Thursday, September 10, 2015

Funding Open Source Mathematical Software in the United States

I do not know how to get funding for open source mathematical software in the United States. However, I'm trying.

Why: Because Sage is Hobbling Along

Despite what we might think in our Sage-developer bubble, Sage is hobbling along, and without an infusion of financial support very soon, I think the project is going to fail in the next few years. I have access to Google analytics data for since 2007, and there has been no growth  in active users of the website since 2011:

Something that is Missing

The worse part of all for me, after ten years, is seeing things like this email today from John Palmieri, where he talks about writing slow but interesting algebraic topology code, and needing help from somebody who knows Cython to actually make his code fast.

I know from my three visits to the Magma group in Sydney that such assistance is precisely what having real financial support can provide. Such money makes it possible to have fulltime people who know the tools and how to optimize them well, and they work on this sort of speedup and integration -- this "devil is in the details" work -- for each major contribution (they are sort of like a highly skilled version of a journal copy editor and referee all in one). Doing this makes a massive difference, but also costs on the order of $1 million / year to have any real impact. 1 million is probably the Magma budget to support around 10 people and periodic visitors, and of course like 1% of the budget of Matlab/Mathematica. Magma has this support partly because Magma is closed source, and maintains tight control on who may use it.

Searching for a Funding Model

Sage is open source and freely available to all, so it is of potential huge value to the community by being owned by everybody and changeable. However, those who fund Magma (either directly or indirectly) haven't funded Sage at the same level for some reason. I can't make Sage closed source and copy that very successful funding model. I've tried everything I can think of given the time and resources I have, and the only model left that seems able to support open source is having a company that does something else well and makes money, then using some of the profit to fund open source (Intel is the biggest contributor to Linux).

SageMath, Inc.

Since I failed to find any companies that passionately care about Sage like Intel/Google/RedHat/etc. care about Linux, I started one. I've been working on SageMathCloud extremely hard for over 3 years now, with the hopes that at least it could be a way to fund Sage development.