Understanding the MongoDB Server-Side license

Open source software has arguably created more value for the software industry than any other single paradigm shifts over the past 30 years. It’s hard to find a software market segment that does not have a significant open source constituency, and it’s hard not to acknowledge that most of the really interesting innovations in the software industry are being driven by open source.

However, for this innovation to continue their needs to be viable business models that can reward the creators of open source. For some time now, the majority of open source investment has come from venture capital and mega-corporations. VC firms hope to find “the next Facebook” in one of the many open source start-ups, while companies such as Facebook and Netflix develop and share open source innovations partially as a way of attracting top engineering talent and partially to encourage non-commercial frameworks that reduce the operating costs of their core businesses.

There is good reason to think that this level of patronage will not persist indefinitely. Should VC-funded open source companies fail to return on investment, then VC investment will dry up.  The high-profile companies bolstering open source do so primarily for selfish motives and can’t necessarily be relied on to do so forever.  So it’s essential that companies that develop and market open source products be able to generate some return on their investment.

Building out an open source business model is hard enough. It’s often argued that only Red Hat succeeded in monetizing open source, although there are plenty of high valued start-ups that hope to emulate Red Hat’s success.  But these companies are facing a new challenge: cloud providers who can exploit the open source inventions of others without thoroughly contributing back to the open source community.

The original open source licenses were developed before cloud computing became prevalent, and even those that have been adapted for cloud scenariossuch as the AGPLstill allow cloud providers to offer an open source product without contributing to the open source product development.

For all Amazon’s laudable contributions to cloud computing, they are arguably the most blatant exploiter of open source technology. The vast majority of services offered by the Amazon AWS cloud are based on open source, and yet Amazon generally contributes very little to open source projects.

MongoDB has reason to be concerned that Amazon might create a cloud-based version of MongoDB and siphon off Atlas revenues while leaving MongoDB with the engineering bills.  Furthermore, MongoDB is seeing other cloud providers offering MongoDB as a service, again without having to bear any of the engineering costs. 

This situation has led to the MongoDB Server Side Public License (the SSPL).  The SSPL requires that those who provide an SSPL product in a hosted form must also make available all their infrastructure code available under an Open source license.  This infrastructure code would include things such as provisioning and monitoring systems, or anything that might be required for another company to create a clone of the hosting service. 

Open source purists are not universally in favor of this new license, and some claim that it is not, in fact, an open source license at all.  My view is that for open source to survive and thrive there must be viable ways for open source companies to make money.  The SSPL primarily exists to even the playing field between MongoDB the company and others that might wish to monetize MongoDB the database. Given that it places no restrictions on those who wish to use the MongoDB community edition as the backend for an applicationeither on-premise or in the cloud - I think it is a fair and welcome development.