Update (2018-07-31): Libravatar is not going away

As noted on the official Libravatar blog, I will be shutting the service down on 2018-09-01.

It has been an incredible journey but Libravatar has been more-or-less in maintenance mode for 5 years, so it's somewhat outdated in its technological stack and I no longer have much interest in doing the work that's required every two years when migrating to a new version of Debian/Django. The free software community prides itself on transparency and so while it is a difficult decision to make, it's time to be upfront with the users who depend on the project and admit that the project is not sustainable in its current form.

Many things worked well

The most motivating aspect of running Libravatar has been the steady organic growth within the FOSS community. Both in terms of traffic (in March 2018, we served a total of 5 GB of images and 12 GB of 302 redirects to Gravatar), integration with other sites and projects (Fedora, Debian, Mozilla, Linux kernel, Gitlab, Liberapay and many others), but also in terms of users:

In addition, I wanted to validate that it is possible to run a FOSS service without having to pay for anything out-of-pocket, so that it would be financially sustainable. Hosting and domain registrations have been entirely funded by the community, thanks to the generosity of sponsors and donors. Most of the donations came through Gittip/Gratipay and Liberapay. While Gratipay has now shut down, I encourage you to support Liberapay.

Finally, I made an effort to host Libravatar on FOSS infrastructure. That meant shying away from popular proprietary services in order to make a point that these convenient and well-known services aren't actually needed to run a successful project.

A few things didn't pan out

On the other hand, there were also a few disappointments.

A lot of the libraries and plugins never implemented DNS federation. That was the key part of the protocol that made Libravatar a decentralized service but unfortunately the rest of the protocol was must easier to implement and therefore many clients stopped there.

In addition, it turns out that while the DNS system is essentially a federated caching system for IP addresses, many DNS resolvers aren't doing a good job caching records and that created unnecessary latency for clients that chose to support DNS federation.

The main disappointment was that very few people stepped up to run mirrors. I designed the service so that it could scale easily in the same way that Linux distributions have coped with increasing user bases: "ftp" mirrors. By making the actual serving of images only require Apache and mod_rewrite, I had hoped that anybody running Apache would be able to add an extra vhost to their setup and start serving our static files. A few people did sign up for this over the years, but it mostly didn't work. Right now, there are no third-party mirrors online.

The other aspect that was a little disappointing was the lack of code contributions. There were a handful from friends in the first couple of months, but it's otherwise been a one-man project. I suppose that when a service works well for what people use it for, there are less opportunities for contributions (or less desire for it). The fact dev environment setup was not the easiest could definitely be a contributing factor, but I've only ever had a single person ask about it so it's not clear that this was the limiting factor. Also, while our source code repository was hosted on Github and open for pull requests, we never even received a single drive-by contribution, hinting at the fact that Github is not the magic bullet for community contributions that many people think it is.

Finally, it turns out that it is harder to delegate sysadmin work (you need root, for one thing) which consumes the majority of the time in a mature project. The general administration and maintenance of Libravatar has never moved on beyond its core team of one. I don't have a lot of ideas here, but I do want to join others who have flagged this as an area for "future work" in terms of project sustainability.

Personal goals

While I was originally inspired by Evan Prodromou's vision of a suite of FOSS services to replace the proprietary stack that everybody relies on, starting a free software project is an inherently personal endeavour: the shape of the project will be influenced by the personal goals of the founder.

When I started the project in 2011, I had a few goals:

This project personally taught me a lot of different technologies and allowed me to try out various web development techniques I wanted to explore at the time. That was intentional: I chose my technologies so that even if the project was a complete failure, I would still have gotten something out of it.

A few things I've learned

I learned many things along the way, but here are a few that might be useful to other people starting a new free software project:

  • Speak about your new project at every user group you can. It's important to validate that you can get other people excited about your project. User groups are a great (and cheap) way to kickstart your word of mouth marketing.

  • When speaking about your project, ask simple things of the attendees (e.g. create an account today, join the IRC channel). Often people want to support you but they can't commit to big tasks. Make sure to take advantage of all of the support you can get, especially early on.

  • Having your friends join (or lurk on!) an IRC channel means it's vibrant, instead of empty, and there are people around to field simple questions or tell people to wait until you're around. Nobody wants to be alone in a channel with a stranger.

Thank you

I do want to sincerely thank all of the people who contributed to the project over the years:

  • Jonathan Harker and Brett Wilkins for productive hack sessions in the Catalyst office.
  • Lars Wirzenius, Andy Chilton and Jesse Noller for graciously hosting the service.
  • Christian Weiske, Melissa Draper, Thomas Goirand and Kai Hendry for running mirrors on their servers.
  • Chris Forbes, fr33domlover, Kang-min Liu and strk for writing and maintaining client libraries.
  • The Wellington Perl Mongers for their invaluable feedback on an early prototype.
  • The #equifoss group for their ongoing suppport and numerous ideas.
  • Nigel Babu and Melissa Draper for producing the first (and only) project stikers, as well as Chris Cormack for spreading so effectively.
  • Adolfo Jayme, Alfredo Hernández, Anthony Harrington, Asier Iturralde Sarasola, Besnik, Beto1917, Daniel Neis, Eduardo Battaglia, Fernando P Silveira, Gabriele Castagneti, Heimen Stoffels, Iñaki Arenaza, Jakob Kramer, Jorge Luis Gomez, Kristina Hoeppner, Laura Arjona Reina, Léo POUGHON, Marc Coll Carrillo, Mehmet Keçeci, Milan Horák, Mitsuhiro Yoshida, Oleg Koptev, Rodrigo Díaz, Simone G, Stanislas Michalak, Volkan Gezer, VPablo, Xuacu Saturio, Yuri Chornoivan, yurchor and zapman for making Libravatar speak so many languages.

I'm sure I have forgotten people who have helped over the years. If your name belongs in here and it's not, please email me or leave a comment.