studio, the Javascript re-invention named TypeScript [16] and the Git Large Filesystem Storage (Git LFS) [13].

However, in future Microsoft has to be very sensitive to users. The GitHub community has an Open Source relation and – as usual – comes with stronger reservations regarding Microsoft and its way of doing business. Based on that the question is if the developers trust in the course/announcements of Microsoft. Most of us don’t.

The NSA in the US and the documented collaboration (National Security Letters) of Microsoft puts commercial competitors in an awkward position. Microsoft’s communications with others has and continues to be compromised. When it comes to “bug fixes”, new exploits are still being discovered in patches [21].

What will change for developers

As for changes that is yet to be seen, observed up until now the intension is to leave the platform untouched. Most of the source code is stored in repositories that are publicly available anyway – so for them there is no change. A rather critical issue might be the non-public repositories from competitors. Technically, Microsoft can access these too as they are now the owner of GitHub.

Developers should seriously consider mirroring their projects with another provider, in another legal jurisdiction, preferrably more affordable and accessible to smaller players. Microsoft has a history of anti-competitive behavior that is difficult to match in case of a legal dispute.

Alternatives to GitHub

In case you do not trust GitHub anymore you may consider a change to a different platform. Different models are offered by GitLab [9], Gitia [10], GitKraken [11] and Beanstalk [12] and others. Keep in mind that they have different prices, and check what fits your needs.

Conclusion

Keep generic code open source, and your secret source in-house. A change is done quickly but you need to move pre-emptively before you are left at the mercy of your competitor.

Sooner or later a change of ownership always brings surprises. Stay with your repository at GitHub, keep your eyes open, and move quickly if needed for non-strategic open source projects. Keep in mind that in all cases budget for higher costs as you are forced to duplicate some or all of your code workflow.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Axel Beckert, Zoleka Hatitongwe and Gerold Rupprecht for their support and critical remarks while writing this article.