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NGINX Acquired by F5 – What Does it Mean for Web Hosts?

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Recently, it was announced that NGINX has been acquired by F5. NGINX, the popular web server that has a loyal user base, is now owned by F5, a company that focuses more on the NetOps market.

For the web hosting world, what effect will this development have? Are there going to be any imminent changes to the way web hosting providers have been using NGINX? In general, takeovers or acquisitions in the web hosting industry have become synonymous with a downfall of the product or service. This is mostly visible in case of EIG acquisitions of reputed web hosting providers.

So, will NGINX too go the same route? Or can it be different this time, given that F5 Networks is definitely not EIG and has very little reason to hamper the performance or effectiveness of NGINX anyway?

This article shall attempt to assess the impact that this recent development might have on the web hosting world.

NGINX Joins F5 Networks

For the uninitiated, NGINX is a modestly popular web server that can be used as a reverse proxy, load balancer and even HTTP cache mechanism. Naturally, owing to its versatile usage, NGINX has gained good reception from the community and has always enjoyed a loyal user base.

In fact, for the most part, many specialized or managed web hosting providers tend to rely on NGINX for the web server solution part. Of course, LiteSpeed has long evolved into a de facto standard in the world of shared hosting, and plain Apache hosts are also contemplating shifting to LiteSpeed, NGINX has also had its own share of regular clientele. When it comes to large dedicated servers or something like a scalable web app hosting platform, NGINX has often been a proven and reputed choice.

As such, when news broke out of NGINX being acquired by F5, the first reaction that many web hosting providers and server admins was of concern. Taking nothing away from F5 Networks, NGINX has been the staple of many admins’ web server management forte. Any drastic change in terms of NGINX offerings or code base can really affect the way things are currently being handled.

With that said, what exactly is the fear all about?

The Importance of Open Source

NGINX comes with a 2-clause BSD License. This means it is an open source product. Obviously, in the world of server management, open source software has long been popular owing to its scalability, ease of adaptiveness, and more. NGINX has been loved and cherished by its users partly because its open source license allows developers to build better server architecture atop NGINX, and leverage the caching and proxy solutions that NGINX has to offer.

This is why it is not uncommon to see some of the leading managed WordPress hosting providers starting off with NGINX as the web server of choice, and then building their own server-side caching and optimization mechanism as they go along, in order to boost the performance of WordPress and WooCommerce sites, enhance the speed of performance and even reduce database fragmentation.

Should F5 Networks ever decide to make NGINX entirely proprietary and shut down the open source component, it can be a major blow to such user of NGINX. While it can be argued that LiteSpeed and many other server-side technology has long been proprietary, NGINX is a different breed that has thrived with the help of its open source license.

Such fears were addressed in the release announcement though, wherein the parties went out of the way to make things clear:

And make no mistake about it: F5 is committed to keeping the NGINX brand and open source technology alive. Without this commitment, the deal wouldn’t have happened for either side.

However, the real effect that this acquisition may have on the 2-clause BSD License that NGINX currently comes with is yet to be seen.

The Aftermath

F5 have so far been very prompt in pointing out that NGINX, both as a brand and as a model of open source software, will continue to thrive. However, the real impact can only be seen with time.

It is noteworthy to point out that F5, as a company, is quite heavily influenced by institutional stakeholders (pretty much like EIG) (see investors’ info here). Naturally, there is very little reason to presume that F5 will continue to grant absolute autonomy to NGINX in the longer run. More often than not, market considerations and investors’ interests do come into play, and this is when profit maximisation drives tend to happen.

F5 Networks have, so far, been heavily focused on NetOps. NGINX acquisition has finally given the parent company an entry into the DevOps market. While this can be a good sign for investors, it can also imply that small- to medium-scale developers, server admins, and web hosting providers that have relied on NGINX technology to provide better-optimized solutions to their clientele can find themselves being left out in the fray. NGINX may no longer be that actively geared towards suiting such needs.

To quote TechCrunch:

Historically, open-source purists have typically viewed the involvement of for-profit entities as a fatal blow to open source platforms, based on the general assumption that financial and shareholder incentives will lead to proprietary licensing or other challenges.

Conclusion

As of now, F5 Networks have explicitly stated that there are no plans to shelf the open source license and steer towards something proprietary for NGINX. Concerns about the investors’ profits and financial motives aside, NGINX has so far been an exemplar of the commercial viability of open source. But with full corporate ownership changing hands, whether or not the open source nature of the web server will remain intact remains to be seen.

Perchance NGINX were to go downhill, be it due to lack of regular development and/or elimination of the open source license, web hosting providers and server admins that rely on NGINX as of now will most certainly have to start looking for alternatives. There are already minor rumors in the community about existing developers forking NGINX should the BSD License ever be changed.

For now, if you are a web host or developer running servers on NGINX, it is advisable to keep an eye out for other alternatives, and be updated about developments as and when they happen. It generally takes anywhere between six to twelve months for the actual impact of an acquisition to be seen. Thus, whether F5 acquiring NGINX will take the latter downhill (as is the case with almost every EIG acquisition) or leave it untouched (for instance, GoDaddy’s acquisition of Media Temple) will be evident after a few months.

Have you used or are you using NGINX on your servers? If yes, what do you think of this recent acquisition? Share your views in the comments below!

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