When an organization asks me about Gitea, I would like to direct them to a provider where they can rent an instance and just use it, in the same way they can go to https://discourse.org for a forum, or https://nextcloud.com for storage. Instead of waiting for that to happen, Aravinth and myself decided to do something about it, in a way that is in line with our shared values: transparency and Free Software.
After doing some research we found counter examples that showed the pitfalls to avoid. GitLab because its business model heavily relies on selling proprietary licenses. CiviCRM because setting it up is complex and requires training: users can’t figure it out on their own. Gitea images provided by Digital Ocean because they do not include security upgrades. MySQL configured and run by AWS because of the vendor lock-in that makes it impossible to self-host.
We concluded that an online service such as Gitea can be hosted in a sustainable way as long as:
- It is well maintained and upgrades itself
- It can be self-hosted
- The service can automatically be restored from backups when the underlying resources fail
GitHub and GitLab make it look like there is a market around software forges. It is however impossible to figure out if this market exists only because it is based on proprietary software. How many of these customers would pay for a Free Software hosted Gitea instance?
Even if these customers do exist, a new service provider would have to figure out how to convince them to subscribe. The technical development of the service can be done within weeks but building a sustainable business takes much longer. Again, there were examples of what can go wrong, for instance ElasticSearch. After years of work developing a successful online service and a customer base, AWS entered the competition and started to take it away from them.
The sustainability of the Free Software ecosystem is a new and very difficult problem to solve. It is discussed more than it ever was in the wake of security breaches originating from widely used and yet abandoned library or disillusioned Free Software authors self-sabotaging their next release, and everyone has diverging opinions. It falls on each Free Software author to spend time to think about their own projects because there are no handbook or good examples to follow. That is what Aravinth and myself did to find a semblance of clarity and decide how to go about this hosted Gitea service idea.
Sustaining Free Software online services
More mature online services mean less opportunities to sell services
Ideally the software running an online service is rock solid and bugs are so rare that it can run unattended. This is true of https://wordpress.org and it is not uncommon for an instance to run for years while upgrading themselves to get security patches. The cost of maintaining such a service is negligible and hosting companies can offer it for free to their customers. They make their profit by renting the machines on which the service runs.
When the software is not as mature, it is more expensive to run. Bugs need fixing, upgrades require manual intervention, users must be trained to overcome the complexity of the user experience, etc. Well known examples are Discourse or CiviCRM for which companies sell services to overcome these issues.
But when an organization is both the author of the software and the provider of paid services to compensate for its lack of maturity, it creates a conflict of interest. Should they focus their effort on making the software more mature, they would harm a business model that is based on this very lack of maturity. For instance, if the author of a software also sells training courses, they are not motivated to solve user experience issues. If they did, it would lower the need for training courses and reduce their income.
Free Software online services in the wake of the sustainability crisis
Nowadays all Free Software authors struggle to get enough resources to produce a steady stream of releases, even when the project is very popular. This sustainability problem is getting more and more attention as the number of Free Software projects in use world wide keeps growing. Even the simplest online service relies on thousands of Free Software projects, each of which needs work to keep going. Accidents caused by poorly maintained Free Software projects become more frequent.
This Free Software sustainability crisis is barely emerging and very much resembles ecological problems such as climate change. In both cases it is very difficult to figure out how to properly care for the resources that are consumed. After decades of advocacy, it is generally accepted that fossil energy won’t last forever but there still is a long way to go before everyone is convinced. It will also take a long time for the Free Software community to answer this simple question: how to sustain an ever growing library of Free Software?
Luckily, it is relatively simpler to solve that problem for an online service because it has users. They can be reminded that their assistance is needed to keep the project afloat, for instance by a donation. A proposition that would be much more difficult to make for the author of a cryptographic library. Convincing users to pay for an online service has the best chance of success when the author of the software is also the service provider. This is the business model of Discourse and Weblate, but it is relatively fragile because nothing stands in the way of the competition.
A few years ago ElasticSearch successfully developed an online service offering. But when AWS entered the competition and was better at marketing it, ElasticSearch quickly realized they would likely go out of business. They tried to fight back by changing their license, which was the wrong answer to a real problem. Discourse or Weblate are also likely to face competition from hosting companies in the future and they may not survive it.
In the end, the durable source of income for a Free Software online service is to rent the resources (CPU/RAM/network/disk) it needs to run. In other words only hosting companies can make a profit when running such an online service. And for that reason they also need to share part of the profits to ensure the sustainability of the Free Software service their customers need.
Online services vendor lock-in is cured by Free Software
When hosting companies offer online services they also provide upgrades and transparent recovery when the hardware fails. But none of them allow the service to be self-hosted. When their price policy change, or when the term of services ban users from a given country, migrating the service elsewhere it costly and difficult. For instance when AWS runs MySQL for their customers, they allow to download the data but not the software that runs the proprietary AWS interface used to configure and control the server. Another example is GitHub where the content of the git repository can be downloaded but the code that runs GitHub itself is not Free Software.
If a customer cannot run the same software as their service provider, they are locked-in, even if they can download their data. It is a common misconception to think that there is no vendor lock-in as long as it is possible to download the data in an standard format. Migrating the data from one software to another is, more often than not, time consuming and costly to a point that it is effectively a blocker. A GitHub salesperson would argue that it is possible for people to run GitHub Enterprise on their own hardware. But the vendor lock-in is still present via the proprietary license contract. The user experience, maintenance and upgrades are still exclusively controlled by GitHub.
To guarantee their independence, the customers of an online service need to be able to:
- Download their data
- Run the exact same Free Software as their service provider
- Run the exact same Free Software infrastructure as code as their service provider
The requirement regarding Free Software infrastructure as code refers to, for instance, the AWS control panel and all that is behind it when creating a new MySQL service. It includes whatever a competitor would need to run the same online service. An example would be https://enough.community, an infrastructure as code dedicated to creating the services needed by whistleblowers and human rights defenders. It consumes resources rented by hosting providers, assembles disks and machines, setup monitoring and intrusion detection, installs various online services and upgrades them.
The availability of the software that creates the infrastructure is not only useful to the competitors of a service provider. It also benefits a non-profit that wants to provide (for instance) WordPress instances to its members. Without it they would need to create something from scratch using building blocks such as CiviCRM. Even though such building blocks exist, this is a significant undertaking and effectively a blocker.
Federated online services and durability
All self-hosted services are in danger of loosing the data they contain. When a WordPress service is hosted in a home and the machine dies, it must be restored from backups… when there are backups. Hosting companies ensure the durability of the data with their own backup system. It creates a dilemma for people who are looking into self hosting: independence is desirable, but is it worth taking the risk of data loss?
Federated online services do not suffer from this problem, because they can mirror each other. A Gitea instance that is federated with another will mirror copies of software projects found on its peers. Should one instance be destroyed, mirrored projects can be resurrected from the federated instance. Not only is it a practical way to ensure the (rare) failure of an entire datacenter, it also helps with the (more frequent) destruction of self-hosted machines. Contrary to backups that require special attention, the replication involved in federated online service is built in and works continuously. There is no need for an extra backup service that is very rarely used and therefore likely to fail when needed.
Federated services are not yet mainstream and Gitea is one of the rare services that started to implement the concept. In the interim, customers of an online hosting service will need to worry about backups to ensure the durability of their data. But the ultimate solution for them won’t be the emergence of an ideal backup infrastructure, it will be replication (via federated services) that will continuously ensure the durability of their data.
The Gitea project itself, following the footsteps of Discourse or Weblate, could provide a hosting service. Part of its current user base may become customers and there does not seem to be any blocker to make that happen. As with most successful Free Software project, people working on Gitea daily are already very busy and cannot engage in such a long term project. But Aravinth and myself can, if they will have us.
Another path forward would be to wrap Gitea into a bundle that existing hosting companies could easily use to provide such a service to their customers. The biggest hosting companies are unlikely to be interested: if Digital Ocean was to provide upgrades on top of their existing Gitea image, they are more likely to rely on their internal staff to implement that from scratch, as proprietary software integrated into their existing infrastructure. But smaller hosting companies such as https://Octopuce.fr or https://Easter-Eggs.com, who already deploy Gitea instances for their customers, would use it if, for instance, it helped with the upgrades. They would then kindly be reminded to give back a share of their profits in order to sustain the development of the service they deploy.
Finally it would also be possible to follow the example of GitLab in the early days (before it turned to proprietary software) or Codeberg and offer a free shared forge hosting service to build a user base. After a few years, a percentage of the user base would convert to being paid customers or donors to sustain the activity and part of the income would be used to sustain the development of the service.