Open source: Its true cost and where it's going awry by Monty Widenius

Open source: Its true cost and where it's going awry by Monty Widenius

Summary: Principal creator of MySQL Monty Widenius is concerned about the consequences of certain corporate attitudes towards open-source software.


Open-source advocate Michael 'Monty' Widenius, main author of the MySQL database, says changes in the movement over the past few years are threatening the viability of projects.

Company attitudes to contributing finance and manpower to open-source initiatives have been shifting recently, according to Widenius. Ever since his earliest involvement in the mid-1990s immediately preceding the movement's emergence, people have been prepared to pay for software they valued.

"Now the problem is that you have companies that are heavily using open source but refuse to pay anything back because they don't have to," Widenius said.

"The whole problem with not having to is kind of new because the open-source movement doesn't go forward if nobody is prepared to pay. You actually make it harder for new companies to form around open source," he said.

"The more people are using it and, in these cases, abusing the whole idea of open source by not paying back either with development or money to help projects, it is actually destroying open source."

Widenius helped create the MariaDB database after selling MySQL to Sun Microsystems in 2008 for $1bn, which was then bought by Oracle for $7.4bn in 2010. MySQL is a key component in the widely-used LAMP open-source web application software stack.

MariaDB recently announced its planned merger with MySQL services firm SkySQL to secure the open-source fork's future and raise its credibility among larger organisations with developments in big data and the cloud.

Need for full-time open-source developers

Widenius said open-source projects must have developers working on them full time to stand a chance of success.

"The problem is — I saw this very clearly with MariaDB — I created a company where I took the original people who were creating the product, [but] I couldn't get anybody to fund us," Widenius said.

Monty Widenius - MariaDB250x208
Monty Widenius: Not paying back either with development or money to help projects is actually destroying open source

"People just expected, 'OK, you have money, you can do that and we will see later if you're doing a good job we may be able to contribute something'. Nobody did because they were assuming I would do it anyway," he said.

"We did get customers who were prepared to pay for features. The problem is when you are driving an open-source project like MariaDB it costs me €1m a year. Half of that is just community management doing builds. You can get people to pay for the features but not for managing the community, doing reviews, working, doing builds — that costs me €500,000 a year."

Widenius said even the creation of a services operation does not necessarily cover the essential costs of the open-source initiative.

"You can't really create a company when a services company you have provides a 30 percent profit but if 50 percent of your profits are going away just because people are expecting you to do it for free, it doesn't work," he said.

New open-source licensing model

The solution to the problem of funding open-source projects lies in a change of approach to licensing, according to Widenius. He said MySQL was the first to offer dual licences on GPL, which are designed to support free software in commercial environments.

"Dual licences work great for open source if you have an infrastructure product you can embed into others that people need, because then they have to pay and that is an optimal licence or way to get money out of open source," Widenius said.

"The problem is that doesn't work for everything. For example, if you have an end-user product like a music player. There's no way you can get money direct from open source for that — at least not to create the big team to be able to compete with the closed-source players that get licensed the whole time," he said.

Widenius' answer to the problem is a form of licensing that he terms 'business source'. He believes it will enable open-source projects to generate as much income as their closed-source counterparts but still remain open.

"The whole idea with business source is actually very trivial. It is a commercial licence that is time-based and which will become open source after a given time, usually three years. But you can get access to all the source. You can use it in any way but the source has a comment that says you can use it freely except in these circumstances when you have to pay," Widenius said.

"You're forcing a small part of your user base to pay for the restrictions, which can be if you're making money from [the software], if you have more than 100 employees, or you're a big company or something like that. So you're forcing one portion of your users to pay. But because it's time-based, everybody knows that you can still contribute to the project," he said.

"Because you have the code, you know that if the vendor does something stupid, somebody else can give you the support for it. So you get all the benefits of open source except that a small portion of users has to pay. As long as you continue to develop the project, each version still gets a new timeline of three years."

Widenius said this model is particularly relevant to entrepreneurs who want to create a project and do it open source because they believe in that philosophy.

"Open source is successful for OpenStack where you have a consortium of companies that are all putting money into developing it. I'm talking about an entrepreneur who is trying to make a difference with his one project, like the one we started with MySQL."

Topics: Enterprise Software, Open Source, Oracle, Start-Ups

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  • Open source does not get funds because...

    Open source does not get funds because it is very difficult to make money when you are giving the software free. There are very few open source companies that make money, I would actually argue that Redhat is more closed than open source, try getting their products for free without subscription.

    It costs a lot of money to pay for a good team of developers and a support team. If you are giving the software aware how do you make money? Very difficult with support fees, particularly when any service company can pick up your software and provide support services, killing off your income.

    We use Linux and other open source in our organisation, the reason is purely so we don't have to pay for it, a free lunch.

    Do we want to alter it, nope, we have better things to do.

    As long as your competitors can freely get at your software and use your ideas you are on a hiding to nothing.

    Great idea, no money.
    • Other issues

      Very true. And another problem; enterprises have already vetted another open source db and it's now on their approved list - and it's doing what they need. So Sky/Maria is late to the party. Except for companies that need the high end performance/capabilities Widenius claims they have added, MySQL (or PostGre or...) is fitting their needs. In these days of tight IT budgets companies don't have the time/money to vet new softwares unless there is a real need.
      beau parisi
    • Open Source Companies Can and Do Get Money

      Your comment that "Open source does not get funds because it is very difficult to make money when you are giving the software free" is not accurate. There are many open source companies that do make money with smart business models and do receive funding. Some open source companies that have received funding: Acquia (Drupal), 10gen (MongoDB), DotNetNuke, SkySQL (MariaDB).

      Some of these companies are doing well (Acquia, 10gen, DotNetNuke) and there are many others that could be mentioned.
      MySQL Guru
    • making money

      There are plenty of companies making huge amounts of money with open source. They do it without selling software licences. Samsung, Google, Apple (a lot of software in the iphone and OS X is open source), IBM, HP, Oracle...
      These are companies where the software stack is part of the product, and the characteristics of open source are a strength: in some cases open source means shared cost of development, in other cases it's a powerful statement to customers of openess and standards compliance, in other cases it is a chance to undermine competitors which are heavily entrenched, and it's a way of building trusted alliances. No hardware vendor (except Nokia) wants to be eaten alive by Microsoft as happened to IBM, so open source is a great way to remove this threat. And at the other end of the spectrum, lots of people have got great jobs based on expertise proven by their contributions to open source projects ... I'd argue this is another way to make money from open source.

      Turning software into revenue and profit is not always about selling licences ... although where it is, it probably is hard to make money from open source. It is of course silly to say no one is making money from open source, where there is so much investment in it.
  • Open Source make huge sums of money.

    Many open source projects make millions. Firefox is a perfect example, they make money from selling advertising basically (Google start page). They are not selling there free software, they are selling space in their software (which is a better way to make money). There are many ways to make money with open source, you just have to find ways to do it.

    Why is MariaDB having problems making money because of it own open source competitor MYSQL. Problems for it are that in the simple to use DB's field MySQL is too big a name to beat and in the secure DB market there a better choice. Widenius is a victim of his former success not open source or business uses of open source.
    • Many = handful

      When you and too many FLOOS advocates say "many" companies make money from open source, you actually mean "a handful of companies", don't you?

      Firefox is probably the only end-user application that makes money... by being funded by a single sponsor, Google, which also happens to be its competitor. Whenever Google feels that Firefox hasn't an estimable share of the browser market, it will just close the money stream and Firefox will be dead in two minutes. The trend shows this might happen anytime in the coming years (I hate it, because I'm a Firefox fan and I don't want Chrome to replace it, but Google will do whatever it takes to make that happen and stop paying the Firefox tax).

      On the other hand, I just don't get what this Monty Widenius is trying to say. He made a billion dollars by selling his project and he's complaining about people not giving back to his new project? Besides the fact that he doesn't seem to be full of new ideas (yet another database, Monty? To compete with the very company that made you rich? Are you nuts?), why is he complaining that his project costs him a lot of money? Why doesn't he simply try some new things in life?

      That said: don't even bother with complicated licensing schemes. If your software can be downloaded for free, people will use it for free. Period. Unless you want to spend your resources in prosecuting every infractor of your licensing, you better go closed source or make things really difficult for people to get your software for free (a la Red Hat).
  • Do the math, Monty.

    This article suggests that Open Source can be hugely profitable. It states, (rather blandly) that Widenius earned a $1 Billion by selling his open source project, MySQL. Mazel tov, Monty, MySQL is great software.

    But I feel no pity you when you complain that you spend .0005 of this stash annually on your new open source project. Whether this is a nano-tithe to the congregation of open source, or a down payment on your next billion-dollar payday, it is a paltry payback from a big winner in the game.
    Dov Jacobson
    • No $1B

      I think it was more like $16.8 Euros, still not exactly peanuts.
  • Monty, think of MariaDB as an investment

    Quoted from Monty Widenius in the article:
    "You can get people to pay for the features but not for managing the community, doing reviews, working, doing builds — that costs me €500,000 a year."

    With all of the money you made from the sale of MySQL to Sun Microsystems, you're now a venture capitalist. :)
    Rabid Howler Monkey
  • And yet plenty of people DO give back.

    I use Postgresql (because my data is actually important) and in our community we have a LOT of people in the community that give back, all the time. Skype, Afilias, RedHat, and now Salesforce are happy to hire hackers who work on the backend code and give all their code back to the community for free.

    There's a lot of value in being a part of a community that develops a database that can't be sold out from underneath you like MySQL was. But Monty's not a fan of BSD licenses because he can't strong arm you into paying him money for a mediocre enterprise edition (read 6 months or older) of his database that way.

    PostgreSQL isn't the only BSD or BSD like licensed software that's quite successful, and results in a lot of people making money USING it as well as hacking on it.
    Scott Marlowe
  • Monty is completely wrong here

    If he wants to be a commercial software vendor, fine. Do it. Don't complain that you can't make a profit selling "open source" because that was never the intent. Open source has saved companies BILLIONS of dollars, and THAT was the original intent.

    In terms of investment in open source, it is understandable that companies go through cycles of funding and resting. If the software is "good enough" then they spend minimal amounts just to keep the lights on. That's the phase we are in today. If there is a large uptick in new requirements or technology, then I think that companies will again start to fund new work in the open source space.

    It doesn't mean that somebody is going to "make a killing" cases like Marty did before, for every one person who manages to cash in, there are thousands of developers who did the work because they wanted to, not because they thought they were going to get rich.
    terry flores
  • "Fork yourself" is not a business model

    Maybe Monty's problem is that "fork yourself" and blame Oracle is not a sustainable business model and Monty is just a lame businessman.
    More about this:
  • I give back to open source all the time

    Mostly in the form of donations since I am only a budding programmer. I think the business source is a very good idea, with the code becoming open source after a period of time, and I think more companies should do the same.

    Open source its a great idea, and the way it should be. How its software ever supposed to advance if nobody shares their secrets? Programmers should be able tip build upon and improve existing code instead of rewriting a new program each time. Anyone who says different must hold software patents, which are the stupidest thing ever conceived. Tell me this, how is something that is supposed to encourage creativity if it denies you the right to other works? It doesn't, it stifles creativity by putting power in the hands of a few.
  • Nothing new here

    Welcome to the problems of Socialism. In this all-about-me society, why pay (or contribute) to something that is free? I understand that there will always be a precious few that contribute for whatever reason -- fame, excitement, pride, fad -- but over time a majority of the users will end up abusing the system just because they can and I have doubts the "precious few" can keep a project going.
    • Socialism?

      Let me guess: you're American. What the hell has socialism have to do with all this? Do you have the slightest clue what socialism is about? Do you understand most of Europe is socialist? I mean, do you understand that socialism is not the antagonist of capitalism? This is not 1914 and the cold war is over. Update your knowledge. Urgently.
      • Same problems

        I'm saying that open source and socialism have similar problems -- at some point people stop participating simply because they don't have to to get free stuff. I understand that most of Europe is socialist -- what's your point?
        • Update your knowledge...

          You really should update your knowledge about Socialism and Open Source.. It's not about getting a singular entity rich but to enrich everyone. It's a risk balancing thing.. The incentive of not getting poor will not stop people from getting poor. If you remove that risk you will find people in general happier and freer. You will also find them more productive. This is proven stuff... It doesn't mean people can't get rich.

          When it comes to Open Source. You start a project mostly because you need it yourself. If other people like it they will support you. That will make the software grow. You can't force people to like your product especially if there are similar that they are already used too. To be successful you need to make better software and that mean sharing the control or you are on your own.
    • this isn't abuse

      There is no abuse of the system. The system was specifically sold to us as being free as in speech AND free as in beer. And it's because of both of those that open source became what it is today. There are plenty of licenses out there. If a developer doesn't find the GPL suitable to their tastes, then they are under no obligation to use it. They may find that other developers aren't as enthusiastic about contribution to their project, however. But if you choose to distribute your software under a free as in beer license that's your choice - users of your software aren't entered into an unwritten, non-verbal contract to send money your way.

      Yes, that makes it a lot more difficult to make money. Especially if someone happens to create well-written, well-documented, easy to use software, because no one's going to spend money on support if they don't need it.

      There is an irony, absolutely, that one of the few people who absolutely cashed in as a result of opensource software they wrote is complaining about the lack of money coming his way. That money was earned not only because of his own efforts but because of self-less developers who contributed to his project and users who adopted his software long before it was ready for primetime.... Did he send out payment to all the programmers who contributed to MySQL along the way? Or the the hordes of betatesters that happily ran his software and diligently reported bugs when they encountered them?

      Forgive me. I'm building a new Wordpress server as I write this, and decided that I'd use MariaDB in place of MySQL. But will I be cutting a check to MariaDB anytime soon? Sorry, but no. Just as I wouldn't cut Oracle a check had I opted to stay with MySQL.
      Lucas Krupinski
  • Conflicts of philosophy and value

    Monty Widenius's concerns bring up the never ending "argument" about the differences in value related to this topic of "give back" between the general GPL and similar philosophy camps and those from the BSD/MIT type camps.

    There is no question that business, especially large corporations tend to avoid the GPL-type software as much as possible, not because of any legal or software patent issues - since they have oodles of attorneys to settle such matters, but simply because they wish to retain any competitive advantages developed with in-house changes to the no-return requirement of BSD/MIT software, and also that most of these behemoths are inherently extremely greedy and selfish.

    It is a difficult issue to resolve in any clearly definable manner. There are those BSD/MIT-type software based companies like Juniper Networks that have been very supportive and contributing to the continued development efforts of FreeBSD. But it has never been (widely) reported, at least to knowledge of most technology media, that corporations like Fujitsu and especially Sony have ever given back in any meaningful way. Even the Netflix recent adoption of FreeBSD as a critical component of their new Media streaming Appliances services will have to be viewed over time for any real good returned to the project.

    GPL-type software do not have this problem, since the license and copyright specifies give back to the project under most conditions.

    I tend to lean philosophically toward the GPL-type software, only because I am aware that greed and selfishness are so embedded in society, that no less required circumstances will keep the effort alive. On the other hand I am more practical and continue to strongly support efforts like BSD licensed PostgreSQL Database software, particularly if it has a Not-for-Profit Foundation to overseer the long term viability of the project.
  • Open source programmers are complete saps

    Only a brain dead fool does VOLUNTEER work for multi-BILLION dollar corporations. Larry Ellison will thank you for all your hard work in your basement while he kicks back on one of his YACHTS. Morons.