Open source biz sick of FOSS community exploitation overhauls software rights

Lightbend's Akka shifts from Apache 2.0 license to BSL 1.1 – but critics not pleased about pricing

Lightbend is fed up with commercial entities using its open source wares in production environments and giving nothing back to the FOSS community, so is making an alteration to the licensing of a popular product.

The license for Akka – Lightbend's library for creating concurrent and fault tolerant applications – is moving from Apache 2.0 to version 1.1 of the Business Source License originally created by MySQL founders David Axmark and Monty Widenius and used by MySQL fork MariaDB and CockroachDB, among others.

As described by MariaDB, it is a "new alternative to closed source or open core licensing models."

Akka is the runtime for thousands of products, according to Jonas Bonér, CEO and founder of Lightbend and creator of the Akka project. He said it is used by well known businesses including Apple, Disney, GM, HPE, Starbuck and Tesla.

The library was ahead of its time in some ways when it was released 13 years ago, he wrote in a blog. It includes an actor-based programming model that used concepts like asynchronous messaging and computation, event logging and more, he added.

It "provided an ideal programming model for cloud computing years before it was even on most companies' radar" said Bonér, claiming that industry has since played catchup to the software's "reactive principles of design."

"With the rise of edge computing, Akka's model natively allows for building systems of services with millions of efficient, autonomous, mobile, self-organizing, self-healing, and location transparent services (actors) is an even better fit," he wrote.

As in the early days of open source, initial work on Akka was done by developers during nights and weekends, but this model "changed drastically" in the past 10 to 15 years.

"In the infrastructure space, much of the open source software is now created by companies, from small startups innovating and challenging the status quo, to large enterprises seeing open source as a great way to attract talent and build communities around their brands.

"At the same time, companies using open source software commercially have become more confident operating it themselves and less reliant on help from the companies developing the software," he said.

When the Apache 2.0 license was chosen for Akka, Bonér said he had been unaware of the impact this would have if it became a large, global project.

He said it is a "very liberal license well suited for early, small open source projects establishing community. It essentially gives users the right to do whatever they want without any restrictions or obligations to contribute back to the community and the project from which they benefit."

However, that license is now "increasingly risky" in the context of a small company solely carrying the maintenance effort, he said, hence the move to BSL 1.1.

"The BSL is a 'Source Available' license that freely allows using the code for development and other non-production work such as testing. Production use of the software requires a commercial license from Lightbend.

"The commercial license will be available at no charge for early-stage companies (less than US $25 million in annual revenue). By enabling early-stage companies to use Akka in production for free, we hope to continue to foster the innovation synonymous with the startup adoption of Akka."

After three years that BSL license indefinitely shifts back to an Apache 2.0 license. Lightbend's version of BSL is here and an FAQ page is here.

Corporations with a turnover higher than $25 million a year will pay $1,995 per core for Akka Standard and $2,995 per core for Akka Enterprise, which includes more features.

This isn't going down well with everyone, and a poster on Hacker News said: "$2000 per vCPU for a library is absolutely insane pricing – unless you're running Akka on a single bare metal server, this is a non-starter for anyone."

Open source is sustainable in situations where "where everyone — users and developers — contributes and are in it together, sharing accountability and ownership," said Bonér.

"This means that companies using the software for profit need to give something back, either code, documentation, community work, or money. In sustainable open source, participants feel the need and moral obligation to contribute."

He said that in addition to ongoing bug and security fixes, as well as JDK and Scala support, the development plans for Akka include short-term features such as the "high-performance broker-less pub/sub, supporting remote query projections", and long-term projects including Akka Edge - a feature set for building edge-native apps.

This isn't the first instance of an open source company defending the model and its patch, and it won't be the last.

Peter Zaitsev, CEO at Percona, viewed the move by Lightbend with some cynicsm. "What Jonas Bonér really means is that they do not believe an Open Source license suits their business goals best any longer and a proprietary, Source Available license (BSL) will work better.

"As a business founder myself, I understand business is hard and often your choices are limited, especially if you've taken other people's money and hence have high growth and return expectations. You well might be forced to choose from a variety of imperfect options," he added.

The bone of contention for Zaitsev is the attempt to "re-define what Open Source Software means because you want to have a cake and eat it too. Everyone loves Open Source because of the freedoms it provides, but those same freedoms make it hard to do business around Open Source, because they prevent you from creating a monopoly.

"This pattern erodes trust. Rather than thinking Open Source projects are started in good faith, developers will start to expect that projects will only be open source during the early stages of development and when, if successful, they will transition to be fully or partially proprietary software. This would be a massive loss for the industry as a whole." ®

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