Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What is SageMath's strategy?

Here is SageMath's strategy, or at least what my strategy toward SageMath has been for the last 5 years.

Diagnose the problem

Statement of problem: SageMath is not growing.


Facts: Growth in the number of active users [1] of SageMath has stalled since about 2011 (as defined by Google analytics on From 2008 to 2011, year-on-year growth was about 50%, which isn't great. However, from 2011 to now, year-on-year growth is slightly less than 0%. It was maybe -10% from 2013 to 2014. Incidentally, number of monthly active users of is about 68,652 right now, but the raw number isn't as import as the year-to-year rate of change.

I set an overall mission statement for the Sage project at the outset, which was is to be a viable alternative to Magma, Maple, Mathematica and Matlab. Being a "viable alternative" is something that holds or doesn't for specific people. A useful measure of this mission then is whether or not people use Sage. This is a different metric than trying to argue from "first principles" by making a list of features of each system, comparing benchmarks, etc.

Guiding policies

Statement of policy: focus on undergraduate students in STEM courses (science, tech, engineering, math)


In order for Sage to start growing again, identify groups of people that are not using Sage. Then decide, for each of these groups, who might find value in using Sage, especially if we are able to put work into making it easier for them to benefit from Sage. This is something to re-evaluate periodically. In itself, this is very generic -- it's what any software project that wishes to grow should do. The interesting part is the details.
Some big groups of potential future users of Sage, who use Sage very little now, include
  • employees/engineers in various industries (from defense contractors, to finance, to health care to "data science").
  • researchers in area of mathematics where Sage is currently not popular
  • undergraduate students in STEM courses (science, tech, engineering, math)
I think by far the most promising group is "undergraduate students in STEM courses". In many cases they use no software at all or are unhappy with what they do use. They are extremely cost sensitive. Open source provides a unique advantage in education because it is less expensive than closed source software, and having access to source code is something that instructors consider valuable as part of the learning experience. Also, state of the art performance, which often requires enormous dedicated for-pay work, is frequently not a requirement.


  • (a) Make access to Sage as easy as possible.
  • (b) Encourage the creation of educational resources (books, tutorials, etc.) that make using Sage for particular courses as easy as possible.
  • (c) Implement missing functionality in Sage that is needed in support of undergraduate teaching.


Why don't more undergraduates use Sage? For the most part, students use what they are told to use by their instructors. So why don't instructors chose to use Sage? (a) Sage is not trivial to install (in fact it is incredibly hard to install), (b) There are limited resources (books, tutorials, course materials, etc.) for making using Sage really easy, (c) Sage is missing key functionality needed in support undergraduate teaching.

Regarding (c), in 2008 Sage was utterly useless for most STEM courses. However, over the years things changed for the better, due to the hard work of Rob Beezer, Karl Dieter, Burcin Erocal, and many others. Also, for quite a bit of STEM work, the numerical Python ecosystem (and/or R) provides much of what is needed, and both have evolved enormously in recent years. They are all usable from Sage, and making such use easier should be an extremely high priority. Related -- Bill Hart wrote "I recently sat down with some serious developers and we discussed symbolics in Sage (which I know nothing about). They argued that Sage is not a viable contender in that area, and we discussed some of the possible reasons for that. " The reason is that the symbolic functionality in Sage is motivated by making Sage useful for undergraduate teaching; it has nothing to do with what serious developers in symbolics would care about.

Regarding (b), an NSF (called "UTMOST") helped in this direction... Also, Gregory Bard wrote "Sage for undergraduates", which is exactly the sort of thing we should be very strongly encouraging. This is a book that is published by the AMS and is also freely available. And it squarely addresses exactly this audience. Similarly, the French book that Paul Zimmerman edited is fantastic for France. Let's make an order of magnitude similar resources along these lines! Let's make vastly more tutorials and reference manuals that are "for undergraduates".

Regarding (a), in my opinion the most viable option that fits with current trends in software is a full web application that provides access to Sage. SageMathCloud is what I've been doing in this direction, and it's been growing since 2013 at over 100% year on year, and much is in place so that it could scale up to more users. It still has a huge way to go regarding user friendliness, and it is still losing money every month. But it is a concrete action toward which nontrivial effort has been invested, and it has the potential to solve problem (a) for a large number of potential STEM users. College students very often have extremely good bandwidth coupled with cheap weak laptops, so a web application is the natural solution for them.

Though much has been done to make Sage easier to install on individual computers, it's exactly the sort of problem that money could help solve, but for which we have little money. I'm optimistic that OpenDreamKit will do something in this direction.

[I've made this post motivated by the discussion in this thread.  Also, I used the framework from this book.]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

SageMathCloud's poor user retention rate

Poor retention rate

Many people try SageMathCloud, but only a small percentage stick around.  I definitely don't know why. Recent SageMathCloud rates are below 4%:

Is it performance?

Question: Are the people who try SMC discouraged by performance issues?

I think it's unlikely many users are leaving due to hitting noticeable performance issues.  I think I would know, since there's a huge bold messages all over the site that say "Email in case of problems, do not hesitate to immediately email us. We want to know if anything is broken!"    In the past when there have been performance or availability issues -- which of course do happen sometimes due to bugs or whatever -- I quickly get a lot of emails.  I haven't got anything that mentioned performance recently.  And usage of SMC is at an all time high: in the last day there were 676 projects created and 3500 projects modified -- which is significantly higher than ever before since the site started.  It's also about 2.2x what we had exactly a year ago.    

Is it the user interface?

Question: Is the SMC user interface highly discouraging and difficult to use?

My current best guess is that the main reason for attrition of our users is that 
they do not understand how to actually use SageMathCloud (SMC), and the interface doesn't help at all.   I think a large number of users get massively confused and lost when trying to use SMC.    It's pretty obvious this happens if you just watch what they do...    In order to have a foundation on which to fix that, the plan I came up with in May was to at least fix the frontend implementation so that it would be  much easier to do development with -- by switching from a confusing  mess of jQuery soup, e.g., 2012-style single page app development -- to Facebook's new React.js approach.  This is basically half done and deployed, and I'm going to work very hard for a while to finish it.   Once it's done, it's going to be much easier to improve the UI to  make it more user friendly.

Is it the open source software?

Question: Is open source mathematical software not sufficiently user friendly?

Fixing the UI probably won't help so much with improving the underlying open 
source mathematical software to be friendly though.    This is a massive, deep, and very difficult problem, and might be why growth of Sage stopped in 2011:

SageMath (and maybe Numpy/Scipy/IPython/etc.) are not as user friendly as Mathematica/Matlab.   I think they could be even more user friendly, but it's highly unlikely as long as the developers are mostly working on SageMath in their spare time as part of advanced research projects (which have little to do with user friendliness).  

Analyzing data about mistakes, frustation, and issues people actually have with  real worksheets and notebooks could also help a lot with directing our  effort in improving Sage/Python/Numpy/etc to be more user friendly.

Is it support?

Question: Are users frustrated by lack of interactive support?

Having integrated high-quality support for users inside SMC, in which we help 
them write code, answer questions, etc., could help with retention.  

Why don't you use SageMathCloud?

I've been watching this  stuff closely for over a decade most waking moments, and everybody likes to complain to me.    Why don't you use SageMathCloud?   Tell me:

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.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Simons Foundation and Open Source Software

Jim Simons

Jim Simons is a mathematician who left academia to start a hedge fund that beat the stock market. He contributes back to the mathematical community through the Simons Foundation, which provides an enormous amount of support to mathematicians and physicists, and has many outreach programs.

SageMath is a large software package for mathematics that I started in 2005 with the goal of creating a free open source viable alternative to Magma, Mathematica, Maple, and Matlab. People frequently tell me I should approach the Simons Foundation for funding to support Sage. For example:
Jim Simons, after retiring from Renaissance Technologies with a cool 15 billion, has spent the last 10 years giving grants to people in the pure sciences. He's a true academic at heart [...] Anyways, he's very fond of academics and gives MacArthur-esque grants, especially to people who want to change the way mathematics is taught. Approach his fund. I'm 100% sure he'll give you a grant on the spot.

The National Science Foundation

Last month the website had 45,114 monthly active users. However, as far as I know, there is no NSF funding for Sage in the United States right now, and development is mostly done on a shoestring in spare time. We have recently failed to get several NSF grants for Sage, despite there being Sage-related grants in the past from NSF. I know that funding is random, and I will keep trying. I have two proposals for Sage funding submitted to NSF right now.

Several million dollars per year

I was incredibly excited in 2012 when David Eisenbud invited me to a meeting at the Simons Foundation headquarters in New York City with the following official description of their goals:
The purpose of this round table is to investigate what sorts of support would facilitate the development, deployment and maintenance of open-source software used for fundamental research in mathematics, statistics and theoretical physics. We hope that this group will consider what support is currently available, and whether there are projects that the Simons Foundation could undertake that would add significantly to the usefulness of computational tools for basic research. Modes of support that duplicate or marginally improve on support that is already available through the universities or the federal government will not be of interest to the foundation. Questions of software that is primarily educational in nature may be useful as a comparison, but are not of primary interest.  The scale of foundation support will depend upon what is needed and on the potential scientific benefit, but could be substantial, perhaps up to several million dollars per year.
Current modes of funding for research software in mathematics, statistics and physics differ very significantly. There may be correspondingly great differences in what the foundation might accomplish in these areas. We hope that the round table members will be able to help the foundation understand the current landscape  (what are the needs, what is available, whether it is useful, how it is supported) both in general and across the different disciplines, and will help us think creatively about new possibilities.
I flew across country to this the meeting, where we spent the day discussing ways in which "several million dollars per year" could revolutionize "the development, deployment and maintenance of open-source software used for fundamental research in mathematics...".

In the afternoon Jim Simons arrived, and shook our hands. He then lectured us with some anecdotes, didn't listen to what we had to say, and didn't seem to understand open source software. I was frustrated watching how he treated the other participants, so I didn't say a word to him. I feel bad for failing to express myself.

The Decision

In the backroom during a coffee break, David Eisenbud told me that it had already been decided that they were going to just fund Magma by making it freely available to all academics in North America. WTF? I explained to David that Magma is closed source and that not only does funding Magma not help open source software like Sage, it actively hurts it. A huge motivation for people to contribute to Sage is that they do not have access to Magma (which was very expensive).

I wandered out of that meeting in a daze; things had gone so differently than I had expected. How could a goal to "facilitate the development, deployment and maintenance of open-source software... perhaps up to several million dollars per year" result in a decision that would make things possibly much worse for open source software?

That day I started thinking about creating what would become SageMathCloud. The engineering work needed to make Sage accessible to a wider audience wasn't going to happen without substantial funding (I had put years of my life into this problem but it's really hard, and I couldn't do it by myself). At least I could try to make it so people don't have to install Sage (which is very difficult). I also hoped a commercial entity could provide a more sustainable source of funding for open source mathematics software. Three years later, the net result of me starting SageMathCloud and spending almost every waking moment on it is that I've gone from having many grants to not, and SageMathCloud itself is losing money. But I remain cautiously optimistic and forge on...

We will not fund Sage

Prompted by numerous messages recently from people, I wrote to David Eisenbud this week. He suggested I write to Yuri Schinkel, who is the current director of the Simons Foundation:
Dear William,
Before I joined the foundation, there was a meeting conducted by David Eisenbud to discuss possible projects in this area, including Sage.
After that meeting it was decided that the foundation would support Magma.
Please keep me in the loop regarding developments at Sage, but I regret that we will not fund Sage at this time.
Best regards, Yuri
The Simons Foundation, the NSF, or any other foundation does not owe the Sage project anything. Sage is used by a lot of people for free, who together have their research and teaching supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in NSF grants. Meanwhile the Sage project barely hobbles along. I meet people who have fantastic development or documentations projects for Sage that they can't do because they are far too busy with their fulltime teaching jobs. More funding would have a massive impact. It's only fair that the US mathematical community is at least aware of a missed opportunity.
Funding in Europe for open source math software is much better.

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