Monday, October 10, 2016

RethinkDB must relicense NOW

What is RethinkDB?

RethinkDB is a INCREDIBLE high quality polished open source realtime database that is easy to deploy, shard, replicate, and supports a reactive client programming model, which is useful for collaborative web-based applications. Shockingly, the 7-year old company that created RethinkDB has just shutdown. I am the CEO of a company, SageMath, Inc., that uses RethinkDB very heavily, so I have a strong interest in RethinkDB surviving as an independent open source project.

Three Types of Open Source Projects

There are many types of open source projects. RethinkDB was the type of open source project where most work on RethinkDB has been fulltime focused work, done by employees of the RethinkDB company. RethinkDB is licensed under the AGPL, but the company promised to make the software available to customers under other licenses.

Academia: I started the SageMath open source math software project in 2005, which has over 500 contributors, and a relatively healthy volunteer ecosystem, with about hundred contributors to each release, and many releases each year. These are mostly volunteer contributions by academics: usually grad students, postdocs, and math professors. They contribute because SageMath is directly relevant to their research, and they often contribute state of the art code that implements algorithms they have created or refined as part of their research. Sage is licensed under the GPL, and that license has worked extremely well for us. Academics sometimes even get significant grants from the NSF or the EU to support Sage development.

Companies: I also started the Cython compiler project in 2007, which has had dozens of contributors and is now the defacto standard for writing or wrapping fast code for use by Python. The developers of Cython mostly work at companies (e.g., Google) as a side project in their spare time. (Here's a message today about a new release from a Cython developer, who works at Google.) Cython is licensed under the Apache License.

What RethinkDB Will Become

RethinkDB will no longer be an open source project whose development is sponsored by a single company dedicated to the project. Will it be an academic project, a company-supported project, or dead?

A friend of mine at Oxford University surveyed his academic CS colleagues about RethinkDB, and they said they had zero interest in it. Indeed, from an academic research point of view, I agree that there is nothing interesting about RethinkDB. I myself am a college professor, and understand these people! Academic volunteer open source contributors are definitely not going to come to RethinkDB's rescue. The value in RethinkDB is not in the innovative new algorithms or ideas, but in the high quality carefully debugged implementations of standard algorithms (largely the work of bad ass German programmer Daniel Mewes). The RethinkDB devs had to carefully tune each parameter in those algorithms based on extensive automated testing, user feedback, the Jepsen tests, etc.

That leaves companies. Whether or not you like or agree with this, many companies will not touch AGPL licensed code:
"Google open source guru Chris DiBona says that the web giant continues to ban the lightning-rod AGPL open source license within the company because doing so "saves engineering time" and because most AGPL projects are of no use to the company."
This is just the way it is -- it's psychology and culture, so deal with it. In contrast, companies very frequently embrace open source code that is licensed under the Apache or BSD licenses, and they keep such projects alive. The extremely popular PostgreSQL database is licensed under an almost-BSD license. MySQL is freely licensed under the GPL, but there are good reasons why people buy a commercial MySQL license (from Oracle) for MySQL. Like RethinkDB, MongoDB is AGPL licensed, but they are happy to sell a different license to companies.

With RethinkDB today, the only option is AGPL. This very strongly discourage use by the only possible group of users and developers that have any chance to keep RethinkDB from death. If this situation is not resolved as soon as possible, I am extremely afraid that it never will be resolved. Ever. If you care about RethinkDB, you should be afraid too. Ignoring the landscape and culture of volunteer open source projects is dangerous.

A Proposal

I don't know who can make the decision to relicense RethinkDB. I don't kow what is going on with investors or who is in control. I am an outsider. Here is a proposal that might provide a way out today:

PROPOSAL: Dear RethinkDB, sell me an Apache (or BSD) license to the RethinkDB source code. Make this the last thing your company sells before it shuts down. Just do it.

Hacker News Discussion

Friday, October 7, 2016

RethinkDB, SageMath, Andreessen-Horowitz, Basecamp and Open Source Software

RethinkDB and sustainable business models

Three weeks ago, I spent the evening of Sept 12, 2016 with Daniel Mewes, who is the lead engineer of RethinkDB (an open source database). I was also supposed to meet with the co-founders, Slava and Michael, but they were too busy fundraising and couldn't join us. I pestered Daniel the whole evening about what RethinkDB's business model actually was. Yesterday, on October 6, 2016, RethinkDB shut down.

I met with some RethinkDB devs because an investor who runs a fund at the VC firm Andreessen-Horowitz (A16Z) had kindly invited me there to explain my commercialization plans for SageMath, Inc., and RethinkDB is one of the companies that A16Z has invested in. At first, I wasn't going to take the meeting with A16Z, since I have never met with Venture Capitalists before, and do not intend to raise VC. However, some of my advisors convinced me that VC's can be very helpful even if you never intend to take their investment, so I accepted the meeting.

In the first draft of my slides for my presentation to A16Z, I had a slide with the question: "Why do you fund open source companies like RethinkDB and CoreOS, which have no clear (to me) business model? Is it out of some sense of charity to support the open source software ecosystem?" After talking with people at Google and the RethinkDB devs, I removed that slide, since charity is clearly not the answer (I don't know if there is a better answer than "by accident").

I have used RethinkDB intensely for nearly two years, and I might be their biggest user in some sense. My product SageMathCloud, which provides web-based course management, Python, R, Latex, etc., uses RethinkDB for everything. For example, every single time you enter some text in a realtime synchronized document, a RethinkDB table gets an entry inserted in it. I have RethinkDB tables with nearly 100 million records. I gave a talk at a RethinkDB meetup, filed numerous bug reports, and have been described by them as "their most unlucky user". In short, in 2015 I bet big on RethinkDB, just like I bet big on Python back in 2004 when starting SageMath. And when visiting the RethinkDB devs in San Francisco (this year and also last year), I have said to them many times "I have a very strong vested interest in you guys not failing." My company SageMath, Inc. also pays RethinkDB for a support contract.

Sustainable business models were very much on my mind, because of my upcoming meeting at A16Z and the upcoming board meeting for my company.  SageMath, Inc.'s business model involves making money from subscriptions to SageMathCloud (which is hosted on Google Cloud Platform); of course, there are tons of details about exactly how our business works, which we've been refining based on customer feedback. Though absolutely all of our software is open source, what we sell is convenience, easy of access and use, and we provide value by hosting hundreds of courses on shared infrastructure, so it is much cheaper and easier for universities to pay us rather than hosting our software themselves (which is also fairly easy). So that's our business model, and I would argue that it is working; at least our MRR is steadily increasing and is more than twice our hosting costs (we are not cash flow positive yet due to developer costs).

So far as I can determine, the business model of RethinkDB was to make money in the following ways: 1. Sell support contracts to companies (I bought one). 2. Sell a closed-source proprietary version of RethinkDB with extra features that were of interest to enterprise (they had a handful of such features, e.g., audit logs for queries). 3. Horizon would become a cloud-hosted competitor to Firebase, with unique advantages that users have the option to migrate from the cloud to their own private data center, and more customizability. This strategy depends on a trend for users to migrate away from the cloud, rather than to it, which some people at RethinkDB thought was a real trend (I disagree).

I don't know of anything else they were seriously trying right now. The closed-source proprietary version of RethinkDB also seemed like a very recent last ditch effort that had only just begun; perhaps it directly contradicted a desire to be a 100% open source company?

With enough users, it's easier to make certain business models work. I suspect RethinkDB does not have a lot of real users. Number of users tends to be roughly linearly related to mailing list traffic, and the RethinkDB mailing list has an order of magnitude less traffic compared to the SageMath mailing lists, and SageMath has around 50,000 users. RethinkDB wasn't even advertised to be production ready until just over a year ago, so even they were telling people not to use it seriously until relatively recently. The adoption cycle for database technology is slow -- people wisely wait for Aphyr's tests, benchmarks comparing with similar technology, etc. I was unusual in that I chose RethinkDB much earlier than most people would, since I love the design of RethinkDB so much. It's the first database I loved, having seen a lot over many decades.

Conclusion: RethinkDB wasn't a real business, and wouldn't become one without year(s) more runway.

I'm also very worried about the future of RethinkDB as an open source project. I don't know if the developers have experience growing an open source community of volunteers; it's incredibly hard and its unclear they are even going to be involved. At a bare minimum, I think they must switch to a very liberal license (Apache instead of AGPL), and make everything (e.g., automated testing code, documentation, etc) open source. It's insanely hard getting any support for open source infrastructure work -- support mostly comes from small government grants (for research software) or contributions from employees at companies (that use the software). Relicensing in a company friendly way is thus critical.

Company Incentives

Companies can be incentived in various ways, including:
  • to get to the next round of VC funding
  • to be a sustainable profitable business by making more money from customers than they spend, or
  • to grow to have a very large number of users and somehow pivot to making money later.
When founding a company, you have a chance to choose how your company will be incentived based on how much risk you are willing to take, the resources you have, the sort of business you are building, the current state of the market, and your model of what will happen in the future.

For me, SageMath is an open source project I started in 2004, and I'm in it for the long haul. I will make the business I'm building around SageMathCloud succeed, or I will die trying -- therefore I have very, very little tolerance for risk. Failure is not an option, and I am not looking for an exit. For me, the strategy that best matches my values is to incentive my company to build a profitable business, since that is most likely to survive, and also to give us the freedom to maintain our longterm support for open source and pure mathematics software.

Thus for my company, neither optimizing for raising the next round of VC or growing at all costs makes sense. You would be surprised how many people think I'm completely wrong for concluding this.


I spent the evening with RethinkDB developers, which scared the hell out of me regarding their business prospects. They are probably the most open source friendly VC-funded company I know of, and they had given me hope that it is possible to build a successful VC-funded tech startup around open source. I prepared for my meeting at A16Z, and deleted my slide about RethinkDB.

I arrived at A16Z, and was greeted by incredibly friendly people. I was a little shocked when I saw their nuclear bomb art in the entry room, then went to a nice little office to wait. The meeting time arrived, and we went over my slides, and I explained my business model, goals, etc. They said there was no place for A16Z to invest directly in what I was planning to do, since I was very explicit that I'm not looking for an exit, and my plan about how big I wanted the company to grow in the next 5 years wasn't sufficiently ambitious. They were also worried about how small the total market cap of Mathematica and Matlab is (only a few hundred million?!). However, they generously and repeatedly offered to introduce me to more potential angel investors.

We argued about the value of outside investment to the company I am trying to build. I had hoped to get some insight or introductions related to their portfolio companies that are of interest to my company (e.g., Udacity, GitHub), but they deflected all such questions. There was also some confusion, since I showed them slides about what I'm doing, but was quite clear that I was not asking for money, which is not what they are used to. In any case, I greatly appreciated the meeting, and it really made me think. They were crystal clear that they believed I was completely wrong to not be trying to do everything possible to raise investor money.


During the first year of SageMath, Inc., I was planning to raise a round of VC, and was doing everything to prepare for that. I then read some of DHH's books about Basecamp, and realized many of those arguments applied to my situation, given my values, and -- after a lot of reflection -- I changed my mind. I think Basecamp itself is mostly closed source, so they may have an advantage  in building a business. SageMathCloud (and SageMath) really are 100% open source, and building a completely open source business might be harder. Our open source IP is considered worthless by investors. Witness: RethinkDB just shut down and Stripe hired just the engineers -- all the IP, customers, etc., of RethinkDB was evidently considered worthless by investors.

The day after the A16Z meeting, I met with my board, which went well (we discussed a huge range of topics over several hours). Some of the board members also tried hard to convince me that I should raise a lot more investor money.

Will Poole: you're doomed

Two weeks ago I met with Will Poole, who is a friend of a friend, and we talked about my company and plans. I described what I was doing, that everything was open source, that I was incentivizing the company around building a business rather than raising investor money. He listened and asked a lot of follow up questions, making it very clear he understands building a company very, very well.

His feedback was discouraging -- I said "So, you're saying that I'm basically doomed." He responded that I wasn't doomed, but might be able to run a small "lifestyle business" at best via my approach, but there was absolutely no way that what I was doing would have any impact or pay for my kids college tuition. If this was feedback from some random person, it might not have been so disturbing, but Will Poole joined Microsoft in 1996, where he went on to run Microsoft's multibillion dollar Windows business. Will Poole is like a retired four-star general that executed a successful campaign to conquer the world; he been around the block a few times. He tried pretty hard to convince me to make as much of SageMathCloud closed source as possible, and to try to convince my users to make content they create in SMC something that I can reuse however I want. I felt pretty shaken and convinced that I needed to close parts of SMC, e.g., the new Kubernetes-based backend that we spent all summer implementing. (Will: if you read this, though our discussion was really disturbing to me, I really appreciate it and respect you.)

My friend, who introduced me to Will Poole, introduced me to some other people and described me as that really frustrating sort of entrepreneur who doesn't want investor money. He then remarked that one of the things he learned in business school, which really surprised him, was that it is good for a company to have a lot of debt. I gave him a funny look, and he added "of course, I've never run a company".

I left that meeting with Will convinced that I would close source parts of SageMathCloud, to make things much more defensible. However, after thinking things through for several days, and talking this over with other people involved in the company, I have chosen not to close anything. This just makes our job harder. Way harder. But I'm not going to make any decisions based purely on fear. I don't care what anybody says, I do not think it is impossible to build an open source business (I think Wordpress is an example), and I do not need to raise VC.

Hacker News Discussion:

Chinese version:

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

SageMath: "it's not research"

The University of Washington (UW) mathematics department has funding for grad students to "travel to conferences". What sort of travel funding?

  • The department has some money available.
  • The UW Graduate school has some money available: They only provide funding for students giving a talk or presenting a poster.
  • The UW GPSS has some money available: contact them directly to apply (they only provide funds for "active conference participation", which I think means giving a talk, presenting a poster, or similar)

One of my two Ph.D. students at UW asked our Grad program director: "I'll be going to Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) to help out at the SageMath booth. Is this a thing I can get funding for?"

ANSWER: Travel funds are primarily meant to support research, so although I appreciate people helping out at the SageMath booth, I think that's not the best use of the department's money.

I think this "it's not research" perspective on the value of mathematical software is unfortunate and shortsighted. Moreover, it's especially surprising as the person who wrote the above answer has contributed substantially to the algebraic topology functionality of Sage itself, so he knows exactly what Sage is.

Sigh. Can some blessed person with an NSF grant out there pay for this grad student's travel expenses to help with the Sage booth? Or do I have to use the handful of $10, $50, etc., donations I've got the last few months for this purpose?