FOSDEM: Open Source and Big Business


The partnership of convenience between large tech companies and open source projects is not ideal – according to Matt Yonkovit, the strategy chief behind the Percona. Goals in open source projects need to be sharpened in a targeted manner so that they are not completely pushed against the wall by companies, but also by authorities. It’s about nothing other than the soul and continued existence of open source, says Yonkovit, who has seen the rapid rise of open source databases in his career.

However, the talk does not answer all the questions raised, but rather calls on the next generation to seek answers and thus save open source as a business model. Because the current, painful experiences for free projects in the IT business are already shaping up coming developers and users, but also investors.

In his talk on FOSDEM 22, the database expert didn’t have to look far for examples from the recent past to present his points. The leading IT companies today like to present themselves as advocates and active promoters of open source: Google has the “Summer of Code”, Microsoft says it loves Linux very much and took over Github more than three years ago. Amazon supports the development of numerous open-source tools that seem indispensable in today’s well-stocked DevOps toolbox and invests heavily in the Rust programming language. Well-known company logos also adorn the list of sponsors of the FOSDEM 22.

In recent years, however, a pattern has emerged in the actions of tech companies that is endangering the existence of independent projects and free licenses: First there is welcome support, then the takeover of services.

Redis Labs felt this three years ago, when their in-memory database “Redis” was taken over by cloud providers as a competing service. A similar thing happened to the No-SQL database “MongoDB” shortly afterwards, and a year ago it hit Elasticsearch’s business model. The scheme behind the transfer of software as a service to the cloud is always the same: Providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) take database software such as Redis, MongoDB or Elasticsearch and create an offer from it that customers can add to the cloud platform without having to take care of the infrastructure, setup and administration of the software.

Who makes money with open source anyway? Gloomy picture: Some of the well-known, listed companies with open source databases in their portfolio and the support services knitted around them are all making a loss.

The permissive, still widespread open source licenses such as the GNU General Public License 2 and 3 as well as the MIT and Apache licenses allow this type of adoption of software as a service. And the reaction of the development companies behind open source projects therefore also followed a pattern: changing or supplementing the license or turning away from the development of free software. Fundamental changes like these, in turn, carry the risk of scaring off the community and their own customers. In the case of Elasticsearch, this decision affected 600 contributors.

According to Matt Yonkovit However, not only profit-oriented companies are a problem of open source, just a newer one. Users aren’t much better either and usually don’t intend to support the developers financially if the software is free anyway. After a Percona’s own annual survey Two-thirds of users don’t even think about paying for open source. And even a broader project with service contracts and “as-a-service” offers is only “seen as a free buffet” from which you pick out the best parts and leave the rest unloved.

This causes frustration, too little income on the developer side, poor software quality and, in the worst case, burnout among the creators. For the latter, Yonkovit cites the example of a Node.JS developer who personally destroyed his popular colors.js and Faker.js packages in the NPM package database. The serious Log4j vulnerability serves as a model case for the suffering software quality of open source in the talk. Yonkovit sees nothing good in the call for state intervention – there would be too few success stories about what happens to software when there is state interference. The result is usually paralysis due to a tangle of necessary certifications and compliance.

While investors are eyeing the enormous adoption rates of widespread, free software and IT companies are eyeing growth opportunities through open source “as a service”, according to the talk, it is primarily the users who decide on success. And for users it would mainly be about innovations and adaptability for their own purposes. According to Matt Yonkovit, one way out of the misery is not to base the success of projects solely on financial profits.

The size and the serious commitment of the community and user community could create a balance and then save individual developers from ruin or burnout. In order for such communities to thrive, the leaders of the open source scene urgently need a firmly anchored community idea that trumps even a fat bank account. Only then do enough users feel needed and taken seriously as contributors.

According to Yonkovits, this conflict between financial interests and open source virtues is by no means settled, but it will decide the future of the development model and licenses in the next few years.


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