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

Principal creator of MySQL Monty Widenius is concerned about the consequences of certain corporate attitudes towards open-source software.
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor

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."

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