Some observers greeted virtualization giant VMware’s decision to join OpenStack with a degree of suspicion. Past comments -- such as Vice President Mathew Lodge’s suggestion that open-source virtualization software makers are "ugly sisters" to VMware -- certainly did not ring with enthusiasm regarding the merits of open-source.
So, are VMware’s motives enlightened, sinister, or something in between?
My personal feeling: VMware’s motives fall under the “something in between” category.
Could VMware’s support somehow harm OpenStack or its open-source objectives? That notion is pretty silly, considering that the project already welcomed Cisco with open arms. If anything, having more partially proprietary software vendors on the open-source ship will help reduce bias.
The first thing to consider is that top Linux OS makers will likely always offer their own OpenStack distributions. These distributions, in theory, are entirely vendor agnostic.
But what about distributions from proprietary vendors? In October, Cisco released its own distribution of OpenStack. It took a while (after all, Cisco joined OpenStack in February 2011), and it came with plenty of extras –- not-so-agnostic extensions that offered proprietary “improvements” to the open-source distribution. But at the end of the day, you get a piece of base software that is open, regardless of the proprietary bells and whistles heaped on top.
Likewise, I expect VMware’s OpenStack efforts to play out similarly -- that is, slow and with some extra baggage. I picture the virtualization provider’s finished distribution landing in late 2013 or early 2014 (which, coincidentally, lines up nicely with some other important dates, such as the availability of 64-bit ARM servers). Just like Cisco, expect VMware to look to promote the use of VMware server virtualization as the “best” solution, thanks to extra proprietary extensions to OpenStack.
And inevitably, expect this tactic to lead some to cry foul. Mixing proprietary and open-source software is fundamentally wrong, according to some strict open-source proponents. Their logic goes “open source: good. Proprietary: bad." I disagree: This black-and-white view sadly ignores that even partial open-sourcing can drive the movement forward, if the author has enough industry pull.
Then there are the conspiracy theories of potential sabotage or subversion. Would VMware do such a thing? Maybe. But in this case, it arguably mitigates such risks. Corporate involvement in open-source projects is a bit like politics. It’s not a polite subject for the dinner table and it’s inevitable that loud special interests will pollute the outcome. However, the greatest danger is when there aren’t many voices. In that regard, VMware’s enlistment can be viewed as a key check on any corrupting influence Cisco might have on the project.
Ultimately, the new support is good for OpenStack. VMware’s decision helps -- at least in a vocal capacity -- to move the industry towards heterogeneous virtualized environments, a move which diminishes the capability of any one service provider (including VMware itself) to overcharge for a small feature bump (an allegation long-leveled against VMware).
But if VMware isn’t hurting OpenStack, is it drinking some sort of kumbaya Kool-Aid and becoming more open? In a small way, perhaps, but the decision is almost certainly purely self-interested.
The move can be viewed as a bit of a political maneuver, designed to placate both disgruntled partners and critics in the open-source community. In that regard, VMware’s decision to join OpenStack can be seen as somewhat similar to its decision to help with the Open Virtualization Format (OVF) specification.
The OVF inclusion was designed to placate upset parties (namely partners like Cisco who bemoaned being forced to choose between VMware’s ESX, Microsoft’s fledgling Hyper-V, or Red Hat, et al.’s KVM). And while some might have assumed that OVF support would hurt VMware’s hypervisor licensing, ultimately, it barely moved the market. Likewise, VMware's support of OpenStack will likely not hurt VMware’s end-to-end server virtualization stack (ESX, and vSphere, for example), as much as one might assume.
It is fair to call the move selfish, in that it benefits VMware from a diversification standpoint. VMware’s new assets (Nicira and DynamicOps) expand its reach, allowing the company to license virtualization technologies for new kinds of virtualized resources such as security, routing, storage, and more. Joining OpenStack safeguards VMware if businesses migrate away from its server-side product. So ultimately, VMware’s newfound openness is both noble and selfish, depending on how you choose to view it.
VMware’s decision to join OpenStack is not altruism, but it’s also not sinister. It's a mutually beneficial union. And while it may be slow to bear fruit, it should be viewed with cautious optimism.
Jason Mick is senior news editor at the independent tech news site DailyTech