Bearing the Costs for Free Software Projects

Posted 2 Apr 2003 at 18:05 UTC by hacker Share This

I host quite a number of Free Software projects on several machines, including cvs, web, and mailing lists. I just rolled some statistics, and we're pushing about 10gb/day, consistantly. Being unemployed for as long as we all have been, paying for this out of pocket is beginning to strain the savings. How do others handle offsetting the bandwidth costs?

Today's statistics show that we've pushed roughly 630gb out in the last two months across all downloads and servers collectively. That's quite a significant chunk of bytes. I'm currently hosting about a dozen mailing lists, CVS repositories, online bug-tracking, and web space across these projects.

I briefly (for the duration of 1 week) implemented a banner program that had site-specific banner ads in rotation on the site (i.e. Palm-specific banner ads on the Palm sites, etc.). We're getting roughly 30k uniques average/day across all sites. In 5 days of having the banners up, we had a 3% clickthrough rate, and not a single penny earned. Apparently the vendor I was using (LinkShare) is a scam, and doesn't pay out, so I dumped it, and aborted my membership with them.

We have "Donate" buttons on some of the sites, but they are mostly skipped over by the users. If even 1% of the users actually donated, it would help considerably towards server, power, and bandwidth costs.

One trend I've noticed as more and more Open Source/Free Software projects flow into the mainstream public, is that the general public assumes that if they can download it for free, everything associated with that project must be free, including providing hosting, updates, mailing lists, and documentation. They don't seem to realize that time costs money. Power costs money. Bandwidth costs money. Servers cost money. Backup media costs money. If anything, Free Software is anything but "free" in terms of cost, because we (the developers) bear the burdon of costs, so the users can have something useful to use, for "Free".

How do other projects deal with offsetting the costs of bandwidth and hosting for their sites?

I'm going to be pushing some products for some of the sites soon; the standard polo-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, and keychain fobs, but I'd like to use that as a last resort (mostly because it comes out of my pocket first, before I see any return on it). I'm aware of Cafe Press and their services, which may be used, but I don't have any heuristics on their quality.

Any insight from others?

Who is your host? What *are* your costs?, posted 2 Apr 2003 at 18:22 UTC by davidu » (Journeyer)

First of all, you need to figure out exactly what your costs are. Not counting the time you spend maintaining this stuff, the costs should be easy to figure out.

You have to let your users know the costs. At the California Community Colocation Project we let our users know what our costs are every month and that they have to donate if they want us to continue to provide them bandwidth and rackspace. How they contribute their share of the pie is up to them, some pay out of pocket, some appeal to their users.

Find a better host, or cut the fat. You can always try to hook up with a cheaper colo provider or try to trim some of the highbandwidth groups. If a group is popular and highly trafficted, they can probably survive on their own.

Take a look at our colo and see if we could be of any help. Without real numbers I can't tell you how much of an impact you would have on our colo. 10gig's a day is not all that much though.


Feedback is essential, posted 2 Apr 2003 at 19:39 UTC by garym » (Master)

I'll echo Davidu, you have to make it known to people just what your costs are and how far you are from meeting them. Some might be able to help out financially, some might help out with donations of goods (which you could sell or auction) or just ideas.

The case in point I'd look at closely is where they ran into the cost wall a couple of times, and each time just laid it out on the table, told us his costs, and kept tell us -- it's like when they put that thermometer up on public fundraising projects, the red line at the top is the target, the red bar dwarfed by it is the current state. When people see that, the sense of urgency is boosted.

Most people won't move until there's a sense of urgency.

Another alternative: Have you thought of Sourceforge? No, it's not perfect and it's not being your own server, but which is more important, the task or the administration of the task?

MarketBanker, posted 2 Apr 2003 at 19:42 UTC by garym » (Master)

Oh, and check out -- its the self-serve text-ad server run by Phil "fuckedcompany" Kaplan.

Not MarketBanker!, posted 3 Apr 2003 at 01:05 UTC by Fyodor » (Master)

I would certainly avoid Marketbanker at all costs. Take a look at the current text ads on FC:
"Stocks down? Our S&P system made 3000% in 2 years"
"Try Stamina-Rx Free - These pills unleash your Inner PornStar!"
"Rock Hard in Minutes - Get It Up in 15min with Viagra Kwiktabs"

Do you really want that sort of crap on your web sites? I wouldn't. The reason Marketbanker ads sound like typical Spam scams is that no reputable marketer would use this service. Why would they pay to be associated with this sleazeball? Look at Phil's main business model: He encourages company employees to send him confidential memos, which he then SELLS on or posts online for public humiliation value.

Before you do business with him, also note that fate his previous ventures such as PrivateLabelPorn and Yahotties. They were aborted due to lawsuits and/or general lack of interest.

I do think syndicated text ads is a good business (note Google's recent entry into this market, as seen at the top of OSDN sites like slashdot). I just recommend avoiding this particular venture. And don't bother with Google either, unless you can meet their current minimum of 20MM page views/month.

If you want my advice: consider selling ads directly. At Insecure.Org, I show at most one banner oer page and have an unobtrusive "Advertising" link on the left-menu. It certainly isn't making me rich, but it DOES currently meet the goal of paying my colocation expenses. And the ads are under my control and thus fit my standards (must be security related, no fake widgets such as error messages/mouse pointers, no "hit the monkey" or "if this is blinking you win" crap, no Flash ads, etc.)

Concerned about your network security? Try the free Nmap Security Scanner

Fair process, feedback are key, posted 3 Apr 2003 at 01:34 UTC by Sunir » (Journeyer)

Fair process is key to any volunteer organization. You should begin by fairly representing the amount of money you need to maintain the site, with a good account of why you need that much money. You said it; they don't appreciate how much it costs. You should then ask your userbase for suggestions on how to solve the problem. The number one reason any plan fails is not everybody felt consulted, so they torpedo it. Plus, they might have a good idea. Once you make your decision, make it clear why you made that decision. Don't make people guess, because they will guess wrong in private and flame you in public.

Quantify wherever you can. It's hard to argue with math. For instance, if you go for donations, you should put on every page a progress bar demonstrating how close you are to achieving the month's required donations. You may also want to calculate how much each project costs (say by bandwidth, processor usage) and track how much each project generates in donations. If at the end of the month you cannot cover your costs, cut the projects with the worst cost/revenue ratios. Be merciless in cutting deadweight, but don't be brutal. Give people some grace time to move the project off your server, say 30 days.

Don't feel bad about this. Charity is business too, just with a higher purpose. The money has to come from somewhere. If a project cannot support itself, then it probably isn't valuable. In your case, focus on your project: hosting. Don't get sidetracked worrying about the other projects. They'll take care of themselves if they have to. Though, do try to band together. It's more cost effective to host at a large scale, and projects can help each other raise funding.

Good luck.

Give Phil some credit ..., posted 3 Apr 2003 at 04:29 UTC by garym » (Master)

If you have specific experience with Marketbanker, say so, but just because Phil doesn't mind the porn ads on his site is no criteria to judge the whole service.

I've corresponded with Pud and subscribed to his various services for a long time. Don't believe his facade, he's a competent person and he's never put anything questionable on any of my sites -- it's an option, and you can turn it off (don't judge from his website, it is after all, called 'fuckedcompany' not 'managerially-challenged-company' :)

as for Yahotties, if you saw the site, you'd know better than to post those comments; Yahoo were fools to sue him over that, and, of course, Yahoo has proven themselves corporate-lawyer-blinded fools many times since. yahotties didn't even have paid advertising on it, it was just, as Pud said, "positive stories about beautiful women" and offered as a free public service as an antidote to all the horrific post 9-11 news. The worst you could say about it was that it was gender-biased, but then, what blog isn't?

Sorry, but he's just too sleazy for me, posted 3 Apr 2003 at 06:17 UTC by Fyodor » (Master)

> If you have specific experience with Marketbanker, say so

My specific experience is visiting FC, the showcase site for Marketbanker, and finding many of the ads (IMHO) disreputable.

> just because Phil doesn't mind the porn ads on his site

Porn is the least of my concerns. Peddling blatant stock frauds and questionable medications are much more disturbing to me. If you don't believe the stock deal is a scam, note the 3000% return claims on the front page and the statement that it will work "unless the sky falls". Even if you have no ethical concerns with this, I would be worried about liability if I hosted scam ads on my site and someone lost a lot of money.

Face it: Pud will do anything for a buck. On the front page of FC he is currently selling "Lycos: 400+ salary list". I'm certainly not going to trust him with my personal information, nor will I ever do business with him.

> as for Yahotties, if you saw the site, you'd know better than to
> post those comments

I did see the site. While it is a cute concept, he was blatantly violating the copyrights and trademarks of Yahoo and Associated Press. It is no wonder they both came after him immediately and had the site shut down within weeks. If we expect people to respect our copyright licenses (such as the GPL), shouldn't we respect those of other companies like the AP?

I'm not trying to force my views on your or anyone else. The poster runs open source web sites and asked for opinions on advertising. I am only stating my views as a fellow open source hacker who has experience selling advertisements on my sites. If you consider Phil's activities ethical, or if you consider money more important than ethics, go ahead and patronize his sites and services.

Concerned about your network security? Try the free Nmap Security Scanner, posted 3 Apr 2003 at 10:37 UTC by ask » (Master)

The summary: Try finding a company or three using the technology you host and ask if they can sponsor a server and/or some bandwidth. It worked for me.

I host a big part of the infrastructure. When I started doing it in 1999, the place I then did work were nice enough and let me have a server, a few U's in a rack and some bandwidth. Actually, they are still hosting a server for us!

When I moved on I told in the interview that I'd need some servers and some bandwidth and they are generously providing it and helping us get hooked up with other vendors for some of the things we need.

Once in a while I have some expenses, but it's nothing compared to the time I put into it anyway.

We also have the perl foundation which hopefully could pick up some of the cost if needed at some point.

- ask

cost explanation = good, posted 3 Apr 2003 at 15:13 UTC by madhatter » (Journeyer)

Well you've heard from the admins that have been in your position, so time to hear from a free software end-user. If the costs are laid out on the table and explained, I have NO problem donating either monetary help or parts/labor to free software.... I just like to know that my donations aren't going towards some admin's crack habit or his girlfriend. And garym was dead right... if I don't realize the sense of urgency I'm usually not concerned, because I don't think there's a problem. Once I realize my free service is in danger, I do what I can. Good luck.

Ask, posted 3 Apr 2003 at 19:31 UTC by Waldo » (Journeyer)

If you ask, you might be pleasantly surprised. I mentioned on my website (a thriving 21,000 person community) that we were going to have to cut back on a non-essential service in order to save bandwidth costs. I had $1,300 donated by the next day. Wow. I have found, ever since, that if I ask for money, and spell out exactly why, people will provide. Whether or not this is sustainable, or if it scales very well, I cannot say.

If there comes a time when this ceases to work, I think I'll cap usage daily. After X GB has been transferred, all traffic gets redirected to a 1k HTML page that says "Traffic limit hit for the day. Click here to donate." If I wanted to get really fancy, I could even allow people to use it meter-style -- you want the site up longer today, you donate $1 and see how much time that gets everyone. Harsh, but the alternative is to end up either out of money or in debt, and then your site just ceases to exist.

Money or rewards?, posted 3 Apr 2003 at 19:42 UTC by Stevey » (Master)

 I think that others have hit the nail upon the head already when they say that people would be more likely to donate if they realised what was necessary to keept the site running.

 Personally I was once in a similar situation, but then I moved most of my code over to sourceforge and have been fairly happy ever since.

 I thought about asking for donations but in the end decided that I didn't want to appear greedy, and I found it hard to ask for donations in such a way as to convey a sense of urgency - but without making people feel bad if they couldn't donate.

 Nowadays I tend to use an Amazon wishlist. That way people can see what the money is going towards, and I just mentally rejiggle the cost of hardware against the cost of something that I'd like, etc.

 Another benefit is that some gifts fit work nicely - I recently recieved the book 'Programming Jabber' in exchange for writing a jabber extension for a particular company. That was nice as it was directly related to the work I was doing.

 I guess the downside is that the minimum "donation" amount is much smaller than some people would be capable of giving, but without micropayments we're all in that boat anyway.

"Free", posted 4 Apr 2003 at 07:29 UTC by realblades » (Journeyer)

This article is badly confusing the different meanings of "free", even in the same sentence. Sadly, for english (and maybe some other languages), it is easy to lead people to thinking that something comes for no price if talking about Free Software and not pointing out what you mean by it.

Nothing's free. At least you can always put a price tag on the time spent and you'll need to spend time even on comprehending the existence and meaning of a new thing even if you don't acquire it.

The article is badly abusing this point. Apart from that, it's very true.

Or an online prompt, posted 4 Apr 2003 at 10:44 UTC by salmoni » (Master)

Not sure if anyone has mentioned this, but have you thought about putting something like a banner on each projects home page stating how much your services are costing for the last month (or whatever time period) and the amount you have received.

I'm sure if people realise that you are forking out of your own pocket and can also see that you have a shortfall in cash, they might possibly be more likely to contribute.

Offer Commercial Licenses, posted 7 Apr 2003 at 06:26 UTC by Lehrig » (Apprentice)

Our project is distributed under GPL with 1 exception.
If a user wants his own source to stay closed source, he has to order a commercial license. Otherwise he will have to publish his own sourcecode under GPL.
By doing this we got software licenses, hardware and money. It is not really much what we get, but it allows our work to go on.

The GNU-Darwin way, posted 17 Apr 2003 at 23:13 UTC by proclus » (Master)

In this message I discuss our various means of off-setting the cost of maintaining the Distribution. GNU-Darwin proceeds have provided for nearly all of our recent hardware upgrades, such as a new computer, a network switch, and a KVM. These proceeds are not yet sufficient to provide the internet connection, but this may change in time as users are added and we improve our offerings.

Admittedly, it may be easier for a distribution-level project to make money than some others, but hopefully some of you will get some ideas from this.


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