Database startup Redis Labs says that it's worth shaking up the open source software world if it means protecting its business from Amazon

Database startup Redis Labs says that it's worth shaking up the open source software world if it means protecting its business from Amazon


Redis Labs

Ofer Bengal, co-founder and CEO of Redis Labs

  • On Thursday, database startup Redis Labs announced a new license for its software, called the Redis Source Available License.
  • Last year, Redis Labs took a stand against Amazon Web Services and other cloud giants with a new software license that put restrictions on how its open source code can be used. That license was confusing for users, Redis Labs CEO Ofer Bengal now says.
  • The new license is more clear about how the code can and can't be used - but it also means that any of Redis Labs' software covered by this license will no longer be considered open source.
  • Redis Labs sees this as a worthy trade-off, and a necessary move to protect its business from Amazon.

Last year, Redis Labs - the proprietors of the popular Redis database - took a stand against cloud providers like Amazon by changing the terms of its open source software license.

The upshot: Years after Amazon Web Services took the open source Redis database and started offering it as a paid service to its own customers, Redis Labs put a provision in its licensing that lets anybody do anything with the code, except sell it as a paid service.

The move proved controversial: Some said the license went against the meaning of open source, while others supported it as a way to protect Redis Labs' business. Importantly, the change doesn't affect the main Redis database itself, but rather the additional add-ons for it developed by Redis Labs.

Now, though, Redis Labs CEO Ofer Bengal tells Business Insider that the move confused some users, so it's making another change aimed at simplifying matters by introducing the Redis Source Available License. The move comes just two days after it announced it announced $60 million in funding.


Read more: The open-source startup Redis Labs has raised $60 million and is planning for an IPO as it takes a stand against Amazon Web Services

But this doesn't mean Redis Labs is backing down, says Bengal. It's a move that's necessary for Redis Labs to take on the major cloud providers, Bengal says, whatever the philosophical implications - and, in fact, it means that those Redis add-ons will go from being "open source" software to "source available," a subtle but important distinction.

"People realized that something must be changed because the situation with open source cannot go on like this," Bengal told Business Insider. "Otherwise, no one will develop significant open source projects. It doesn't make sense when cloud providers take it from them."

The new changes

Last year, Redis Labs appended the Commons Clause to the Apache 2.0 software license for the add-ons, or extensions, to the Redis database. Like most other open source software licenses, the Apache 2.0 allows for anybody to legally download the code for free and do whatever they want with it - even package it up and sell it, as Amazon has done to Redis with its own AWS Elasticache service.

But by adding Commons Clause, it effectively blocked Amazon and other cloud providers from selling its Redis add-ons for a profit. Otherwise, the main Redis database remains open source. Soon after, MongoDB and Confluent created new licenses of their own, with similar goals.


Since Redis Labs added the Commons Clause, it has collected feedback from its users about the licensing change, and Bengal says that there are three main points of confusion for users.

The first was, users found it confusing that Redis Labs was using the Commons Clause, which places limits on open source, in conjunction with the otherwise very permissive Apache 2.0 license.

The second was that Commons Clause says that users can't sell it as a product or service "whose value derives, entirely or substantially, from the functionality of the Software." "Substantially" wasn't defined specifically enough for users, making it difficult to know if they were in compliance.

The third was that users were confused about in what ways they can and can't sell Redis Labs' software. For example, some users said they wanted to offer consultancy and support services around Redis Labs' software, but were not sure if they were allowed to.

With the feedback in hand, Redis Labs decided to scrap it all and create a completely new license that was more specific. Meet the Redis Source Available License.


The big change

Importantly, Bengal points out again that the Redis Source Available License doesn't affect the main Redis database, which will remain open source as before. It's only those add-ons that are affected.

"Our case was a little more complex than others," Bengal said. "We wanted to keep the core of Redis open source and apply this new license only to extensions. Each company has its own needs and nuances when it comes to carving a new software license. We did what's best for us."

According to this license, anyone can use the source code, modify it, and integrate it into their applications, and they don't need to contribute the code back if they don't want to. The one restriction is that users cannot distribute or sell their application as a database or caching system.

For example, if a company has a website that uses Redis Labs' database components in the back end, it can use the database and make money from its website without any limitations. Likewise, users can sell support and consultancy services around Redis Labs' software. However, if a company sells a database based on Redis Labs' product, that is not allowed.

"If you read it, you can do everything with the new software except selling it as a database product," Bengal said. "If you're using it and otherwise selling it in software that's not a database, you can do whatever you want, no restrictions. We think this is very clear compared to what we had before."


'We don't want to fight'

Elsewhere in the market, MongoDB has said that it considers its new Server Side Public License (SSPL) to be open source, despite provisions that place limitations on how the code can be used.

To that end, the MongoDB SSPL is currently under review by the Open Source Initiative (OSI), which gives the stamp of approval on whether licenses are officially considered open source or not. It's an important distinction, as having the official open source designation serves as something of a guarantee to would-be buyers of the software that it doesn't have complicated or otherwise odious licensing terms.

Read more: An influential group sponsored by the Silicon Valley tech titans warns that efforts are underway to 'undermine the integrity of open source'

However, Redis Labs doesn't even plan on wading into that particular debate, and won't be submitting the Redis Source Available License to the OSI. Bengal says that it's perfectly happy to have its Redis extensions defined as "source available" - meaning that while users can see the source code to its software, it doesn't meet the criteria.

"According to the definition of the OSI, anything which has any limitations on anything is not open source by definition," Bengal said. "We think, by the way, that this is wrong, but for us, open source is not a religion. It's a practical thing. We have a business to run, so we don't want to fight the OSI, so basically this new license is not open source, although it has most of the ingredients of open source."


Bengal expects some people to condemn Redis Labs' new approach, while others will react positively. Redis Labs could have completely closed off its code to the public with a commercial license, Bengal says, but it did not want to take this approach.

"No one would have said anything if we put all this software under a commercial license, not this type of new license, but we wanted to be more fair to the community and let them have the source code, play with it, and let them use it in their projects," Bengal said. "Whatever you do in this world, some people are for it, some people are against it. We need to do what we think is right."