Microsoft shows VMware and Oracle how to get real about open source

VMware and Oracle are making some moves toward open source, but to have it truly transform them they must contribute code.

Image: iStockphoto/scyther5

Despite years of largely ignoring open source, some of the industry's software heavyweights have been blowing love kisses in the general direction of open source developers lately. Last week it was VMware CTO Ray O'Farrell, calling out open source as "very very powerful in its ability to produce innovation and cool ideas." In the same week Oracle joined the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, largely as a way to help influence the direction of Kubernetes, given that "CNCF technologies such as Kubernetes, Prometheus, gRPC and OpenTracing are critical parts of both our own and our customers' development toolchains," according to Mark Cavage, vice president of software development at Oracle.

For the cynical, these and other announcements by proprietary software vendors look like attempts to buy their way into open source relevance. This, however, would be the wrong way to read such news.

Open source tends to be the tool of the underdog and, yes, both Oracle and VMware are increasingly the underdogs in a world gone gaga for open source infrastructure. If they are smart, as was Microsoft before them, open source can revive their relevance. That "smart" ultimately comes down to code, both in terms of effectively embracing others' open source projects and in contributing heavily to these and their own.

It is better to give than to receive

Oracle joining the CNCF is perhaps the least interesting news related to open source. After all, anyone with $370,000 per year to burn can join the CNCF as a Platinum member and kid itself that doing so buys it control. It doesn't. Yes, it gives the database giant a seat on the board and other subcommittees, but that's not how software like Kubernetes is built.

It's built by developers, not committees or boards. The only way to influence these developers is with code, not sponsorship cash.

As such, Oracle's decision to explore a foundation governing Java EE is far more interesting. Java EE is already open source, but suffers from being dominated by one company (Oracle). The company acknowledged as much: "[W]e believe a more open process, that is not dependent on a single vendor as platform lead, will encourage greater participation and innovation, and will be in best interests of the community." Bingo.

SEE: Mastering Git (TechRepublic Academy)

VMware, for its part, sports a GitHub page with a number of projects, but so does everyone else. The company also recognizes the importance of open APIs, as Cavage declared: "One of the biggest things we want to do is open up our own product APIs and build a gilt-edged opportunity for the open source community." What is still missing from this equation, however, is how those same open source developers are expected to use VMware APIs without becoming locked into the software.

More potently, as Christine Hall has noted, VMware also has a kissing cousin in Cloud Foundry, filled with smart open source folks and housing a successful open source project. VMware should spend more time with its Cloud Foundry peers to determine how to give more than it receives with open source developers.

It could also follow Microsoft's lead.

Following in Microsoft's footsteps

After all, this is the same realization that Microsoft had to come to. The company experimented with Shared Source to avoid embracing "full-fat" open source. Then, it tried to generate its own code repository (CodePlex), ultimately realizing that the center of gravity was GitHub, and that Microsoft needed to support the community standard, rather than trying to foist its own on the world.

SEE: Microsoft uses open-source software to create Windows (ZDNet)

Today, Microsoft actively participates in a wide variety of open source communities, and does so with integrity and enthusiasm. It took over a decade to reach this point, but it is one of the primary things that makes Microsoft's Azure cloud platform a very real alternative to AWS: Developers trust Microsoft. So much so, in fact, that Microsoft has become an active participant in the Linux kernel community, arguably the last place on earth where Microsoft would be expected to be.

The old Microsoft, that is.

Microsoft, however, was an underdog—in mobile, in cloud, in everything that mattered. So, too, are VMware and Oracle in the exploding world of containers, programming languages, and more. Like Microsoft, they can learn to embrace open source and open development and return to winning ways.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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