Google and Open Source

In Adam Bosworth's post Where have all the good databases gone he asks the Open Source community to target some problems with relational databases that the Big 3 vendors have seemingly been unable to solve.

Krzysztof Kowalczyk has an interesting response to Adam Bosworth's post entitled Google - we take it all, give nothing back where he writes

Open-source - not working as advertised.

The popular theory ("myth” would be a better name) is that open-source works because of this positive feedback loop:

  • source code for product foo is released
  • it’s free so it gets used
  • if it doesn’t fully meet someone’s needs, that someone can code the functionality (since the code is open) and submit the changes back to project (something not possible if you use closed products like Windows or Office or Google)

  • those contributions improve the product for everyone else, so more people use it so more people contribute the code and so on. Sky is hardly the limit.

The good thing in this theory is that it doesn’t rely on kindness of strangers but on englightened self-interest of those who benefit from free software. The bad thing about this theory is that in theory it works much better than in practice.

It’s all because of a weblog post by Google’s Adam Bosworth. Read it yourself, but the gist of it is that, according to Adam, commercial database vendors don’t understand the needs of companies like Google or Amazon or Federal Express. Relational database rely on static schemas and there are no good ways to dynamically reconfigure databases without the disruption in service. Adam ends with a plea to open-source fairy:

My message is to the Open Source community that has, so ably, built LAMP (Linux, Apache and Tomcat and MySQL and PHP and PERL and Python). Please finish the job. Do for databases what you did for web servers. Give us dynamism and robustness. Give us systems that scale linearly, are flexible and dynamically reconfigurable and load balanced and easy to use.

This is why the theory of open source doesn’t work in real world. A multi-billion company has a clear need for software that works well for them but instead of investing in existing open-source projects like PostgreSQL or MySQL to make them do what they need, all they do is ask some magic, undefined entity they call Open Source community to do the work for them. For free.

Google - we take it all, give nothing back. Come work for us.

Let’s estimate how much money did Google save by using open source software that they would otherwise have to purchase. The operating system for tens of thousands of their computers. Web servers they use. All the Unix utilities they use. Editors, compilers and debuggers they use to write their code. E-mail smtp server. E-mail pop servers. Languages like Perl and Python. Databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL. It’s safe to say that if Richard Stallman was never born, the licenses for those kinds of software would cost them tens of millions of dollars.

And what does Google contribute back? Where are their patches to gcc, gdb, python, postgresql, sendmail, emacs?

Google - we leave open-source to Microsoft. Come work for us.

It’s very ironic that I can find more open-source code created by Microsoft and its employees ( RSS Bandit, IronPython, Windows Installer XML (WiX), FlexWiki) than by Google employees. Not saying that there aren’t any but they are certainly not easy to find, even when I use mighty search engine trying to find google open-source.

Google - we like our hardware cheap and our software free. Come work for us.

If you’re into this stuff you know that Google is known for it’s highly tuned process of selecting hardware components (i.e. all those thousands of computers they need to index and store the web) to hit the best price/performance ratio. In a way, they use the cheapest thing, when you define the cost as the total cost of ownership (as opposed to simply the cost of buying the hardware). Thanks to Adam’s admision:

Indeed, in these days of open source, I wonder if the software itself, should cost at all?

we also know, that they like their software free.

As a side note, it’s a surprising statement coming from Adam who knows very well that writing software costs a lot. Open-source doesn’t eliminate this cost, it just shift the costs and allows unlimited number of free-riders, like Google.

I’m picking on Google, but they are not alone. Amazon, yahoo, ebay, aol. Any large business that uses web as means of providing services and making revenues is enjoying enormous savings by using open source stack on their back end. And what do they contribute back? A good approximation of zero compared to benefits they reap.
But Adam’s example shows that there’s a fat chance of this happening. Adam is not a rank Google employee. He was not hired to give free massage to stressed Google employees. Before Google Adam was a high-ranked executive at Microsoft and BEA. He led teams that created successful products (IE, Access among them). He’s in position to influence what Google does. He understands technology, he understand the cost and difficulty of making software. He has a weblog and deep thoughts. If only he understood the strategic value of open source.

If someone like Adam cannot see further than the tip of his own nose and his ideas are as bold as asking others to write the software he needs for free, then I don’t have much hope for anyone at aol to get it either.

Google - do no Evil. Do no Good. Just like everybody else. Come work for us.
In those days of focus on corporate profits (where there any other days?), Google’s motto “Do no Evil” is refreshing.

Or is it? It’s a nice soundbite, but when you think about it, it’s really a low requirement. There are very little things that deserve to be called Evil. If a senior citizen is taking a nap outside his house on a sunny day and you kick him in the groin - that’s Evil. Most other things are bad or neutral. Not doing Evil is easy. Doing Good is the hard thing.

I doubt that this is the kind of response that Adam Bosworth was expecting when he posted his plea. The fun thing about corporate blogs is that it gives people more places to read between the lines and learn how a company really thinks. I suspect this is why Google doesn't have many authentic bloggers and instead has favored the press release page masquerading as group blog approach at

Comments (19)
  1. Anonymous says:

    » Whoa! It’s On!  InsideGoogle – part of the Blog News Channel

  2. Well, it is an interesting post from someone who works in a team I started and ran for a while although we never overlapped. Am I supposed to be worried by disagreement. Surely even someone from Microsoft understands that those of us who blog do it as much because we welcome the disagreements from Jean-Jeaque Dubray or Danny Ayers as for any other reason. And for Microsoft to condemm those of us who benefit from Open Source is rich. Honestly, it is like the Nazi’s condeming the Swiss from benefiting from the refugees. Krystof’s post is interesting. This, unusually for this Blog, is what I’d expect of the company that wantonly destroyed my last one for no good reason save picque.

  3. I like this entry. Frankly, Google is just as corporate as Microsoft is. No sense denying it, they are out to make a buck too!

    Adam, Microsoft is not condemning anyone, this employee of Microsoft (Dare) is agreeing with Krzysztof. I know its a semantics issue, but not everyone at Microsoft will agree, and Microsoft will probably never officially say any of this.

  4. Stu says:

    Comparing Microsoft to Nazis, never seen that one before! rofl.

  5. Not to mention that the point raised by Krzysztof is perfectly valid.

  6. Kryzsztof’s point may or may not be valid. I welcome debate. As I said, Google does support Open Source. Heck, we have people whose’s fulltime job is supporting and working with the Open Source community. And, as an exercise, try Googling "Ballmer open Source" and then my boss "Wayne Rosen open source". It might enlighten you. Consider that while I was running the Web Data team, we did ship an unlimited rights open source Java parser for XML. Ask Dare if they do that now. Sure, both companies want to make money. But believe me, having been at both, tha in no way makes them equivalent.

  7. Brian Turner says:

    It would be interesting to see if Google are going to back Adam’s objections of due criticism – by funding the necessary developments to database technology, and releasing it to the open source community.

    Microsoft may be everyone’s favourite computing villain, but now that Google is a billion-dollar internet corporation, Google needs to set itself apart by practice, not philosophy – an end point that Krzysztof Kowalczyk ends on very properly: "Not doing Evil is easy. Doing Good is the hard thing."

  8. Paul Mooney says:

    Gota love d’blogs

  9. Daniel says:

    … or Hanlon’s Razor to be specific which posits "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity."

    The ‘Do No Evil’ statement is an idiosyncratic and puzzling choice of words for a company.

    Hanlon’s Razor is widely recited within the hacker community. When Google, being part of the hacker/puzzle-cult, states ‘Do no evil’ it probably means ‘Don’t be stupid’. Malicious behaviour, or ‘evil’, is often mistaken for the behaviour of shortsighted, uneducated individuals.

    Or maybe I’ve read too much into it…

  10. Lovejoy says:

    I’d rather hear about Kate Bosworth than Adam Bosworth. But yeah this was a nice read. I take it with a grain of salt as you might expect, and like Bosworth said, I’m absolutely certain that Google does indeed fund, contribute to, entice, and reward the open source community, or you would have seen blogs like this a long time ago.

    Stepping out a little, taking Google out of the main frame of the picture, you must realize that freeloaders are inevitable in a situation like this. Always. And the solution to this is not licenses or property rights or government intervention or regulation. The solution is active involvement and good relations with the people who are actually expending the time, energy, and resources to further these open source projects. Direct compensation is not always necessary, and the quid pro quo is not always apparent to the naked eye. It seems like Google has found a nice partnership.

    Just to add, Dare, I’ve done my best to give you the benefit of the doubt with regard to any grudges you may hold.

  11. c. keith ray says:

    Anyone remember that the original post was asking for database flexibility, not just for google’s use but for everybody who needs it?

    I think the Gemstone database has some of the flexibility that Bosworth (and others) are asking for… the power comes from not being limited by the notions and historical implementations of relational databases.

  12. <p>Something happened a few days ago that is related why I have trouble posting about technology issues since I have moved to Amazon. The short version is:
    <blockquote><p><i>Regardless of how many disclaimers you put on your weblog that your content is private and not related to your employer, people will treat your statements as representing your company. </p><p>And with the "traditional press" monitoring weblogs they will use content from weblogs as representing company statements.
    About a week ago Adam Bosworth wrote <a href="">a posting</a> on that database vendors/developers need to address their customers needs for dynamic schema and partitioning, and for improving indexing. He ended the post with challenging the open source community to address these problems in their projects and beat the commercial vendors to it.
    For a large part I agree with Adam, there is a real need for databases to address the changing user requirements. And I understand his challenge to the OS community as it would be great to see this development happen in the open, in a way that all developers can contribute and benefit. At least that was the way I interpreted his post.
    There was an interesting <a href="">polemic posting</a> that portrayed Adam’s posting as an official Google statement, and that Google wanted the OS community to solve their problems without giving anything back, and lots of discussion erupted over that posting. It was interesting to see the conversation evolving, as I was sure this was not at all what Adam intended.
    Things however got completely out of hand when Dare Obasanjo (MS) referenced the original post and the counter-post and <a href="">added some opinion</a> to it. Adam <a href="">in a comment</a> at Dare’s weblog blasted Dare’s posting, and compared Microsoft (one of his former employers) to Nazis. <a href="'s_law">Godwin's Law</a> says that you should not take such a statement serious, it is just an indication that reasonable debate has finished.
    Why is this relevant? Because yesterday <a href="">the exchange appeared in the Wall Street Journal</a> (they were wise enough to leave out the Nazis though) (the link is to the transcript at Dares weblog, as the regular WSJ is paid subscription only).
    A number of things happened in the conversational exchange that shows that we do not honor the ‘weblogs are personal’ principle at all.
    <li>Adam’s original post was distorted and portrayed as Google’s view that software should be free.</li>
    <li>He had no other option but to respond with additional post and comments to trying and clarify that Google is doing good stuff for the OS community. Remember that this was not the gist of his original post, but he is forced to defend his employer.</li>
    <li>No matter what thoughts Adam had on being screwed by a part of the weblog community, he added to the controversial by countering Dare’s post rather forceful (including Nazi’s, Swiss and refugees) and indirectly turning it into a Google vs Microsoft fight.</li>
    <li>The Wall Street Journal then reports on this in an article starting with "<b>The rivalry between Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. has been heating up</b> …"</li>
    So who is respecting the "weblogs are personal statements" principle? Nobody! Everyone immediately made Adams posting into a Google statement or Google vs Microsoft battle.
    As soon as you are a visible employee, every word your write will be seen as a potential statement from your company, whether you like it or not. Maybe not if you post 10 or 20 articles a day on a variety of issues, but if it is once or twice a week, which would be a more normal pattern for me, a lot of additional scrutiny needs to be applied before you write something up. I am sure Adam is going to think twice about his next posting.
    This indeed forces me to also weigh my words before posting a lot more than when I was at Cornell, and this threshold is sufficient to often kill my interest in posting. Ill see what I can do to fix that, but the Adam & Dare experience is in no way reinforcing the idea that my words will be see as personal by my readers, the community at large, or even the more traditional press.

  13. While I don&#8217;t agree with his views very much, I really admire Richard Stallman&#8217;s consistency. It must surely be great not to be plagued by even the slightest doubt about one&#8217;s own views as RMS is &#8230; it&#8217;a also very interesting to consider his opinion regarding the use of free software and the expectations as to what a company would…

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