When Open Source Doesn't Do It Anymore

CouchDB founder moves away from Apache model

CouchDB and CouchOne founder Damien Katz has created a stir with his announcement that he and most of his team will be moving away from continuing to develop the Apache CouchDB NoSQL database and focusing extensively on the more commercially suited Couchbase Server 2.0.

In one of my predictions for 2012, I said that the NoSQL market would continue to heat up and there would be consolidation in the space. Well, it didn't take long for some drama to develop.  One of the big moves in NoSQL in 2011 was the merger of Katz's CouchOne, developers of the Apache CouchDB with Membase, a NoSQL server that had among its investors and customers some of the biggest names in mega web apps.  The new company was called Couchbase. I followed the CouchDB and Membase story with posts and podcasts herehere and here. I had a chance to talk with Katz before the merger and then when the merger was announced. I also followed the company as they raised significant new venture capital and continued to grow in the not NoSQL space.

As a result of this many of the people who developed apps and business around CouchDB are feeling abandoned by Katz and the Couchbase team. Complicating things is that it doesn't appear that there is a smooth migration path from CouchDB to Couchbase Server. That sounds like an opportunity to me. Either Couchbase themselves or some entrepreneurial developer might want to work on that.

But I wanted to concentrate on another angle of this for my post today.  In his blog post explaining the move away from CouchDB Katz said,

And now I, and the Couchbase team, are mostly moving on. It's not that we think CouchDB isn't awesome. It's that we are creating the successor to it: Couchbase Server. A product and project with similar capabilities and goals, but more faster, more scalable, more customer and developer focused. And definitely not part of Apache.

With Apache CouchDB, much of the focus has been around creating a consensus based, developer community that helps govern and move the project forward. Apache has done, and is doing a good job of that. But for us, it's no longer enough. CouchDB was something I created because I thought an easy to use, peer based, replicating document store was something the world would find useful. And it proved a lot of the ideas were possible and useful and it's been successful beyond my wildest ambitions. But if I had it all to do again, I'd do many things different.

If it sounds like I'm saying Apache was a mistake, I'm not. Apache was a big part in the success of CouchDB, without it CouchDB would not have enjoyed the early success it did. But in my opinion it's reached a point where the consensus based approach has limited the competitiveness of the project. It's not personal, it's business.

So what Katz is saying is that the Apache model and the community concept that drives it does not allow him to be competitive in the market.  This is in contrast to others who have built successful businesses around Apache managed projects. If Katz's belief is true, what does that foretell for business like Hortonworks and Cassandra who are building businesses around Apache's Hadoop?

But Katz's lament and desire to "do it all over again" is not just about the Apache open source model. It applies to open source in general. I remember speaking about this years ago with some of my friends in the security market.  Back then, Ron Gula, CEO of Tenable Network Security had announced that while Nessus would continue to be free it would no longer be open source. I along with others were critical of Ron back then. But over the years, much of what Ron gave as his reasons were borne out to be true. Nessus continues to be a very popular free security tool, but Tenable has been able to build a viable business around it. 

In a similar vein, when Marty Roesch and the Sourcefire folks announced that while Snort, the open source IDS would continue to be open sourced, the signatures would be licensed commercially. Again I and others cried foul. It was pulling the rug out from those in the open source community. But again time has proven that what Marty and the Sourcefire team were doing was creating a viable business model around an open source project. 

Both Ron and Marty taught me that you can't please all of the people all of the time and still have a successful business. At some point you have to do what is best for the business.  This is what I suspect is driving Damien and the Couchbase team as well.

Let me be clear that there still appears to be a community edition of Couchbase Server. I am not sure it will still be open sourced though.  There will also be an enterprise, commercial edition of Couchbase.  I do hope that either through Couchbase or from somewhere else a migration path for CouchDB to Couchbase is made available. But at the end of the day besides the community, Damien has investors who have put up millions of dollars for him to build a successful commercial entity. His duty to them and his fellow workers drives him to make decisions that best for the business, not necessarily best for the community.

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