Microbial communities often exhibit incredible taxonomic diversity, raising questions regarding the mechanisms enabling species coexistence and the role of this diversity in community functioning. On the one hand, many coexisting but taxonomically distinct microorganisms can encode the same energy-yielding metabolic functions, and this functional redundancy contrasts with the expectation that species should occupy distinct metabolic niches. On the other hand, the identity of taxa encoding each function can vary substantially across space or time with little effect on the function, and this taxonomic variability is frequently thought to result from ecological drift between equivalent organisms. Here, we synthesize the powerful paradigm emerging from these two patterns, connecting the roles of function, functional redundancy and taxonomy in microbial systems. We conclude that both patterns are unlikely to be the result of ecological drift, but are inevitable emergent properties of open microbial systems resulting mainly from biotic interactions and environmental and spatial processes.