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Episode 91 · Jul 25, 2023 · Talk

Peter Zaitsev on The Evolution and Challenges of The Open Source Space

Featuring Peter Zaitsev, Founder at Percona
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Among the deeds of software development, the open source space emerges as a powerful force, enabling collaboration, innovation, and democratization. However, as the popularity of open source grew, so did the challenge of distinguishing between truly open-source products and those that adopt its terminology for ulterior motives. In this episode, we delve into the experiences and insights of Peter Zaitsev, an advocate for the open-source community, as he sheds light on the complex terrain of open source, the evolving software development landscape, and the implications for developers and businesses alike.

Edited transcription

As an entrepreneur, Peter Zaitsev has been the founder, investor, and advisor of many open-source projects and companies. Most prominently, he bootstrapped open-source database software and support company Percona.

Having started in the database consulting niche, Percona’s goal is to assist open-source-based businesses with running open-source databases. For this purpose, Percona has developed different open-source tools to provide additional capabilities for  MySQL, MongoDB, and PostgreSQL databases. Additionally, the company offers managed services for companies looking to outsource the management of their databases.

Evolution of database services

As Peter recalls, when Percona started business in the mid-2000s, there were no database cloud providers, meaning that “if you needed a database, you had to set it up yourself.” As such, even small businesses were among Percona’s customers. In turn, nowadays, small businesses can rely on cloud solutions for reliable and accessible databases. 

Consequently, Percona has moved to a different business model. While cloud vendors are suitable for small and medium businesses, fulfilling custom requirements for large companies is a different story. As Peter explains, small companies are more price-conscious than large companies. Yet, cloud vendors like Amazon RDS base their revenue on scaling; as they can charge the client when the system needs more capacity, they favor scaling when determining how databases deal with their loads. In turn, custom databases can be designed to favor load efficiency instead of scaling for the sake of it.

Also, even when companies rely on cloud providers, both parties share responsibilities for performance and security and must follow best practices to ensure that databases function optimally. If the company lacks in-house expertise for this role or requires mediation with the cloud vendor, seeking assistance from an external expert becomes necessary. In this regard, Aside from offering managed services, Percona assists companies to navigate the complexities of database management and helps them reach extreme ownership and retain control over their database systems.

Doing business in the open-source space

As part of Peter’s drive toward helping the open-source community, he also advises other founders on how to succeed in doing business as entrepreneurs. From his experience during his early days as an engineer, he can relate to developers, especially in the open-source space, who believe the quality of their product will be enough by itself for it to succeed. However, while Peter would still prefer living in a world “where the best products always win”, his views have changed after transitioning to the industry’s business side and learning what works for growing a business. As such, he encourages developers to acquire business skills and value how they can make their products succeed. 

Likewise, this doesn’t mean that highly technical individuals may find more success in the business-to-business (B2B) sector rather than the business-to-consumer (B2C) sector. In B2B sales, particularly in enterprise sales, there is a lot of paperwork to deal with. Contracts often have specific clauses, negotiations are required, and there is a focus on addressing compliance and security concerns, especially in larger enterprises.

In all, Peter also acknowledges that there is a mix of B2B sales approaches. He gives an example of Atlassian, a company that started with a product-based sales approach targeting individual engineers and gradually expanded its sales team. Peter suggests that this path, where technologists focus on understanding marketing platforms and setting up email sequences, might be more appealing and easier for them compared to navigating complex purchasing and compliance processes in large enterprises.

Open-source vs open-sourceish

Peter recalls that since the beginning, open source had a special aura in the eyes of those who saw it as a way to change the world and democratize digital technology. However, as open source accumulated success and became a valuable business path, it emerged the issue of learning to tell apart what products in this space follow its idealist philosophy. The issue, says Peter, is that, due to its anti-authoritarian nature, “you can call anything open source” since there’s no such thing as a trademark for open-source software that distinguishes non-profit companies.

As part of this issue, Peter points out the increasing trend of playing with words and misleading language in the software industry, where companies often use specific terminology to create certain impressions and appeal to different audiences. For example, Peter mentions the concept of property software in the venture finance space. Companies might claim to have proprietary software to build a competitive advantage and protect their intellectual property (IP). However, at the same time, they may try to convince their community and customers that their software is “kind of open source” or “open source compatible” to maintain a positive perception, which Peter judges as misleading to the community.

On the other hand, bringing attention to the changing landscape of software development, Peter mentions that in the past, software engineers typically had a deep understanding of technology and often possessed formal degrees in computer science or math. However, with the increasing demand for software engineers, the rise of more straightforward tools like JavaScript and no-code or low-code frameworks, and the popularity of short bootcamps or training programs, many developers now enter the industry lacking a deep understanding of concepts like open-source licenses, dependencies, and software distribution. Peter suggests that lacking deep knowledge makes developers susceptible to being tricked or misled by “open source compatible” claims without understanding the potential drawbacks or implications.

In like manner, new developers might ignore the historical position of companies toward open source. In the case of Microsoft, which is now apparently pro open source, Peter judges it is looking to encourage people not to adopt open source but their own “open-source-ish Microsoft world garden.” As Peter points out, despite “we often use the same words to call them,” larger companies can hire engineers, “buy a lot of influence” and “sponsor a lot of stuff as long as you can play their tune,” something out of reach for “non-commercial open source” companies.

At the same time, while in the past many small software vendors entered the SaaS (Software as a Service) market, now the bigger actors are monopolizing the industry. Peter notes that there is a significant regional variation in approaches within the software industry. In the United States, he observes a tendency to embrace cloud services with little hesitation, being high engineer salaries and the trust associated with US-based companies at the cause. However, Peter sees a more conservative approach in Europe, with concerns about trusting American cloud providers completely, including worries about potential access to sensitive data and even the possibility of a “kill switch” being used.

Additionally, Peter sees a recent trend in the US where there has been a strong emphasis on venture capital and a desire for quick wealth accumulation. From this perspective, startups are encouraged to load up on money and pursue rapid growth. However, he believes this business model leads to a divergence from open source commitments because venture capital firms prioritize growth above all else, as the evaluation of a venture capital portfolio is primarily based on financial returns rather than positively impacting the world. Once again, Peter suggests that this focus on quick wealth creation may be less prevalent in Europe and some other countries.

The bottom line

Aside from his work at Percona, Peter is involved in various ventures and projects, including consulting for tech startups through his company Renegade Underdogs. Open-source projects he is involved in include FerretDB, a fully open-source alternative to MongoDB, and Altinity, a company focused on building solutions for open-source analytics. 

Visit Peter’s website to learn more about his work, listen to his talks, and read his latest blog posts. You can find Peter on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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Meet the host

Darko Fabijan

Darko, co-founder of Semaphore, enjoys breaking new ground and exploring tools and ideas that improve developer lives. He enjoys finding the best technical solutions with his engineering team at Semaphore. In his spare time, you’ll find him cooking, hiking and gardening indoors.