Uproar: MariaDB Corp. veers away from open source

A new release of the MaxScale database proxy -- essential to deploying MariaDB at scale -- features a proprietary license

Open source uproar as MariaDB goes commercial

MariaDB Corp. has announced that release 2.0 of its MaxScale database proxy software is henceforth no longer open source. The organization has made it source-available under a proprietary license that promises each release will eventually become open source once it's out of date.

MaxScale is at the pinnacle of MariaDB Corp.'s monetization strategy -- it's the key to deploying MariaDB databases at scale. The thinking seems to be that making it mandatory to pay for a license will extract top dollar from deep-pocketed corporations that might otherwise try to use it free of charge. This seems odd for a company built on MariaDB, which was originally created to liberate MySQL from the clutches of Oracle.

The license in question, the Business Source License, was devised by MySQL creator Michael "Monty" Widenius in 2013. It allows use for evaluation and sets a date when the source code will be placed under the GPL, but it's explicitly proprietary in pursuit of commercial ends.

Monty has wanted to try out the BSL for ages, so the idea isn't news -- or even novel, as other licenses try to do the same thing, and the idea of delayed release is well established. The company can't follow suit with MariaDB itself, since Oracle's ownership of MySQL from which it is derived prevents a license change. But I don't think taking MaxScale proprietary is a good move for MariaDB Corp., either from a community perspective or a commercial one.

The community has reacted swiftly, with both a fork and a competitive project announcement from a Percona employee. With an eye for its unfortunate name, he has even called the BSL a "BS License." The whole change of license shows little sign of community planning and treats all community members who are not customers as parasites:

  • It essentially eliminates and potential for co-development of the software, as software freedom has been entirely eliminated. That also means there will be no alternative uses of any part of the code -- no one can "stand on the shoulders of giants."
  • It's a betrayal of the existing users of the open source version, who won't get any of the (numerous) fixes included in the 2.0 release. MariaDB Corp. should have made a transition with a final open source release, including bug fixes.
  • It raises big questions about whether any of the code is derived from GPL-licensed source, a potential violation -- with Oracle the offended party.
  • It's a further slap in the face to MariaDB Foundation, which now sees the MariaDB trademark associated with a proprietary product.

Maybe that's why the guy who would have had to explain this to the community quit shortly before the announcement? To its credit, MariaDB Corp. isn't saying this is an open source license (it's absolutely not), but it is still riding the goodwill of the open source market by the assertion it will be "open source one day."

That's misdirection. With no co-development community, it's nothing more than a form of escrow arrangement. It's not even a very good one, since if the company fails, the software will remain proprietary until the license change date. Monty may claim it avoids lock-in, but I can't see any way that's true. The full corporate perspective is as weak as the community perspective:

  • The proprietary license lock-in period is very long -- multiple minor releases and perhaps one or two major ones -- meaning no viable open source software will emerge for a long time, and when it does, it will be way out of date and vulnerable.
  • Since the proprietary lock-in period is so long, it's unlikely that any existing communities will feel comfortable using or integrating it even if the license permits it.
  • Promises about staying open are no longer credible, and an Oracle-style closure is forever possible.
  • Since the eventual license is still GPLv2+, corporate users will probably consider it nonviable for escrow.
  • Most significant, as Justin Swanhart points out, it means that MariaDB is now an ecosystem where alternative service providers cannot support customers over the full range of software necessary for deployment at scale. There is a chance MariaDB Corp. will get a larger slice of the market, but it will be a smaller market.

As such, corporate users are not in control of their architecture or investment if they use software under this model, and noncommercial users can't freely evolve the code to meet their own needs. Those are respectively the business and the personal benefit of software freedom, and both are gone from MaxScale.

The MaxScale move shows MariaDB Corporation wants to switch from a Red Hat-style service and support model to a Sugar-style sole-vendor approach. I don't think customers signed up for that. This development demonstrates exactly why you should never allow consolidation of copyright in an open source project by a corporation, particularly one that has a narrow vision of open source business -- and one that may stunt MariaDB's ability to thrive.

[Editor's note: The original headline for this story, not written by the author, inaccurately used the word "commercial" instead of "proprietary."]

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