Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian
Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian has ended years of confusion about the destiny of one of the company's biggest open-source projects.
Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg

Google Cloud CEO: Istio is going to a foundation

Thomas Kurian ended years of confusion by telling Protocol that one of Google Cloud's most important open-source projects will be donated to a foundation in the near future after all.

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian has ended years of confusion by telling Protocol that Google will eventually donate its open-source project Istio to a foundation at some point in the near future.

In an exclusive interview with Protocol on Tuesday, Kurian said that the company is evaluating which foundation's governance policies will best suit Istio, one of Google's most prominent open-source projects. But he added that the company is still "working through which foundation to grant it to."

Istio is a "service mesh," a tool that helps technology organizations manage application strategies built around microservices. Microservices allow developers to work on various parts of an application without having to worry about screwing up the whole thing — and help ensure that if one service goes down, the impact is relatively minor.

Late last year, Google surprised longtime partners working on Istio by implying that it was no longer interested in donating the project to a foundation, which would have allowed the company closer control over how and where Istio is used.

Kurian's latest statement means that Istio is instead set to follow a path similar to Kubernetes, another open-source cloud-computing tool that Google donated to a foundation in 2015. Google created the Cloud Native Computing Foundation — an offshoot of the Linux Foundation — to give away Kubernetes. In the years since being given away, Kubernetes went on to become a de facto standard for managing containers — application building blocks that allow for greater flexibility in cloud computing — at scale, and is now offered as a managed service by Google Cloud rivals AWS and Microsoft.

Asked why it has taken so long to clarify Google's stance on giving away Istio, Kurian said that the project wasn't ready.

"Unlike Kubernetes, which we had invented many, many years earlier and matured in our own internal use, we've been going through that process with Istio. And people interpret the process of maturation mistakenly to interpret that we're not giving it to the community," he said.

That was Google's standard response about Istio for years. But people familiar with Istio's behind-the-scenes discussions said that Google had changed its mind late last year, driven by a faction within the company that believed donating Kubernetes to a foundation was a strategic mistake. When contacted by Protocol earlier this year, Google declined to clarify its plans for Istio.

Donating an open-source project to a foundation can take on many forms, but in many cases the governance rules of the foundation require the company making the donation to cede control of the trademarks associated with the project, which allows other companies to build commercial services around it.

Foundations also help ensure that no one company has outsized input over the future direction of the project. As was the case with Kubernetes for many years, Google engineers have made the majority of the contributions to Istio, but under the control of a foundation, Istio would theoretically be allowed to evolve in a direction guided by lots of different participants.

Nicholas Chaillan, chief software officer for the U.S. Air Force, told Protocol in January that his organization — a prominent user of both Kubernetes and Istio — would have to drop support for the technology this year if Google didn't donate the project to a foundation.

While the Cloud Native Computing Foundation has been seen by many as the natural home for Istio given its history with Kubernetes, Kurian cast a wider net in his interview with Protocol on Tuesday. "Some [foundations] have the right governance models, and some of them don't," he said, adding that Google will choose a foundation that ensures community participation will drive the project forward.

Kurian said that the massive changes to the tech industry's priorities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic would not change the timeline for donating Istio to a foundation, and that the company would provide more details about its plans "relatively soon."