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Microsoft's 'evil open source' man on life as HP's top cloud-wrangler

Sweating the assets and building up OpenStack

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He brought Microsoft the open source it had viewed with such dread and now former Redmond man Bill Hilf is challenging the thinking at Hewlett-Packard.

Microsoft plucked Hilf from IBM in 2004 to become its general manager for open source and platform strategy at a time when Microsoft was waging a war on open source, calling it a “cancer”.

IBM, meanwhile, was so enthralled with the stuff it was spray-painting peace signs, hearts and Tuxes on city pavements in San Francisco and Chicago in an “IBM loves Linux guerilla" ad campaign.

“When I first started at Microsoft, open source was truly considered a societal evil,” Hilf reflected on those early days for The Reg.

Since Hilf's time there, Microsoft now participates in open-source projects, has improved the way open-source code runs on Windows and has even developed software that manages Linux servers.

After ascending to general manager of Windows Azure product management, Hilf left Microsoft in June 2013 to become HP's vice president of converged cloud products and services. He now oversees the HP enterprise group's portfolio of products being built and/or integrated for HP’s private, public and managed cloud.

Open wide... but not THAT wide

Things are different at HP: the computer and server maker has been involved in the open-source and Linux movement for a long time – both have helped it shift servers. Before that, HP was an early mover in open systems by backing Unix.

Hilf is preaching to the converted at HP but admits to challenges building a cloud that’s open – founded on OpenStack – but whose bricks are HP’s not inconsiderable non-open-source assets.

“I very rarely have conversations internally with somebody doesn't understand the dynamics of working with the [open source] community,” Hilf told The Reg in a recent interview.

“But there’s still a proprietary business inside HP, so there are still times when we are building open source that groups [within HP] say: 'Why do we need to do that?'."

An HP cloud group was formed to help people understand the new technologies. The units is based not near corporate HQ in Silicon Valley but in Seattle, centre of ops for cloud services giant Amazon and, er, Microsoft.

HP might be pro open source but it remains a PC, server and printer OEM – albeit struggling to pull itself up by its commodity box-pusher roots and plant itself into services under chief executive Meg Whitman.

Engaging with the community is important in terms of making its cloud successful rather than just a vehicle to flog more servers.

Building a 'hardened' OpenStack infrastructure

That means committing paid HP programmers to work on the open-source OpenStack code, code that might also help other companies – including potential rivals.

Hilf claims he’s hiring a “ton” of people in dev and testing to deliver and OpenStack product HP can credibly claim it's able to support. The firm is now the third largest single contributor to OpenStack – behind Rackspace and Red Hat – with “others” the largest block.

Hilf promised HP would “invest a lot” in things like stability, QA and hardening of the OpenStack code to build an infrastructure that’s “enterprise ready.”

How committed is HP to OpenStack? Very.

Hilf quotes the example of how HP last year killed its own proprietary UI for OpenStack and backed Horizon, the OpenStack dashboard, instead.

It was a step backwards in functionality until HP invested time in improving Horizon, but Hilf reckons it was worth it.

“Now we are at parity with where we were before and we are in the trunk of the open source project - that’s what we are doing all over the place,” he said.

But Hilf is plugging a skills gap inside HP and the industry as a whole. Three years in, OpenStack programmers are in relatively short supply with many of those from the early days having spun out to create well-paid consulting operations.

Investing in people now will pay off for HP in the long term, Hilf believes. He subscribes to the view that OpenStack is doing what Linux did on the desktop and server, but he’s not complacent about the obstacles – technical or political – and, therefore, not sitting back on the naive belief that OpenStack's destiny is simply manifest.

In today's cloud world, OpenStack is looking decidedly outgunned: with Amazon in the lead and Google, Microsoft, IBM, SAP and Oracle racing to catch up.

Each of these companies’ cloud operations have their corporate sponsors behind them, but no one big operation of comparable size or influence is driving OpenStack.

“OpenStack is three years old and it has to go through a lot of growth but it’s not something we at HP are going to wait for until it’s ready. HP has decided we would shape that future to make OpenStack what we and customers need it to be,” Hilf said.

“A lot of guys are trying OpenStack today and saying it’s hard. They sit back and say: ‘Do I have to?’. When I started at Microsoft, the same statements being made today were being said about Linux and MySQL.

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