The changing face of open-source software

The increasing number of open-source initiatives in existence leads some to catch a dose of initiative-fatigue. What's really going on here?

binary code open source
Credit: SGT Pablo Piedra

In the past couple of months, we have seen a lot of activity with open-source initiatives in the cloud space. We already had projects such as OpenStack, CloudStack, OpenShift and Cloud Foundry, but now we've seen the Open Contain Initiative (OCI) and Cloud Native Container Foundation (CNCF) being announced.

Cynical folks would suggest that all of these separate initiatives are more a function of commercial entities trying to posture and position than they are of any real user community need, and there is a bit of that, but there are also some structural changes of note.

At OSCON recently, Sam Ramji, himself a hugely respected open-source thinker, and currently executive director of the Cloud Foundry Foundation, took the opportunity, to respond to all this initiative activity to take a bird's eye view of what is going on.

As Ramji sees it, in contrast to the projects such as Linux that were created because of an individual's or a group of individuals' desire to create a solution together, open source today is becoming a directly commercial movement. Practitioners themselves have seen how startups leverage open-source technologies to build massively successful companies. They have also witnessed those companies built to offer products or services on top of open-source technologies that have grown to scale (Red Hat, for example).

This move toward a far rawer commercial focus within open-source projects has begun to breed competition and distrust — activities over the last few years within the OpenStack and Cloud Foundry initiatives are a good example of this. Fundamentally, the traditional open-source models are breaking down as commercial entities are quick to hire the most productive open-source contributors and commercialize parts of that IP. This is where, in Ramji's view, foundations become important.

Ramji points to the foundation that he himself runs, Cloud Foundry. As a successful platform-as-a-service (PaaS) project, Cloud Foundry has seen huge vendor support and interest, but this in itself has created problems. Initially a project out of VMware and later spun out as part of Pivotal, Cloud Foundry has also been used as the base of products from HP (Helion) and IBM (Bluemix). So you have the home of an initiative in direct competition with other commercial entities looking to leverage the same open-source project. Messy!

Which is where the foundation comes in. The Cloud Foundry Foundation is a neutral party that can more readily bang together the various heads in order to do what is right for the project, as opposed to what is right for individual entities.

This same tension happens in other areas. In the container world there were tensions between Docker (the company) and Rocket. Hence, the open container initiative to ensure that the right decisions are made. And in the container orchestration space, people could see Kubernetes and Mesos on a collision course. The CNCF should help avoid that.

While it could be seen as self-justification, Ramji pointed to a 2010 study by Henrik Ingo that found that the top nine open-source projects — Linux, KDE, Apache, Eclipse, Perl, Mozilla Gnome, Drupal and Gnu — were governed by nonprofit foundations. As Ramji sees it, there is a glass ceiling limiting the growth of single-vendor projects.

The ability to harmonize all of these different projects that will ultimately create the new data center stack, to herd all the cats as it were, is important in this period of rapid change. Of course, tensions still exist between the various open-source initiatives themselves. The Cloud Foundry Foundation, for example, is a product of the success of Cloud Foundry, and its very existence is predicated on that continued success. As such, it's not a stretch to imagine that the foundation has a commercial tension between itself and other competing open-source initiatives (OpenShift, for example). This inter-initiative tension is at another level entirely from tensions within one particular initiative.

Ramji is always worth listening to. Take 15 minutes out of your day to watch this video.

(Disclosure: At the time of writing, Ben Kepes was an adviser to ActiveState, the company behind the Stackato Cloud Foundry product. HP uses Stackato for Helion and is in the process of acquiring the Stackato asset from ActiveState.)

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