Yesterday Nginx Inc announced that it had taken $3 million USD in funding. No one deserves this more than Igor Sysoev and it’s hard to believe that Nginx wasn’t commercialized sooner. Well deserved or not, though, whether this funding is good for Nginx or not is up for debate.
To understand the whole aspect of the deal I’ll first cover the worst-case scenario that people might fear happening. I’ll later on cover why this case is unlikely, so please do finish reading before considering me a moron.
The FUD Aspect
Getting funded means a business person has seen potential and decided to invest money to get a return. There’s really no way to deny this, philanthropy simply does not happen in the start-up world unless you’re being funded by your rich but slightly senile aunt. Eventually this business man will want to get a return on his investment and this means the Nginx Inc will have to become profitable. How does an open source project become profitable, though?
- Going closed source and commercializing the product.
- Creating a closed source enterprise version to develop alongside open source version.
- Keeping the core product open and developing commercial extensions of that product.
- Keeping product open sourced and selling support, training and resources.
There might be a few more options that I haven’t thought of, but these are the most commonly seen ones. Based on the press release and statements made to the press we know that Nginx Inc plans to release a commercial version of Nginx for paying customers. To quote Andrew Alexeev:
“we think that it’s the most valuable approach for open source projects to be open core, in order to provide the commercial features that are really needed”
So that leaves us with an open core and most likely commercial modules for enterprise customers. Modules, perhaps such as high availability, proper load balancing or actual backend monitoring. Things normal people obviously do not need.
I’ll be the first to admit that the slippery slope argument is not a proper argument, it cannot be used as evidence of Nginx going in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, it is still a fun thought-experiment. For Nginx Inc to be profitable it’s in their interest to get as many people as possible on their paid plans, as such it is in their interest to keep the functionality in the free version limited to just enough that they can keep attracting new users.
They might promise to not want to upsell users, however, we all know how much a promise is worth when it comes to making money. If the commercial modules fail then commercial version is introduced, then the free version is scraped and eventually you’ve got a new Oracle on your hands. Business people are running Nginx Inc now and the death of Nginx as open source might be coming.
The Rational Aspect
The above is, of course, pure FUD. There’s no evidence that actually points to such a scenario happening and it is merely the worst case scenario I could think up. So what do we know? What are the actual facts about this move.
- Nginx Inc is getting new offices in San Francisco.
- Nginx Inc will release a commercial arm based on the open source Nginx core. Whether a full version or just modules is not known.
We can infer another fact based on this – namely that Nginx Inc will hire new people. Before Nginx Inc formed as a company back in July it was largely a one man project. If you followed the development it was Igor writing code with a few rare patches from third party. Mostly other developers were told to develop modules.
Today Nginx has 3 full-time developers working on the code instead of just Igor working after-hours, this alone is a win for everyone who uses Nginx. I think it’s safe to say that development on the Nginx core should increase even if they only dedicate a single person to working on it.
Having a resourceful company behind Nginx is also a plus as it allows enterprise customers to be confident in using Nginx to power their infrastructure. They’ll be able to get support and know that the product isn’t a fly-by-night operation. More companies using Nginx means an increased need for people familiar with Nginx and that might increase the value of people with Nginx as a skill set.
The Rational Worst-Case Scenario
Lets assume for a second that the FUD aspect holds true and Nginx becomes a close source project, or even that the open source version is crippled to where it’s just a bare bones httpd which even lighttpd outshines.
Nginx Inc actually has very little control over the entire infrastructure that is Nginx, in fact, the only two things controlled by Nginx Inc are the Nginx domain(and product) and the mailing list. For the longest time Nginx support has been handled by Igor on the mailing list and the community everywhere else. The IRC channel, which these days has 300+ people idling, is controlled by community volunteers, the Nginx wiki is controlled by the same community volunteers and the Nginx forum is controlled by Jim Ohlstein who has no connection to the Nginx company.
All this means that should the worst case scenario happen with Nginx Inc blinking and suddenly having dollar signs appear in their eyes, then the community can pull an OpenSSH and fork Nginx due to it using the BSD 2-clause license. If the community so desires the documentation and support structure can follow along.
Of course, it’s important to note that this scenario is far-fetched and that forking software is a last-measure. I don’t see it happening.
My Personal Thoughts
I’m personally not too concerned at this point. Nginx has a long history of being open source and while it’s going open-core now I still feel confident that the core will not be neglected or crippled in favour of making money. On the other hand, I don’t know how much ownership Igor had to give up, nor do I know how strong of a leader/owner he’s going to be. At this point I’m positive about the funding, extra developers means good things and until I see signs otherwise I really have no reason to panicking. Should my FUD scenario ever come true I’m also pretty confident we’ll see an Nginx fork with a lot of the support structure migrating over. This of course makes it in the best interest of Nginx Inc to continue working closely with the community which has supported Nginx for so long.
I would like to see a more open development approach, though. A road map of planned features and more details what exactly they plan to offer in their commercial version would be very welcome and would allow people to know how to react.