The RethinkDB saga that has played out over the past few months has been remarkable, culminating (for now) on Monday with the news that the Cloud Native Computing Foundation has bought the company’s source code from creditors and donated it to the Linux Foundation
. It’s a story that probably says a lot about the future of open source, although what is not entirely clear to me.
If you haven’t been paying attention, here are a few must-read posts (apart from Monday’s news linked to above):
A common rationale for why RethinkDB went out of business is that the database industry is really hard. Open source or proprietary, it’s difficult to get heard above the noise from so many other options. And even if your technology is good, it needs to be good enough to convince people to switch over from something they’re already using and continues to improve. In RethinkDB’s case, that was largely MongoDB.
And, of course, the next, biggest trick is convincing users they should pay for software licenses rather than just support (which alone is not a very lucrative business) when the open source version is already so capable. This 2014 post from Andreessen Horowitz partner Peter Levine breaks down why that’s so hard to do: Why there will never be another Red Hat: The economics of open source
(I don’t know a lot about Redis or Redis Labs, for example, but I do suspect that company’s decision on Monday to rebrand its product lineup around “Redis Enterprise”
has everything to do with this discussion. Up front, it lets potential users know this is not free software or cloud services, although some of it is free to start.)
From a strategic point of view, it makes sense that CNCF would want to save RethinkDB, a technology that many people like and that would be a good fit with what CNCF is trying to do (largely via Kubernetes) should the RethinkDB community decide to move the project there. CNCF is also a Linux Foundation, um, foundation.
But in terms of the future of open source software, the move also seems to signify something about the relationship between software foundations, startups and money. I’m not sure what that is at the moment, other than that I don’t suspect we’ll see too many startups forming businesses around Apache projects, for example, much less seeing whole markets like Hadoop emerge again.