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Vendors move away from open source database software licensing

While open source is a key to success for many database vendors, it can also potentially lead to a competitive threat from a cloud scale provider.

Database vendors have started to use their own open source style licenses in a bid to stave off cannibalization by large cloud players such as Amazon Web Services.

The promise of open source database software is that users can freely use the code as they choose. Open source isn't just a marketing hook, but rather a well-defined set of licenses that have been approved as open source by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) and are compliant with the Open Source Definition.

Many database vendors have long used an open core model, in which the foundational model is an open source licensed code base, with added enterprise-grade features for reporting, scalability and management available under a proprietary license.

However, some database vendors, including MongoDB, Redis, Confluent and CockroachDB among others, no longer use OSI-approved open source database software licenses for their core projects and instead have resorted to creating their own licenses. The overriding goal for these vendors has been to block a cloud-scale provider, such as AWS, from simply taking the code and running it as a service, returning no revenue to the initial creator of the technology.

While the approach multiple database vendors are taking in coming up with their own licenses is popular, Tony Baer, principal of New York-based consulting firm dbInsight, argued that it's not the best strategy.

The way you draw basic traction these days with developers is with open source, especially when you look at new databases.
Tony BaerPrincipal, dbInsight

"The way you draw basic traction these days with developers is with open source, especially when you look at new databases," Baer said.

Developers don't want to take the chance on a proprietary platform that could potentially be orphaned in the future. With open source database software, the code is fully accessible, so even if the primary vendor shuts down, the code is still available for another group to pick up and extend.

"I'm a big believer in the open core model," Baer said. "It's understandable and it's well established."

Open source database software: the business software license

Among the vendors that have moved away from a traditional open source license is Cockroach Labs. The CockroachDB 19.2 update that became generally available on Nov. 11 is the first release from Cockroach Labs to use the Business Software License (BSL). The New York-based vendor had previously been following an open core model, using the Apache Software License for its community project.

"Turns out that open core as a model is not very defensible if there's a big enough player that owns a platform," said Cockroach Labs co-founder and CEO Spencer Kimball.

A large platform, such as AWS, can simply make the core of an open core application available as a service that is well integrated with other services on the same platform, Kimball noted. It's a competitive risk that Kimball said he no longer wanted to face, which is why Cockroach Labs has embraced the BSL.

Some vendors are moving away from open source database software licensing.
Some vendors are moving away from open source database software licensing.

The BSL is not an OSI-approved open source license, though Kimball emphasized that it's still open. The BSL converts to an Apache license after three years. As such, the recent CockroachDB 19.2 update will become open source in three years under the Apache license. The big difference between Apache and the BSL comes down to one big exclusion.

"You can't offer CockroachDB as a database as a service," Kimball said. "It's really preventing Amazon from just plugging us into RDS (Amazon Relational Database Service) and I had to do that to keep our business viable in the face of predatory behavior from companies like Amazon."

For its part, Amazon has staunchly defended its participation in open source database software projects and the way it supports them. Amazon supports multiple open source organizations including the Cloud Native Computing Foundation and the Apache Software Foundation.

"When AWS launches a service based on an open source project, we are making a long-term commitment to support our customers," Adrian Cockcroft, VP of cloud architecture strategy at AWS, wrote in a blog post. "We contribute bug fixes, security, scalability, performance, and feature enhancements back to the community."

Staying open

While some database vendors see moving away from certified open source licenses as a way to survive, others do not.

Among these is San Francisco-based InfluxData, which licenses its InfluxDB time series open source database software under the open source MIT license.

Paul Dix, founder and CTO of InfluxData, said that while it's appropriate if other vendors want to use licenses such as the BSL, he emphasized they are not open source. Truly open source licenses enable users to take the code and do whatever they want with it, he said.

If organizations want to keep code protected, Dix suggested they simply make the code commercial and closed source. It's actually a disservice to the community to have a source available license with limitations on it, he argued.

"The funny thing is, if Amazon wants to come after you, a license won't save you," Dix said. "The only thing that will save you is executing well. The only thing you can do is continue to create a better and better product over time."

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