Big Data

The battle for Apache Cassandra highlights major problem with open source projects

The Apache Software Foundation is overhauling project leadership for the Cassandra database. Will it survive the change?

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Developers prefer Apache-licensed software, but the companies involved in Apache Software Foundation (ASF) projects should tread carefully. While it's great to be associated with the the Apache brand, the ASF can seem like "Conan the Barbarian" to project leads who don't abide by its rules. That's one lesson to take from the fracas between the ASF and DataStax, the principal developer of the popular Cassandra database.

Last week, DataStax announced that it was jettisoning its role in maintaining the Planet Cassandra community resource site, even as the project lead, Jonathan Ellis, made it known that DataStax would be doubling down on its commercial product, rather than Cassandra. Though the DataStax team put a brave face on the changes, the real question is why DataStax had to change at all.

The answer, apparently, is "Because the community said so," with "community" in this case being the Apache Software Foundation's board of directors.

In ASF board meetings and public mailing lists, a battle erupted over the soul of Cassandra, one that ASF board member Jim Jagielski admitted to me made the ASF board "look like...Conan The Barbarian." The fracas offers a potent reminder of the obligations and burdens of open source community.

Out of line

The Cassandra question is ultimately about control. As the ASF board noted in the minutes from its meeting with DataStax representatives, "The Board expressed continuing concern that the PMC was not acting independently and that one company had undue influence over the project." Given that DataStax has been Cassandra's primary development engine since the day it spun out of Facebook, this "undue influence" is hardly new.

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And, according to some closest to Cassandra, like former Cassandra MVP Kelly Sommers, that "undue influence" has borne exceptional fruits:

I've been really happy with Jonathan and DataStax's role in the Cassandra community. I think they have done a great job at investing time and money towards the good interest in the project. I think it is unavoidable a single company bootstraps large projects like this into popularity. It's those companies' investments who give the ability to grow diversity in later stages.

Even so, Jagielski told me in an interview, echoing what he'd said on the Cassandra mailing list, that "undue influence" conflicts with project leadership obligations established by the ASF. As he suggested, the ASF tried many times to get a DataStax-heavy Project Management Committee (PMC) to pay attention to alleged trademark and other violations, to no avail.

Whatever DataStax's positive influence on the development of the project—in other words—it failed to exercise equivalent influence on governing the project in ASF fashion.

Out of touch?

For some, this isn't an adequate reason for biting the DataStax hand that has fed Cassandra.

Sommers clearly feels this way, insisting that the ASF "is really out of line in their actions with Cassandra," ultimately concluding that the ASF might be hostile to the very people most responsible for a project's success.

In her view, the ASF's search for diversity in the Cassandra project should have started with expanding its existing leadership, rather than cutting it out: "The ASF forced DataStax to reduce their role in Cassandra rather than forming a long-term strategy to grow diversity around theirs," Sommers said.

Though Sommers doesn't directly comment on the trademark issues, she didn't pull any punches in her disdain for project process over code results: "Politics is off the rails when focus is lost on success of the thing it runs and all that matters is process. This is how I feel ASF operates," Sommers said.

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Unfortunately, by embracing the benefits of being a top-level Apache project, the Cassandra community, including DataStax, must also abide by its rules. The first rule? Selling open source is hard. Really hard. The ASF may be unwittingly making it harder.

No free lunch

For companies hoping to monetize open source, the Cassandra blow-up is a not-so-subtle reminder that community can be inimical to commercial interests, however much it can fuel adoption. It may also be a signal to the ASF that less corporate influence on projects could yield less code.

DataStax has been an exceptional steward of Cassandra. Will the replacement PMC members do as well? Perhaps, but there is plenty of cause to doubt, as no one else (yet) has the financial interest to invest in Cassandra development as DataStax has. Yes, Apple and other enterprise users have become significant contributors to Cassandra, but the most actively developed open source projects are nearly always shepherded by a vendor with a financial interest in doing so.

With DataStax gone, who will fill the void?

Yes, DataStax argues that it's not really going anywhere; that it will continue to contribute to Cassandra. But without the leadership mantle, community members are correct to complain and worry. In short, the trademarks may be safer than ever, but if fewer people care about the project itself, who cares?

This isn't to say that the ASF is wrong to police its policies. Nor is it a suggestion that DataStax was a perfect project steward. But, the ASF needs to figure out how to balance rampant commercial involvement in the best open source projects without making those projects either hostile to such interests or captive to them.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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