Debunking the open source sustainability myth

Open source vendors are draping themselves in the flag of "sustainability" to try to garner support against AWS—it's not working. Here's why open source sustainability is fake news.

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Image: boygovideo, Getty Images/iStockphoto

If the customer is always right, why has the open source world been so fixated on pleasing its vendor community? For example, Ashan Fernando has suggested that AWS' database services might be "Good for users, dangerous for open source business models." Whether this is true or not remains highly debatable—MongoDB, for example, recently crushed its quarterly earnings, performing about twice as well as analysts expected—but even if it is true, should we care?

Are we concerned with cash or code?

A victimless "crime"

Despite all the hand-wringing over AWS' impact on open source business models, it's hard to find actual victims. MongoDB is often cited as being in AWS' crosshairs, but what has happened since AWS launched its MongoDB-compatible DocumentDB database service? Well, initially the stock took a 10% bath, closing at $75/share. Since then, however, MongoDB's share price (and company valuation) has nearly doubled to $142/share (where it sits as I type this).

Losing to AWS has never looked so good.

SEE: Amazon Web Services: An insider's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

AWS' impact on Elastic NV, the company behind Elasticsearch, is harder to decipher, for two reasons. First, AWS only announced its Open Distro for Elasticsearch on March 11, 2019. The stock took a brief stumble after the announcement and has since climbed. Second, AWS has had an Elasticsearch service since 2015, several years before Elastic NV went public. If AWS' influence was going to cripple Elastic, it probably would have happened years ago, rather than enabling Elastic to go public and hit the $280 million run-rate it currently boasts.

Despite this, people (open source vendors, mostly) keep pushing the rhetoric that "open source sustainability is at risk so long as AWS is around." Instead, they should be looking at what truly puts sustainability at risk.

Sustaining innovation

Long-time PostgreSQL community lead and Kubernetes guru Josh Berkus has argued, "[N]o sustainable community can be specific people; individuals leave for all sorts of reasons, and a project that depends on one person to be sustainable is a project in trouble." While this principle transfers imperfectly to the companies that employ individual developers (after all, we have single-vendor projects like Android, Mule, MySQL, etc. that have flourished), it does transfer.

For example, there seems to be a belief that runs something like this: "If Elastic NV goes out of business because of competitive pressure from AWS, Elasticsearch is doomed/not sustainable." This strikes me as somewhat silly. As former MySQL CEO and current Hacker One CEO Marten Mickos put it, "MySQL has been around since 1995, always sponsored by just one company, and exactly because of that, the product is excellent and the GPL code in terrific condition." However, he adds, "If MySQL's current owner would stop maintaining the GPL code, there are others who could (and I believe would) immediately take over."

Bingo.

SEE: Open source vs. proprietary software: A look at the pros and cons (Tech Pro Research)

It's absolutely true that many projects depend upon single vendors. It's likely just as true that those same projects would also thrive under a strong foundation, with multiple companies contributing (e.g., Linux, Kubernetes, etc.). We may think it's "fair" that a MongoDB hold a monopoly on monetizing its open source project, but let's please not conflate its ownership with sustainability. If anything, having one company's financial success determine the success of an open source project is a really bad idea.

Full-fat community

As the Apache Software Foundation recently wrote:

A core tenet of The Apache Way is "Community Over Code", which encapsulates our deep belief that a healthy community is a far higher priority than good code. A strong community can always rectify a problem with the code, whereas an unhealthy community will likely struggle to maintain a codebase in a sustainable manner. Healthy communities ensure the Foundation has the stability to thrive for the next 20 years and beyond. Apache projects do not have the problem of scaling that others, who focus only on the legal frameworks of Open Source, suffer from. If you look around at projects that have grown up alongside the Apache projects, you will see a similar focus on scaling the governance model. This is no accident.

If we really care about open source sustainability as more than a flag that self-interested open source vendors wave to try to drum up sympathy, we should focus on fostering real community. And if an open source vendor wants to persist in being the sole developer of a given project, they can at least follow MongoDB's lead and stop whining and instead compete. MongoDB's database service has grown steadily at 400% over the last few quarters, and now represents 34% of the company's revenues. In other words, MongoDB is competing against AWS on its own turf, and winning.

So let's please stop shedding tears for open source vendors. They can either compete or collaborate with others.

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By 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.