The CEO of developer startup Sentry explains the huge change it made to its business to prevent Amazon and other startups from profiting off its code
Category : entrepreneur
- Earlier this month, the error monitoring software startup Sentry changed its software license to the Business Source License (BSL), which was created by the database startup Cockroach Labs.
- Before, Sentry gave away its software for free as open source, but now, users can do whatever they want with the code for free except sell it.
- Sentry CEO and co-founder David Cramer says today, investors are concerned that Amazon Web Services could be a threat to open source software companies, and he decided to make this change because AWS is a “huge business liability,” but also because other startups have been selling Sentry’s software.
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When Sentry CEO and co-founder David Cramer first told investors that he gave away the software he built for free, he faced lots of skepticism.
Cramer originally created the error monitoring software as an open source product, meaning anyone could use, download, or modify it for free. In 2015, he decided to leave his job at Dropbox to focus full-time on turning the free software into a business.
“That was a very confusing idea four years ago,” Cramer told Business Insider.
But now, he says, the concern isn’t whether or not Sentry can make money: The company is one of a new class of startups, including GitLab, Neo4j, and DataStax, proving that it’s possible to build a sustainable business on open source — something proven out further by IBM’s $34 billion acquisition of open source giant Red Hat.
“People don’t fear [the business model] nearly as much just because there’s been a lot more innovation in open source,” Cramer said.
Now, Cramer says that Sentry faces a different challenge as an open source company: The fear that other companies are unfairly ripping off its code and using it to make money.
Part of that fear stems from the continued rise of Amazon Web Services, which has been criticized for taking open source software projects and turning them into commercial, paid services — something that’s perfectly legal under the rules of open source software, but that hasn’t sit right with an increased number of companies in the space.
But while Cramer acknowledges that the possibility that Amazon will give Sentry that treatment is a significant concern, that’s not what gets under his skin.
“Our biggest issue is we had to file various complaints against startups throughout the years, taking our code and incorrectly licensing it,” Cramer said. “It feels like it’s a moral thing, almost stealing. They didn’t contribute at all to it and think you should be able to commercialize it. It didn’t sit well with us.”
In a recent blog post, Cramer went further, saying that competitors have taken photos and even promotional copy from its website, using the fact that Sentry is available as open source as an excuse.
That’s all why, earlier this month, Sentry announced that it was changing its model over to the Business Source License (BSL) — a license created by the database startup Cockroach Labs that has what’s been called a “no-Amazon clause.” It stems off the threat of AWS poaching its business, while also closing the door on bad actors.
“We made this change because of Amazon…it’s a huge business liability,” Cramer says.
‘I don’t know that it’s so practical’
Amazon Web Services, the leading cloud computing provider, has a certain reputation: It’s happy to use other people’s open source code, the thinking goes, without giving enough in return.
Companies like Elastic, MongoDB, Redis Labs, and Confluent have taken defensive steps after Amazon (and other clouds) started selling their code. The most dramatic weapons have come in the form of new software licenses, which place restrictions and limits on how others, especially cloud providers, can use their software.
Sentry opted for that BSL, which essentially says that anybody can use and modify Sentry, as they have been — but that they can’t sell Sentry for profit. Notably, the BSL does have provisions that over time, older code will become available as traditional open source, minus even that restriction.
After meeting with the Cockroach Labs team, Sentry decided on BSL because it was the “best compromise we found.” In addition, the vast majority of contributions to Sentry’s code are from its own employees, Cramer says, meaning that there was limited risk from alienating its community.
BSL and licenses like it have proven controversial in some corners of the developer community, where the dominant belief is that the idea of placing restrictions on code is inherently contradictory to the concept of open source. Cramer says that this is a nice idea, but it doesn’t always hold up in the real world.
“Open source means wildly different things to different people,” Cramer said. “Open source could mean this was built by the community. Open source to a lot of people means free. The hardcore definition is you can do whatever you want with that code, which is very idealistic. I don’t know that it’s so practical.”
A ‘huge business liability’
The reaction to the change has been mixed, Cramer says, with many concerns coming from open source advocates.
“Some people are very rigorous about what open source means, but for the most part, anyone who used Sentry was very supportive,” Cramer said. “It’s kind of a gray zone…A lot of people brought up if it’s open source or not, but it’s the spirit of open source. We have to reframe what open source is, in a way.”
Still, so far, Cramer says he feels good about Sentry’s position, but he’s open to making changes down the line if the license isn’t working out.
Ultimately, he says, Sentry is in a good position: Just in September, Sentry closed a $40 million round of funding, underscoring what Cramer says is its success in having its “peer companies” in Silicon Valley use and love its product.
“We’re really big in the sense that we always joke internally that if you have a map of Silicon Valley and throw a dart, that company uses Sentry,” Cramer said. “If you ask developers, hopefully they know what it is.”