Travis Jeffery is a software developer who’s been using a database system called FoundationDB for a project at his startup. Earlier this week, he noticed that the software had been pulled from the web. He soon received a terse email confirming that the software had been taken down intentionally, but little else. “We have made the decision to evolve our company mission,” it read. “And as of today, we will no longer offer downloads.”
Hours later, TechCrunch reported that FoundationDB had been acquired by Apple. Neither company has responded to our request for confirmation, and FoundationDB hasn’t updated its Twitter account since Monday. The only public acknowledgement the company has made of any changes came is a notice posted to the company’s support site featuring the same text that Jeffery received by email. He still hasn’t heard anything else from the company.
FoundationDB’s apparent shutdown won’t ruin Jeffery or his company. Other FoundationDB users might not be so lucky, however, if support for the technology really is being tanked. Sure, they can still use the copies of FoundationDB they’ve already downloaded and installed. But there won’t be a company providing support, updating the database to work with newer operating systems, or providing security patches.
FoundationDB’s story isn’t a new one. Instead, it’s yet another a cautionary tale about putting too much faith in unproven companies offering proprietary software that could go away at any time—especially when a behemoth like Apple swoops in to buy it up. Often, such acquisitions are purely to hire new talent or integrate a startup’s technology into a new or existing product. In FoundationDB’s case, it’s unlikely that Apple wants to get into the business of selling enterprise database software.
That leaves companies that depended on that software out of luck. And when startups suffer, so does innovation.
Like other NoSQL databases, FoundationDB offered a way to build databases that spanned hundreds or thousands of different servers, often housed in geographically distant data centers. That’s fine for many applications, such as messaging. It’s not a big deal if the occasional message accidentally gets delivered twice, especially if it’s only apparent for less than a second. But for other applications, such as financial systems, any discrepancy is a huge problem. You just can’t debit a customers bank account twice for the same transaction. FoundationDB promised a way to provide scalability without sacrificing performance — a truly rare combination of features.
It’s not clear why Apple would have acquired the company, but there are several possibilities. It might want to use FoundationDB’s technology to power its own web infrastructure, which ranges from iCloud to the AppStore to its mobile advertising service. Or it could just be acquiring the company in order to have its employees build new infrastructure for Apple to use internally. Or, perhaps, it’s both.
Had FoundationDB been open source, the community could have picked up where the parent company left off.
In the meantime, nothing is certain for FoundationDB’s existing customers. It’s conceivable that it could become part of the company’s developer tool offerings, or be open sourced at a later date. But in all likelihood the project is dead.
We’ve seen a number of similar situations in recent years. For example, cloud storage company Nirvanix which provided storage services for IBM’s cloud service, shut down in 2013, giving customers just two weeks to migrate their data.
Open Source’s Saving Grace
Former FoundationDB users will now have to choose between either continuing to use a piece of software that won’t be supported and won’t receive any security updates, and migrating to a new database. That won’t necessarily be easy since there are so few databases that work like FoundationDB. Had FoundationDB been open source, the community could have picked up where the parent company left off. There are examples of this happening elsewhere.
For example, a company called Couchio (later called CouchOne) was founded in 2009 to provide support for the open source database Apache CouchDB. In 2011, the company merged with Membase, another open source database company. The new company called itself Couchbase, and set to work created a new database that combined elements of both projects. A few months later, Couchbase announced that it would stop contributing to the original CouchDB project altogether.
Had CouchDB been a proprietary product, that would have been the end of it. Developers and companies who used CouchDB to power their software would have no choice but to either use an unsupported piece of software or migrate to the new Couchbase database. But since CouchDB was open source, other developers were able to continue its development.
There’s no guarantee that FoundationDB ever would have had the level of community involvement to make that happen, but by developing its product as a primarily closed-source system, it never even had the chance to build an outside community of developers to maintain it.
Regardless, Apple and FoundationDB could have handled the acquisition with more grace. Even though Jeffery’s company wasn’t using FoundationDB for anything critical, having to replace the system is still a pain. “We’re excited for them, and as users of Apple products, we look forward to seeing how Apple makes use of their technology and talent,” Jeffery says. “That said, we would have appreciated some more notice.”
Jeffery might not be bitter, but any users who were more invested in FoundationDB are probably feeling less forgiving right about now.