Business Models

Business models for sustainable open source communities

Business models for sustainable open source communities

From the perspective of creating sustainable open source communities, clearly it is better when we have more of the software in the open, not less, and the finger points strongly at using not only copyleft licenses, but the strongest possible variation that makes sense for the type of software we are building. Where things get more complex is when we start to creep Rawls back in: we want the primary good to increase, but we also want other things. Money, for example - both directly in our own pockets, but also as a source of growth for the software itself. While having software under a strong copyleft might be appealing for some cases, clearly for other community use cases it closes the door. When we start to look at these business personas, the question becomes: how can we monetize the software in a just, sustainable way? There are eight common models: the free software island, loose open core, tight open core, dual licensing, as a service, donations, support only and the free software product model. How does each fare?

Free Software Island

The best example of the free software island model are The Apache Projects. The Apache Software Foundation exists to provide a framework for creating free software, ensuring that it remains focused on the software itself, and that it remains free from direct commercialization. As a consequence, it holds tightly to the trademarks for the Apache Projects, and does not allow them to be used for commercial purposes. By creating a moat between the free software and the commercial entities who might build businesses on top of it, the Foundation can ensure that, on the island, the project is free to make the right decisions for the software itself. This distinction is core to the model - Apache doesn’t build products (those are what companies build), they build projects. This makes Apache the upstream for many companies - a great example being Datastax and Apache Cassandra. While Cassandra is the core of Datastax, Datastax itself is increasingly proprietary software (Datastax Enterprise, or DSE) - it looks at the value provided by Cassandra, and builds value on top of it. In their own words:

DSE goes beyond Apache Cassandra, delivering twice the performance and half the latency of open source Cassandra, as well as simplified operations management.

The combination of Apache Cassandra being under the permissive Apache 2.0 license means that everyone is free to use the software, and to incorporate it into their derivative works, regardless of whether those works are themselves free. Anyone can take Apache Cassandra, start a business, and build on top of it. The Apache Cassandra community likely gets some benefit if they are successful, since some of the work required for building Datastax is best contained within the upstream Cassandra itself. However, in order to distinguish themselves from the purely free (as in beer) Cassandra, Datastax diverts some of their value into proprietary software - software that clearly isn’t being used to further our sustainable open source community anymore. This means that the model passes all of Rawls tests of fairness from the perspective of the island itself: it doesn’t constrain our basic liberty, it is equally applied to everyone, and whatever inequality might exist bends toward those with the least.

It has an unfortunate side effect, though: by segregating the community responsibility on the island, it creates a dynamic that the downstream companies will be best served by putting maximum effort into proprietary extensions, and cooperating only where strictly necessary. If a downstream company tried to ensure that all the work they did went to further sustaining our open source community, they would quickly be overtaken by their competitors, who would gain all the benefit of their engagement in the community core, plus the benefit of their proprietary focus. An example is the Apache Hadoop ecosystem, which generated two public companies, Cloudera and Hortonworks - who merged as public companies at a 6040 level. Cloudera was the more proprietary of the two, and took a significantly larger share of the market value, while clearly contributing less to the core of Hadoop.

A free software island with different dynamics is Linux. Linux uses the GNU Public License version 2 as the license for the software. The trademark is held by Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, and administered on his behalf by The Linux Foundation. Linux itself is an operating system kernel, not the entire operating system - and the dynamic this creates is that many Linux Distributions exist, ranging from completely free and open source (Debian GNU/Linux) to fully proprietary (Red Hat Enterprise Linux). In all these cases, the license of the Linux Kernel ensures that any downstream derivative of the kernel will have its source made available. In practice, this means that the vast bulk of work on the Linux kernel, and of monetization around the Linux kernel, benefits the kernel community. There is no possibility of a downstream proprietary Linux kernel. For purposes of evaluating the model as one of sustainable open source monetization, the kernel model drives any downstream monetization effort to collaboration on the kernel itself. As a case study in monetization, it’s a great example of how license choice and type of software make the difference in deciding if this model is a good fit. If Linux had ever tried to expand beyond the kernel itself, the model falls apart. By drawing the free software island around an indispensable, but insufficient, component of the overall system, ensuring that use of that component will always result in more contribution (or possible contribution) to the component through licensing, and encouraging the growth of businesses around the component, the kernel community is a deeply sustainable one (at least, from this point of view; it fails many of our earlier tests.)

Loose Open Core

Switching gears, Loose Open Core means that you have a “core” of the software which is open source, and you build products around (but not directly a part of) the core. Chef Software and Puppet Labs are two examples of loose open core companies. They both produce a large body of open source automation software, released under the Apache 2.0 license. They add products like Puppet Enterprise, or Chef Automate, which provide features that would be useful for their target market (the large enterprise.) In this model, the business tries to draw a line that says “you can use and be successful with our software, but if you want this extra functionality around it, you need to pay us”. This model is trying to balance having thriving communities, both of users and of customers, with the need to provide proprietary differentiation across the product portfolio. The struggle here is usually that, for this model to work, you need to have a project that generates a high volume of users - which means the core product contains everything a user would need to be successful with the software’s primary use case. For Chef and Puppet, that primary use case is at scale configuration management - in both cases, you can run massive organizations, and solve huge configuration management problems, without needing to purchase anything from either Chef Software or Puppet Labs. In our examples above, both companies have taken significant venture capital, and are the upstream of the project - there is no separation between Chef and Chef Software, or Puppet and Puppet Labs.

Looking at things from our sustainable open source community perspective, things get murky. Clearly, the software that is open source fulfills the basic liberty; but in exchange for that software’s continued development, we trade some functionality (the enterprise features we build around the core) away from that basic liberty - we make it proprietary. The lines of our community are blurry: where does the Chef Community start, and Chef Software begin, when they are so intermingled? If we draw a circle around the software, and say the community exists only there, we get the same results to the free software island model. If we extend it out to our full, expansive definition of community, then it’s plain it no longer fits, as we have traded basic liberty for more of the software.

Tight Open Core

This problem becomes most clear when we look at tight open core. Take, for example, Elastic and Elasticsearch. Elasticsearch is open source software, developed primarily by Elastic. Rather than put software around Elasticsearch and monetize there, Elastic puts features needed by their target market in to proprietary plugins. The results are that features such as authentication are held back from the open source offering, in order to ensure an easier path to monetization. This model can be highly effective (Elastic has a very tidy business!), but it clearly is not one that creates a sustainable open source community: what would the response be if, in order to have the software work for your purposes, you desired authentication, and proposed adding that capability in to core? This is another obvious moment: we’ve traded away our basic liberty for software that is only useful for a fraction of our purpose.

Dual Licensing

The open core models generally are paired with a non-copyleft license, since to do otherwise would compromise your ability to produce derivative works without copyright assignment. A particularly closed twist on this model is the one employed by MongoDB: they require contributors to assign the rights to their copyright to MongoDB (the contributor also retains their rights, a change to standard copyright assignment). This allows MongoDB to create a tight open core model where they produce an open source version of MongoDB under the Affero GPL, and retain the rights to create proprietary versions, or to sell a hosted version without being forced to release it into open source MongoDB. This is the dual licensing model at it’s finest: you release the software under an aggressive copyleft, but retain the rights to remove those restrictions for yourself - the loophole that allows the company, and only the company, the ability to monetize the software effectively. It fails our test on every measure, since MongoDB holds rights for itself that the community can never match, regardless of where we draw the lines for the community around the open source software.

As a Service

With the rise of Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses, we have seen a similar rise in open source communities adopting this as a model. In its purest form, the software itself is made available under an open source license, which you could take and run on your own systems, at your own expense. You could also purchase the same from the business as a Software as a Service subscription. This was the original model for Chef Software, as an example. MongoDB offers their database as a service, Redis Labs offers their database as a service - the list is long. The challenge with this model as a primary method is around whether the value is captured by the community or not. Since the software in question is open source, if the license is permissive enough, anyone can make it available, with no obligations to contribute back. This becomes a variant of the free software island problem - the upstream software is clearly open source, but as we monetize the various services downstream, our incentive is to keep less and less of the services functionality free, if we can. The Affero GPL was created specifically to deal with this problem, and more recently you have attempts like the Commons Clause, which make a specific attempt to limit the ability for large service providers to monetize open source communities. From a sustainability point of view, a model where the software is 100% open source, and the only proprietary software is around the specifics of a given service implementation meets all the criteria - anyone who wanted to run the software as a service could, they need only put in the effort to run the service itself. When we start to have competing services, we get the same incentives we get with the permissive free software islands: the best strategy is to differentiate your service through proprietary extensions, while others build up the core. If instead we limit ability of community members to launch competing services on the software, we run into trouble with our conception of what a just and sustainable community is: we hold back the right to monetize for a specific company, clearly a setup that fails the difference principle.

Since I first wrote that paragraph, MongoDB has relicensed under an even stronger version of copyleft, called the SSPL. This license requires not only the application itself to be open sourced under the same license if it is accessed over the network - it requires that the supporting software required to build the service is open sourced as well. This is an even further extension of the same problem - MongoDB’s hosted service, Atlas, clearly isn’t having the same terms applied to it. If it was, our analysis would be different - it would clearly pass this test, since there is equality in the application of the license.


Donations are a classic model of funding open source. A great modern example of this is webpack, which uses the Open Collective platform to handle not only collecting the donations, but how they are distributed amongst the contributors. This makes it particularly attractive, from a Rawls perspective, due to the ability for individual contributors to receive a portion of the collective funding. Contributing to webpack immediately brings you to the table as a possible recipient of benefit from webpack’s donations. A more historical example is Vim, which has long accepted donations - originally to fund Vim’s continued development by its primary author, Bram Moolenaar, and once he had a stable job, funneled to a charity for children in Uganda. Clearly the model followed by webpack can create a sustainable open source community under our terms so far. Vim is a more interesting case - Bram Moolenaar is the sole primary developer of Vim, and while he takes patches, it is clearly his project (and always has been.) The result is that, if you wanted to grow in your ability to influence Vim, or to grow to the level where you could take donations to fund your own work, Vim’s community model (or lack thereof) precludes you from doing so effectively. For the donation model to be a component of a sustainable open source community, it requires the kind of open ability to distribute the funding seen with webpack, or at least an open enough governance model that individuals could be funded for their work, with a reasonable ability to assume it can be completed.


A similarly tested strategy is the support model. An example of this model was the relationship between XenSource and Xen. Xen is an open source hypervisor originally built by researchers at the University of Cambridge, along with industry collaborators. XenSource was founded to commercialize the open source Xen code, and initially offered only paid support for the hypervisor. Over time, XenSource moved to being a loose open core company. The hypervisor itself remained free, but XenSource (and Citrix, after their aquisition of XenSource in 2007) built proprietary products that sat on top of it designed to appeal to the large enterprise. This is a common transition with the support-only model: since the hope is that your software will be useful, and will continue to improve, the business model of selling support is directly at odds with the user experience of the software. As we make it easier to use, we also make the need for support lower. As a result this model has historically never been sustainable alone, if the goal is to drive significant amounts of capital into the software. It instead morphs into an open core strategy (by far the most common) or into a free software product strategy. Clearly, the support model by itself meets all the requirements of a sustainable open source community, at least for the core project, but might not result in a sustainable business strategy, depending on the growth requirements of the business or other ecosystem dynamics.

Citrix appears to have recognized this over time, as they announced that the proprietary components built on top of the Xen project would be released as open source on June 24, 2013. The community reaction was mixed, and one group announced that they would fork the XenServer code in 2017, creating XCP-ng.

Free Software Product

Which brings us to the free software product model. This is the model that, in my opinion, is the least understood in our current landscape. The best example of a free software product company is Red Hat. They produce 100% free software, but they produce only proprietary distributions of their software: they leave the creation of 100% free distributions to others (there are community efforts funded by Red Hat, such as Fedora, and most recently CentOS.) The side effect is that Red Hat is always the upstream for their software, regardless of its origin - Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a collection of free software, bundled together, supported, and distributed by Red Hat, but with commercial terms attached. You are free to make a derivative work of Red Hat Enterprise Linux - provided you remove any of the Red Hat trademarks from your derivative. The resulting work benefits from all the effort Red Hat puts in to Enterprise Linux, but requires a reasonable amount of effort to produce (CentOS is one example, Oracle Enterprise Linux is another.) You can see a similar transformation take place with other products, even those not primarily produced by Red Hat, such as Kubernetes. Red Hat’s Kubernetes distribution, OpenShift, takes the upstream Kubernetes (itself a free software island) and produces an open source derivative with extra functionality. They then sell that distribution as commercial software - as a hosted service, and as on premises software. By committing 100% of the software they produce into open source, even when they create a proprietary distribution of a free software island, they become a de-facto new upstream.

No company has more mythology about why it is successful than Red Hat, and all of them have some element of truth to them. Over the course of writing this document, I’ve heard answers that range from “it works because it is so broad”, “it works because IBM chose them”, “it works because people pay for operating systems”, “it works because the enterprise needs one throat to choke”. All of these things are real, but I think the root reason it works is because of the dynamics above. Red Hat has all the benefits of a proprietary software company: they sell 100% of the value of the software they produce, they provide absolutely no support to non-paying customers, and you cannot receive their valuable goods without paying them for the privilege. They also get all the benefits of being a free and open source company: development can happen in the open, they can build coalitions who contribute to moving the software forward (which improves their proprietary distribution,) and they can create new products when and wherever they wish, pulling directly from the existing free software ecosystem. They produce proprietary distributions of free software projects: they build free software products.

When organizations try and follow the “Red Hat Model”, they typically are really following the support model. Indeed, that’s a part of the value proposition for Red Hat products - but it isn’t the entire value proposition. What differentiates the free software product model from a pure support model?

  1. Free software products have trademarked, proprietary distributions, with commercial terms attached.
  2. Free software products (may) have 100% open source distributions, but they must use different trademarks and naming conventions, and receive no direct customer support or interaction from the upstream. They are strictly downstream repackaging of the proprietary upstream distribution. This is true regardless of which source code repository is being committed to - the user relationship is defined in terms of the commercial product, not the free software project.

These two attributes are key to the free software product model. Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a proprietary, commercial distribution of Linux. CentOS is a 100% free distribution, derived from Red Hat Enterprise Linux. OpenShift is a proprietary, commercial distribution of Kubernetes. OKD is a 100% free community distribution of OpenShift. Important in these sentences is which comes first - in all cases, the proprietary distribution is the upstream! Anyone who is using CentOS would say they are using it because they want to be using Red Hat Enterprise Linux: they just, for whatever reason, do not want to pay the commercial terms required by Red Hat for the privilege. The same would be true for OKD; no OpenShift user would say they are using the commercial version of OKD. Instead, they would say they are using the free version of OpenShift. This is the key element in a free software product model, and it is the one that is the least understood in the industry broadly.

How does this model stack up, from a Rawls point of view? By committing 100% of the software to open source, the model ensures basic liberty completely, and it avoids any of the difficulties of drawing arbitrary lines around where the community stops and the commercial interests begin we see with free software islands or the open core models. Assuming the governance model meets our earlier criteria, there is nothing in the model that doesn’t meet both the equal liberty principle and the difference principle. If, for whatever reason, you need to create a similarly proprietary distribution of the software, you are completely free to do so, and you can do so regardless of the circumstances you start out in.

Sustainable models

What attributes can we pull from this analysis? When it comes time to consider how we will introduce capital into the system, we have to make a series of choices (each of which assumes the project has clear and just governance, as we discussed above):

  • If the software is never intended or desired to be used in a direct business context, they should choose a transparent donation model.
  • If the software is self contained, but useful primarily only as a component in a larger set of software, then they should choose to create a free software island with the strongest copyleft license that is applicable. Contributions flow back through downstream commercialization and the copyleft contribution incentives.
  • If the software is broadly applicable, and intended to be used in a direct business context, they should choose the free software product model.
  • If the software is broadly applicable, and intended to be used as a widely adopted standard, with multiple competing commercial offerings, they should choose free software island model with the strongest licensing model that supports the standards adoption.

From a sustainable open source community point of view, all the other models leave something to be desired. They may require us to subdivide our community, a-la the free software island approach applied to larger pieces of software, or those with direct value. They lead to incentivizing the creation of proprietary forks, pushing the project to be less free as more capital joins the system, a-la the open core models and the SaaS model.

This leads to our final two principles of a sustainable open source community:

  • Any commercial activity around the software must further the sustainability of the community, and the potential for commercial benefit must be available to all.
  • The incentives in any commercial models must bend away from the creation of proprietary downstream software.

The second point merits more inspection. We see that when we create the lines of our community such that no commercial interests are allowed to interfere with it, we can create communities that meet all of our criteria - but that start to fall down when we consider the second part of our communities desires, which are “whatsoever else they might want”. As community members, we might very well decide that we want to benefit monetarily from the software - through consulting, through starting a software business. Existing businesses want to create communities around their software, like Kubernetes, in order to increase their own competitive position. The lines are not clear here - how do we know, in any given case, if the decisions we make will harm the long term sustainability of our community?

It is to this end the second point exists. If we are going to have commercial activity around the communities software, the incentives must lead towards the creation of more of the software the community desires. If instead it incentivizes the creation of proprietary software, then we likely end up in a kind of open source stasis - either the upstream does not have valuable features (who wouldn’t, for example, want half the latency, twice the performance, and simplified operations of Datastax compared to Cassandra), or those features are hidden away behind competing as-a-service offerings. Our community may be sustainable, but it will be comparatively anemic.

I stop short of advocating for copyleft in all situations. The reason, for me, comes back around to Rawls. I don’t know the situation of every person who may need to join the community, and I don’t know the conditions of their lives that they wish to improve. What I do know is, if I use a strong copyleft, I’m narrowing my conception of what’s viable for them to do with the software, frequently in a commercial context. I find the argument that we should limit the terms of the software, in all cases, as copyleft does to be uncompelling in those conditions - the difference principle might compel me to use a non copyleft license, so that they have the freedom to make the decisions that best benefit them. So the statement is that we must choose models that bend away from the creation of proprietary software - where “bend” implies that we may, in fact, not decide to completely remove that option, but instead to ensure the incentives for that option are bad (as the free software product model does).