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Will the last person at Basho please turn out the lights?

NoSQL database flinger fades as former engineers work to save Riak

Basho, once a rising star of the NoSQL database world, has faded away to almost nothing, The Register has learned.

According to sources, the company, which developed the Riak distributed database, has been shedding engineers for months, and is now operating as a shadow of its former self, as at least one buy-out has fallen through.

The Reg understands the last of the UK-based staff were let go in March this year, with the office closing down in May - the space is now occupied by another company, despite the number and address still being listed on Basho’s site.

The Japanese office closed some time before that, while the Washington DC offices are also thought the be closed - the latter’s phone number does seem to work, but goes straight to voicemail and has done for the past ten days.

Because of the company’s distributed workforce it isn’t clear how many staff are still employed by Basho - one source alleged the figure at just three, while another said they were “unclear” if anyone was still drawing a salary from the company.

Our repeated attempts to get an exact figure from Basho have been ignored, although CTO Dave McCrory has confirmed to us that he no longer works for the company. CEO Adam Wray no longer lists Basho as his current employer on LinkedIn and the company has removed the leadership page from its site.

Sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said trouble had been brewing as early as 2012, with problems attributed to a combination of overly controlling investors, a change in management and a shift in work philosophy.

The result appears to have been a toxic atmosphere that made it impossible to boost funding or secure a buyer. Effectively, Basho ceased to grow and then ceased to exist, sources told us.

‘Tanking pretty hard’

By 2012, the company - which started life in 2008 - was onto its third CEO, Greg Collins.

It was also in its sixth funding round, gaining $11.5m from an F-round led by Georgetown Capital Partners. Georgetown CP later gave Basho $25m in G-round funding, taking Basho’s total lifetime funding to $66m - a move that also gave Georgetown CP 65 per cent of the voting power on the board.

After Georgetown CP’s first investment there was industry talk of unease about the demands the investors were making. Then, in 2014, Collins left, along with two major players from the company’s original team: CTO Justin Sheehy and Riak author Andy Gross.

Collins was replaced as CEO by Wray, of Tier 3, while former Warner Music Group man McCrory came in as CTO, but the writing already seemed to be on the wall for Basho.

Insiders told us that company sales were not growing as expected, and the new key investors and management team decided to change tack, away from a revenue model based on a single product to a high-risk, high-return bet on new products, in the form of a data analysis platform and time series.

They also introduced a different working style. Engineers used to following the Valve system, where devs were allowed fairly free rein to choose what to work on, were then asked to follow a more traditional approach where time and resources were directed based on business priorities.

That philosophical shift caused friction in the ranks, and one Basho insider told The Reg that over the next year or so, the company started to “tank pretty hard”, with experienced engineers lining up to leave.

Another alleged that by the end of 2015, “all but two” of the engineers hired between 2010 and 2014 had left.

Looking for a buyer

Under new management, the company took an “aggressive hiring approach” and started pushing its new products.

But this ended up drawing energy from sales of existing products, and almost all the people we spoke to suggested that Basho was by now trying to develop products that would make it more attractive to a buyer.

Eventually, inside sales and regional account managers were downsized, and sources said they were never rehired.

This left Basho focusing on support for existing customers, rather than bringing on new ones. That support is understood to have been phased out.

A spokeswoman from NHS Digital - which uses the Riak database for its information sharing infrastructure, NHS Spine - confirmed to us that it used to receive customer support from Basho but that this is no longer the case.

We were told that the company started “seriously courting” potential buyers towards the end of 2016 - as revealed by The Reg in January - but sources said that these fizzled out or fell through.

The scale of the problems faced by Basho at the 2014 turning point - and the extent of the bad blood between the company’s founders and investor Georgetown CP - is highlighted by an ongoing court case brought by founding CEO Earl Galleher in 2016.

Galleher alleged Georgetown CP imposed “punitive” G-round funding terms on Basho and engaged in self-dealing, which he said caused a cash liquidity crisis at the vendor.

He also claimed Georgetown CP commandeered the G-round, harming previous investors in the A, B, C and E rounds, and that Wray was hired by Georgetown CP’s MD Chester Davenport and another Basho board member without consultation of the whole board.

We asked all the investors for comment, but none had offered a response by the time of going to press.

A Riak from the Bashes?

Despite Basho’s apparent collapse, sources have said that Riak is not destined for the same end. Former employees are staunchly proud of the product and a community is growing from the ashes of Basho.

Old Basho customers are likely to be part of this. NHS Digital said there were “no plans to move away from the Riak database”, while Bet365 has signalled its support for it on the Riak user mailing list.

“We [bet365] are very much interested in the continued development of Riak in its current incarnation, with Core continuing to be underpinned by distributed Erlang,” wrote one software developer.

“We're committed to continuing the development of Riak (we've already assembled / growing a team to do so) and are happy to engage with, and support, the community in order to move the project forward.”

The product is open source under an Apache2 Licence, meaning that anyone can work on it - but it’s not likely the name could be used in a commercial context while Basho exists in some form or another, for fear of litigation.

Former employees that signed a non-compete contract will also have to wait out those contracts before signing up to work on Riak at another company.

Where is Basho?

The Reg was obviously keen to put the claims in this story to Basho, but we’ve struggled to find anyone still working at the company to answer us.

The only member of senior management who responded to our repeated emails, LinkedIn messages and calls was CTO McCrory, but he declined to comment on anything beyond confirming that he no longer worked at Basho. ®

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