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Unclench fists, open arms: Dirk Hohndel on VMware open source shift

VMware talked the talk about open source, but now it's walking the walk. Dirk Hohndel, VMware's open source advocate, talks about VMware's embrace of the open source world.

For much of its 19-year history VMware has been stubbornly proprietary in its approach to technology. But over...

the past year, the company has softened its hard-core stance, and is more receptive to embrace open source.

Behind this reformation is Dirk Hohndel, VMware's vice president and chief open source officer. Since his arrival a little over a year ago, Hohndel has convinced the company to pour more financial and human resources into internal and external open source projects, and work more closely with industry organizations such as the Linux Foundation, of which he is a board member.

Hohndel sat down with senior executive editor Ed Scannell to discuss the evolved VMware open source approach, its relationship with corporate and third-party open source developers, and the future of containers and OpenStack.

Take me through the thinking behind the evolution of VMware open source container products since Project Photon's introduction two years ago.

Dirk Hohndel: After Photon we released the vSphere Integrated Containers solutions, which was a way to deploy containers as workloads in a vSphere environment. But it didn't deal with the question of orchestration or provide a larger framework on top of it.

One of the key questions we asked ourselves: In the broader spectrum of customers changing the way they deploy and develop applications in-house, what is the best way to provide them with an environment in which IT basically gets out of the way? A way in which developers get the environment they need to create container-based applications?

Dirk Hohndel, VMware's vice president and chief open source officerDirk Hohndel

After some exploration we concluded that joining forces with Pivotal was the best solution in terms of helping customers get what they were asking for. So we created the Pivotal Container Service. By running Kubernetes on top of Bosh, on top of vSphere, gives them the APIs a developer is looking for.

What do you mean by 'getting IT out of the way?'

Hohndel: Developers looking at container-based applications often say: 'I just want to create applications and not have to worry about infrastructure.' What customers are looking for and what the app developers are looking for is to have an infrastructure that to them looks the same whether they deploy it on their laptops, in their testing environments, to a public cloud or a private cloud. They don't want to worry about how this is implemented on the back end.

We use a ton of open source projects for every product we do [and] when we fix bugs we contribute those back to the community. But we must balance that with the creation of our own open source products.
Dirk Hohndelchief open source officer, VMware

We are trying to provide an environment where developers get to use the APIs in the environment they are comfortable with, and get the IT people to provide it in a way that fits into their architecture that is scalable and secure and deals with the complexities of networking.

What does Pivotal's technology give to your users and developers they didn't have before?

Hohndel: Pivotal's involvement is very much around this integration through Bosh and Kubo and into IaaS. If you look at Cloud Foundry, there is a very opinionated, very tightly managed vision of a cloud-native architecture. [Pivotal Container Service] is a more flexible, broader environment that doesn't give you the carefully selected environment with services. But it gives you the same solid underpinning as provided by Bosh and vSphere and the flexibility of Kubernetes on top.

That is fundamentally why Google is involved in this project. To them Kubernetes is the interface they promote as the way to orchestrate containers both on premises and through the Google Cloud Engine, and then into the public cloud.

How much open source code is contributed by outside developers to projects like Project Photon versus VMware's internal development?

Hohndel: It depends on the project. Open vSwitch, for example, is driven by many different contributors besides VMware. We actually moved that project to the Linux Foundation and it's no longer a VMware-hosted project.

We have other projects that are at the halfway point [in terms of outside versus internal contribution] and I think Clarity is a good example of that. We also open sourced a project last year that allows you to develop HTML 5.0 user interfaces based on JavaScript. That project has good momentum, and a good number of outside contributors, but it is still predominantly a VMware project.

We have other projects where the number of outside contributions is smaller because of the specificity of the project, or its complexity. We have a fun little tool created in-house for our own development purposes called Chap. It analyzes un-instrumented core files, either live cores or cores from crashes, for leaks and memory usage and corruption. Contributions from the outside have been limited because it's a narrow, intensely complicated developer tool.

How many VMware programmers contribute code to the community? Do you plan to increase that number of programmers?

Hohndel: Good question, because it raises the question of how should a software company actually interact with the open source community. We use a ton of open source projects for every product we do in some way, shape or form. When we fix bugs we contribute those back to the community. But we must balance that with the creation of our own open source products. Many of them are internal tools like Clarity or Chap, or they are related to products like VIC [vSphere Integrated Containers].

We have a couple of teams in each business unit focused on these tools and components. I'm sure that adds up to a few dozen, maybe 100 engineers who are working on open source projects. Then, there are the other teams working specifically on upstream projects because they are part of our products: think OpenStack, think Kubernetes and the next [Linux] kernel or other broad projects being used like GTK+ in the UI space. This is an area where I am actively hiring people for our cloud-native business unit.

What is the level of acceptance for OpenStack among your users? Some weeks it feels like it's dying, others it seems to have a future.

Hohndel: I keep trying to grasp why people think it is dying. There are certain market segments where OpenStack is thriving and doing well. Certainly telcos seem to have coalesced around the OpenStack APIs.

A lot of companies that explore enterprise production environments based on OpenStack discover there is a clear tradeoff between Capex and Opex. So you can get OpenStack as an open source project for free, or you can use one of the available OpenStack distributions and use your capital expenditure. It does come at a significant operational cost. It is a very complex piece of software -- it is actually many pieces of interdependent software -- so setting it up and getting it to run on day one and especially on day two is very complex.

What is the long-range trajectory of OpenStack?

Hohndel: I don't think anyone has a clear answer yet. In the telco sector, it is absolutely what people are looking for. In the enterprise we see some users that are happy and some that are disillusioned. I think the jury is out. We're on the Gartner Hype Curve with OpenStack where Gartner calls the falling edge towards the trough of disillusionment [laughs]. So there is the peak of irrational expectations followed by the trough of disillusionment. And then at the end of the cycle you have the plateau of productivity.

Are there any open source synergies as you go forward with the VMware-AWS deal? AWS is an open source shop internally, but they sell a lot of proprietary software.

Hohndel: The technology they use for their services is certainly open source like their database service or their search service, but the underlying technical infrastructure we interact with, that is fairly proprietary technology. To me in the vSphere on AWS environment, I don't think open source really has been a key player. It becomes much more interesting if you look at the services that have been provided on top of that. There, we are certainly collaborating with them on some of the same projects.

Ed Scannell is a senior executive editor with TechTarget. Contact him at escannell@techtarget.com.

Next Steps

Compare Photon to vSphere Integrated Containers

Learn about updates to VMware Integrated OpenStack

Read Mark Lohmeyer's thoughts on VMware Cloud on AWS

Dig Deeper on VMware virtualization

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