NTGR, open-source the ReadyNAS firmware b4 it's 2l8, dammit

For more than 15 years I’ve been providing updates, fixes and last but not least add-ons (apps) for the various incarnations of NTGR’s ReadyNAS line of NAS products. In the beginning this was fueled by personal interest in combination with a distinct feeling that a NAS could be a lot more than just a dumb storage device. Support was great and there was a superb community of great people. We had a lot of fun and made a lot of progress along with a steady stream of new apps for those users that didn’t want to or simply couldn’t deep-dive into the guts of the systems.

Greed, greed, greed Money, money, money

Then came along the iPhone. And it brought with it the idea of the App Store. Unfortunately this coincided with a change of management at NTGR’s storage unit. The new masters thought that they could copy Apple’s success - and failed for a number of reasons.

  1. (almost) no concept The powers that were were working under the assumption that all Apple did was to provide a shopping web site. So that’s what they built. No support for developers other than some hastily slapped together GitHub pages. Some of the information there was (and still is) plain wrong and of course the information wouldn’t really help you to build really complex apps.
  2. misguided “competition” To make things worse the management also decided that it would be a great idea to pith the existing handful of developers against each other by giving out orders for the same project to multiple devs. There was zero insight about what dev historically “owned” what app not did anyone care. The end result for the users was different - and more often than not - incompatible apps that provided the same software. Crucial differences like update schedule or general stability were left to the paying user to find out.
  3. focus on monetization To add more road blocks the initial release of the ReadyNAS App Store didn’t allow apps that were free of charge - at least not really. While the dev was free to set a price of $0.00, the potential user still had to leave hist personal data to be able to download such apps. The clear interest here was to harvest more information about the NTGR user base which was at least detested by some of the app devs after they founfd out about the scheme.
  4. no internationalization Completely ignoring the fact that most of the app developers were from Europe the ReadyNAS App store was tailored to a US audience. That started with the requirement of a credit card - back then still rare in Europe - for payments, the total neglect of PayPal (because of their fees), went to billing only in US Dollars (leaving the devs with the handling of all the conversion risks not to mention the more complex tax issues) and was topped of with initially required “support hours” coupled to the normal working hours in the US.
  5. no nothing ;) The tipping on the ice was that an app publisher would only receive a quarterly payout, leaving the money to NTGR to play with in the meantime. Not only that, NTGRs also withheld all information about how many purchases of what app was included in the payment. In other words: no chance for the publisher to verify the correctness and also no chance to see what apps were seeling good and what apps could be safely discontinued.

For all the services NTGR didn’t provide, they made good by only charging 30% of the price. Makes one wonder why publishers weren’t kicking in NTGR’s doors to be allowed to participate. Well, it took NTGR less than a year to realize that their approach was mildly flawed and quite some time longer to strip it down to it’s current sad state: A web site where you can download a bunch of hopelessly outdated apps that noone even took the time to check whether they’re still working with the latest firmware. At around the same time the recognition set in at NTGR another thing happened that can be seen as the final blow to NTGR’s support of the NAS product line.

The cloud

While the internet has been around for a while, fast connections from home and easily affordable cloud storage hadn’t. But that changed very rapidly and the interest in locally installed NAS systems dwindled at the same rate usage of could storage soared. Especially vendors in the higher prices section of the NAS market really felt that blow I guess. The natural reaction was cost cuts, especially in the areas were NTGR back then was still way ahead of the competition: support and technology. NAS technology was seen as a dead end, cloud was the new way to go (and still is as is evident in almost every current product by NTGR). Thus there no longer was innovation, no new features and - worst of all - no product maintenance.

Even the latest release of the ReadyNAS firmware, 6.10.6, is still based on Debian “Jessie”. In version numbers this translatest to 8.x whereas the current Debian release “Bullseye” sports version 11.x. This makes it increasingly hard to maintain at least the most popular apps for the still quite substantial user base. Modern technoligies like Wireguard work “just so” because of the outdated kernel. Security patches are hard to come by. In short: it’s a sad mess.

The chance

But it doesn’t have to be. The hardware, while outdated, is still going strong and is still supported by modern Linux distributions. So it’d be quite easy to lift the base OS to a modern level weren’t it for the proprietary parts. While NTGR does provide not only the modified but all the used source packages for the Open Source components of the ReadyNAS firmware they are still holding back on releasing the code for their special kernel drivers and some proprietary daemons.

Personally, I understand their point of view: these parts are what makes the ReadyNAS more than just a Linux distribution with a nice web UI. But from a business perspective it doesn’t make any real sense to keep pouring maintenance money into a losing business with no perspective to get it into a competitive state anytime soon. In my eye the smarter approach would be to completely open-source everything, even with a license that requires royalties for commercial use. I believe there’s a lot of people out there who’d jump on the chance to improve their ReadyNAS and make it sustainable for another couple of years. By monitoring or even guiding the community NTGR could get the best of both worlds: A modern system, enhanced with the latest apps and technologies. All enhancements could flow back into the official product if NTGR would want that. And if they don’t they could simply sell the whole business unit to someone who’d see the advantage. Might even be a competitor, me and most of the loyal ReadyNAS users wouldn’t care. ;)