VMware whitewashes self in open source

The new Red Hat. And the new Red Hat rival

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Open...and Shut It is perhaps not obvious why VMware, the paragon of proprietary software profits, has become such an open campaigner for open source, open standards, and open APIs. What has changed to make openness a sound business decision for a company that continues to mint money with its various closed-source products?

I've spent a fair amount of time talking with VMware, particularly its cloud team, over the last few years, and have watched as the company made acquisition after acquisition that have imbued it with serious open-source credentials. Is that the cause, or the effect, of a shift in direction?

It's an effect, one that has everything to do with developers.

To hear James Watters, group manager of vCloud strategy and market development at VMware, tell it, "platform as a service" (PaaS) is the new platform for the cloud era. PaaS brings together a modern runtime with a dramatically simpler deployment environment so developers can focus on their apps and not worry about ordering, configuring, maintaining or scaling infrastructure.

At heart, again, is the developer. And developers, as Redmonk's James Governor points out, are the kingmakers of software, and find themselves drawn to open source. Small wonder, then, that VMware would target developers via an open-source cloud strategy.

Cloud Foundry is VMware's from-scratch PaaS play and its fundamental tenet is delivering an "open" PaaS. Openness is more than source code at VMware. Open in this case means extensibility along all three key axes: application frameworks, application services, and deployment infrastructure, as well as being open source.

Beyond source code, VMware offers support for Spring, Rails, Sinatra, Node.js, and Lift today with more in the pipeline from both VMware and the open-source community. Erlang, PHP and Python, for example, have all been recent requests. On the application services side, VMware supports both the VMware vFabric services as well as third party services like MongoDB, MySQL and Redis, with more apparently on the way.

This flexibility in both frameworks and services is really important given the renaissance of innovation happening in both areas today. VMware can't afford to bet on any one horse, but instead needs to open up to developers wherever they happen to be. Its multi-language, multi-framework PaaS approach makes it very easy for developers to experiment with new technologies like Node.js or NoSQL stores.

In terms of the cloud infrastructure developers can deploy to, today VMware supports vSphere, AWS, and OpenStack, with more on the way. This ability to run both on-premise and in the cloud, with the freedom to move between cloud providers and behind the firewall separates Cloud Foundry from most PaaS solutions.

Finally, Cloud Foundry is open source, as expected from any developer technology today, from day one and the code is on GitHub where it's getting active community participation.

This interest in developers is longstanding, but it has accelerated ever since former Microsoft executive Paul Maritz took the helm at VMware. No one has catered to developers more extensively over the years than Microsoft, though Maritz undoubtedly was able to embrace developers' penchant for open source before Microsoft could turn that corner. He doesn't have the same legacy Office and Windows businesses to prop up.

Instead, he can embrace developers to bury his former employer.

But VMware's interest in openness has been accelerating, arguably since the day the company bought SpringSource, which brought the Spring framework and its millions of developers into the VMware fold. The Spring framework is arguably the most popular way to write Java code in the world. Spring is, of course, open source and perhaps has been the most successful open-source developer framework. This foundation in Spring has led the company to embrace other open-source technologies and communities.

But it also puts VMware into a reasonable position to get snippy about Red Hat and its OpenShift initiative. In a recent conversation with Watters, he questioned both the utility and the open-source credentials of Red Hat's PaaS play.

A whitewashed pot calling the kettle black?

Maybe, maybe not. He's probably right when he points out that the whole point of PaaS is to reduce operational complexity, yet OpenShift is actually three different technologies that yield three different runtimes depending on one's choice of framework or language.

And he's also right to question why OpenShift is not yet available as open source, something that Redmonk's Stephen O'Grady also calls out. But Red Hat has done this before (Red Hat Network, anyone?), and has always ended up open-sourcing its code.

But for me, Watters' criticism bears the most fruit when he hones in on its somewhat narrow focus on other Red Hat technologies. Today, Red Hat's strategy is dependent on KVM becoming a lot more competitive and having a far more mature management ecosystem around it in order to deliver on operational simplification. Cloud Foundry leverages the strengths of VMware's own vSphere technology, but is already running on other hypervisors as well.

This is even more the case at the application services layer. Red Hat is focused on JBoss, for obvious (revenue and technology) reasons. It will be interesting to see if Red Hat can break out of this JBoss-centricity. All existing middleware vendors seem to struggle to embrace a broadly open PaaS, as it is very disruptive to their existing products and revenue models.

Finally, Red Hat is a systems company with all the strengths and weaknesses that come with it. To date, Red Hat still has a limited history of engagement with developers of higher-level frameworks. The abstraction is moving to the framework where the focus is on the application, not the system, may be a hard one for Red Hat to make, given its systems focus.

Still, Red Hat has the Linux ecosystem revolving around it. This took years to achieve and won't be displaced by a few strong shifts toward openness from VMware.

But VMware isn't simply feinting at open source and open standards. Over the years I've seen a very real movement within the company toward open technologies, because that's where the developers are. And since this developer focus coincides, rather than conflicts with, VMware's revenue strategy, we should expect to see it deepen and broaden.

VMware and Red Hat have become bitter competitors. What's fascinating is just how much of this battle depends upon openness and open source, rather than the tired old open-versus-closed fight. Either way, openness wins. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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