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How Nginx Went From Being the Little Engine That Could to Become the Fork of the Day

On Valentine’s day a developer for the popular open-source web server platform Nginx announced a fork of the project to create FreeNginx. Here’s what you need to know about the fork, and what it means to the future of Nginx.

fork in the road.
Source: Pixabay

The return of cold war hostilities between Russia and the west, as well as a big dose of international capitalism, would see to be at least partly behind the recent brouhaha that’s ended up with the popular open-source web serving platform, Nginx, being forked by a Russia-based Nginx developer.

News of the fork came on Valentine’s Day by way of an email on Nginx’s email list from Maxim Dounin, who had been an employee of the project back when it had a presence in Russia (and who remained active as a volunteer developer after the company moved all of it’s operations to Seattle). In his email, Dounin expressed concern over a policy decision made by the project’s American owners and resigned as a volunteer developer.

“Instead, I’m starting an alternative project, which is going to be run by developers, and not corporate entities,” he said. “The goal is to keep Nginx development free from arbitrary corporate actions. Help and contributions are welcome. Hope it will be beneficial for everyone.”

In other words, he was forking the project. The new project is called FreeNginx, and it already has a website (although as Gertrude Stein might observe, as yet there doesn’t seem to be any there there).

So far, it’s difficult to see how anything will come of this fork.

How We Got Here From There

Nginx (pronounced like “engine-X”) was first released in 2004 by the Russia-based developer Igor Syseov, who developed the software as a super lightweight and easy to use alternative to the then dominant Apache web server. Users liked Nginx because in addition the being easy on resources, it also wasn’t a one-trick pony. In addition to web serving, the platform can be used as a reverse proxy, load balancer, mail proxy and/or HTTP cache.

From a licensing viewpoint, both Apache and Nginx are equally attractive to enterprise users, as both are released under permissive licenses (the 2-clause BSD license for Nginx) which allows software to be relicensed as proprietary — meaning that developers can add secret sauces and sell it under traditional proprietary end user license agreements.

The fact that the software’s owner, Nginx, Inc., was based-in Russia had little to no effect on adoption of the software, since the cold war had ceased to exist more than a decade earlier and relations between Russia and the west had been normalized. Besides, a fork of the project into Western hands could quickly alleviate and political roadblocks should they arrive.

That being said, the project didn’t really start to gain traction with big enterprise users until about 2013, when it started working with Netflix which was undergoing crazy scaling at the time. That work was to help the streaming service build a network of CDN servers based on FreeBSD and Nginx, which reportedly led to Netflix being able to quickly increase the speed of each server from 1 Gbps to 10 Gbps, and eventually to 40 Gbps.

Weirdness inside of Russia erupted in 2019, however, nine months after Sysoev sold Nginx, Inc. to Seattle-based F5 for something like $670 million in March, while remaining onboard as an employee.

It turned out later that the company Sysoev was working for when he wrote early versions of the software, the Russian search and media giant Rambler, thought that they owned the copyright to Nginx, perhaps because they were already using the software in production at the time its 2004 official release. This misunderstanding (or whatever it was) led to Sysoev being detained by authorities in Russia over Rambler’s copyright claims on December 13.

Three days later, on December 16, Sberbank, a dominant bank in Russia which at the time owned 46.5% of Rambler, instigated a meeting with Rambler’s board of directors in which it asked Rambler’s management to request Russian law enforcement agencies to cease pursuit of the criminal case against Sysoev and instead enter into talks with Nginx and F5.

About two years later, in January 2022, Sysoev left the employ of Nginx and F5 “to spend more time with his friends and family and to pursue personal projects.”

Fork Me Two Times — Both in Russian

While Nginx is probably not in any danger of becoming the next Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which is probably the most forked open-source project on the planet, it’s not the first time that the web server platform has been forked. Back in 2022, a group of Nginx developers who were also evidently not happy with F5’s way of doing things, got together, formed a company called Web Server LLC, and forked Nginx under the name “Angie”, which they offer as a drop-in replacement for Nginx (along with some claims that Angie offers some features for free that cost money under Nginx).

Those behind Angie read like something of a Who’s Who of the Nginx project, with all on the founders list having ties with Nginx that began before F5’s ownership. This includes Valentin Bartenev (who had been a development team leader at Nginx and senior manager of product development at F5 Networks), Ivan Poluyanov (who had been head of web development and core controller architect at Nginx), and Oleg Mamontov (who had been a system administrator at Rambler).

This means, of course, that like the newly minted FreeNginx, Angie and the company behind it are headquartered in Russia.

FreeNginx’s Future Prospects

With the Angie project appearing to be at least fairly firmly established, it’s difficult to figure what Dounin sees as the way forward for his new fork. With both projects being based in Russia, any advantage that location might bring to the table would appear to be lost to the more established player, while any automatic disadvantages of being based in Putin’s Russia are pretty much evenly divided.

I’m guessing that part of Dounin’s motivation is that he would have been happier if Nginx had remained a Russia-based project — which is completely understandable since most folks don’t like it when the home team picks up and moves to another city. Another guess is that he prefers projects that are grass roots in nature, and not supported by a single capitalist enterprise with a focus on profits, which is also understandable and one of the main reason why most open-source projects end up being run by a vendor-neutral foundation, even when they were started by a single corporate entity.

We’ll see what develops here, but I’m not expecting the FreeNginx fork to gain much traction.

One Comment

  1. Petru Petru February 26, 2024

    The future will tell how and if FreeNginx will develop.

Comments are closed.

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