February 16 2024

Revolution in sight in Open Source? The Birth of FreeNGINX.

A Free, Community Future for NGINX: How Maxim Dounin's Initiative Challenges F5 Corporate Conventions

In the current open source landscape, every now and then news emerges that capture the community's attention and highlight new dynamics and challenges. Recently, an announcement by Maxim Dounin, a central figure in the development of NGINX, has catalyzed general interest, marking a major turning point for the future of this widely used software. This post aims to explore the announcement, its implications for the open source community and the world of Linux hosting and systems engineering, as well as the broader significance for the web performance sector, in which our company operates with dedication.

Context

To fully understand the importance of this announcement, we need to take a step back and consider the context in which NGINX operates. NGINX is open source software for web serving, reverse proxying, caching, load balancing, media streaming, and much more. Since it was released in 2004, it has gained extraordinary popularity, becoming one of the most used web servers and reverse proxies on the Internet, thanks to its efficiency and flexibility. Its ability to handle a large number of simultaneous connections with minimal resource usage has made NGINX a preferred choice for many of the world's busiest websites.

According to large-scale market research and surveys, NGINX holds a significantly larger share in the web server market, closely challenging other leading software such as Apache. Its versatility makes it ideal not only for high-traffic websites but also for a variety of business applications, making it a mainstay for modern web infrastructures.

Popular sites like Netflix, Dropbox, and a wide range of Google's online services rely on NGINX for their daily operations. This is a testament not only to the reliability and performance of NGINX but also to its critical role in the global digital ecosystem. NGINX's abilities to improve website performance and effectively handle high traffic are especially valuable for platforms that require constant availability and fast loading times.

NGINX's popularity is partly due to its open source license, which has encouraged a vibrant and active community of developers and systems engineers to contribute to its ongoing development and improvement. However, with F5's acquisition of NGINX, Inc. in 2019, there have been concerns about how integration into a larger corporate entity might affect the direction and independence of the project. Maxim Dounin's announcement to start freenginx.org is therefore a significant moment, marking a potential turning point in ensuring that NGINX remains a community-driven project, free from corporate restrictions that could limit its innovation and effectiveness.

Maxim Dounin's Announcement

On February 14, 2024, Maxim Dounin made an announcement that shook the NGINX community. In a communication on the NGINX mailing list, Dounin revealed that, following the closure of F5's Moscow office in 2022 and his subsequent exit from the company, he had continued to work on the development of NGINX on a volunteer basis. However, recent decisions by F5's new non-technical management have called into question the autonomy and community orientation of the NGINX project, prompting Dounin to distance himself from the development of NGINX under F5's umbrella.

Find the original post at: https://mailman.nginx.org/pipermail/nginx-devel/2024-February/K5IC6VYO2PB7N4HRP2FUQIBIBCGP4WAU.html

It is worth remembering that the closure of the Moscow offices was the natural response by US F5 to the tensions of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict which also directly involved the USA.

F5 Networks Russia

We talked about it in this article: War and Russia: NGINX suspends all activities in Russia and former employees offer themselves to a more powerful Fork.

In response, Dounin announced the creation of a new project, freenginx.org, with the goal of keeping NGINX development free from arbitrary corporate influence and instead driven by the developer community.

Announcing FreeNGINX.org

Hello!

As you probably know, F5 closed the Moscow office in 2022, and I have not worked for F5 since then. However, we reached an agreement that I would continue my role in nginx development as a volunteer. And for almost two years I've been working on improving nginx and making it better for everyone, for free.

Unfortunately, recently some new non-technical executives at F5 have decided that they know better than others how to manage open source projects. In particular, they decided to interfere with the security policy that nginx has been using for years, ignoring both the policy itself and the position of the developers.

This is understandable: they own the project and can do anything with it, including taking actions motivated by marketing considerations, ignoring the position of the developers and the community. However, this contradicts our agreement. And most importantly, I am no longer able to control what changes are made to nginx within F5, and I no longer see nginx as a free, open source project developed and maintained for the public good.

Therefore, starting today, I will no longer participate in the development of nginx as managed by F5. Instead, I'm starting an alternative project, which will be managed by developers and not corporate entities:

http://freenginx.org/

The goal is to keep nginx development free from arbitrary corporate actions. Help and contributions are welcome. I hope it will be beneficial for everyone.

—Maxim Dounin http://freenginx.org/

The Previous Fork, OpenResty and ANGIE

The history of NGINX is filled with significant moments where the community and developers took bold steps to maintain the spirit of innovation and openness that characterizes the project. This is not the first time that NGINX inspires forks that aim to expand or diversify its functionality by addressing specific community needs. Among these, OpenResty and ANGIE represent two emblematic examples of how the NGINX foundation can be adapted and improved for specialized purposes.

OpenResty Logo

OpenResty, born from the intuition of Yichun Zhang (also known as “agentzh”), is a shining example of a successful fork. OpenResty integrates the NGINX core with a number of third-party modules, primarily geared towards improving NGINX's ability to handle dynamic and complex web applications. Using the Lua scripting language, OpenResty extends the functionality of NGINX, allowing developers to write business logic directly in the web server, significantly improving flexibility and performance. This project has gained wide popularity, offering a robust platform for developing high-performance web applications.

ANGIE, on the other hand, is a lesser-known but significant fork in its intent to address specific security and configurability needs. While it hasn't achieved the notoriety of OpenResty, ANGIE illustrates the importance of the open source community recognizing and closing gaps in NGINX, especially in areas that require special attention such as improved security and custom features.

It also derives from the community of former Russian employees fired from F5 a few months after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and strong international political tensions

These forks demonstrate the vitality and resilience of the NGINX community, which does not hesitate to take the fate of the software into its own hands when circumstances require it. Both OpenResty and ANGIE are testaments to the innovative ability of developers to respond to emerging needs, driving the evolution of software in directions that reflect the interests and priorities of the community. The history of these projects highlights the importance of ongoing dialogue between developers and users and represents a significant precedent for initiatives such as freenginx.org, which continues this tradition of independent, community-driven innovation.

The Fork Challenge and the Search for Effective Innovation

In the context of the evolution of NGINX and its numerous forks, the saying “When there are too many roosters crowing it never breaks” seems to find a particular resonance. The proliferation of forks such as OpenResty, ANGIE, and now freenginx.org, while being testimony to the liveliness and innovative capacity of the open source community, carries with it the risk of fragmenting the collective effort and creating "duplications" that do not necessarily bring improvements tangible to the original software. This situation can result in a dispersion of energy and resources, slowing down the adoption of truly significant innovations.

An emblematic example of this problem is the lack of support for Early Hints in all versions of NGINX, both free and commercial ones licensed by F5, as well as in the various forks. Early Hints could represent a turning point in web performance, especially in light of the growing demands for speed and efficiency imposed by search engines like Google, which penalize slow websites, and considering the abandonment of Preload. The absence of this feature highlights how, despite the multiplicity of versions and forks, there are still areas in which NGINX could evolve significantly to better respond to the current needs of the web.

In this scenario, it would have been desirable to see greater collaboration between the various entities that revolve around NGINX. A strategic alliance that aims to integrate advanced technologies, such as the TAOBAO Engine and support for Tongsuo Ex BabaSSL, in addition to the implementation of Early Hints and optimizations aimed at speed, could result in a qualitative leap for NGINX. Such a cooperative approach, also supported by targeted economic investments, would have the potential to create software equipped with cutting-edge features, capable of effectively responding to the performance, security and scalability needs of modern websites.

The lesson from the current situation is that while independent innovation and diversification can spur progress, there is also a pressing need for synergy and coordination between developers and the open source community. Only through constructive dialogue and joint action is it possible to overcome existing limitations and push NGINX towards new horizons of excellence, while maintaining the spirit of openness and collaboration that has defined its history.

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