Thomas Kurian runs cloud computing at Google, which appears to be rethinking open-source foundations.

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Google's Thomas Kurian

Is Google cooling on open-source foundations?

Google reneges on an open-source promise as movement declines.

Google has been one of big tech's biggest supporters of open-source software. But customers, partners and members of the open-source community say the company is shifting its priorities.

Consider the case of the open-source project Istio, whose future was thrown into question late last year.

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. For example, adopting microservices helped Twitter end the days of the fail whale.

Google, IBM and Lyft introduced Istio in May 2017, and discussion about donating the project to a nonprofit foundation — which is common practice for open-source projects — took place almost immediately, according to several people familiar with the talks. Google controls six seats on the 10-seat steering committee that governs Istio, and the parties agreed to table further decision-making until the project found its footing, with consensus that Istio would eventually wind up in a foundation when the timing was right.

By 2019, that momentum had arrived, as usage of Istio grew inside big companies and major organizations, like the U.S. Air Force. Throughout the year, Google continued to make vague promises to its partners about donating Istio to a foundation, which would mean ceding control of the project's trademarks and overall direction. The most natural time to make that announcement seemed to be November's Kubecon, a software convention dedicated to Kubernetes, the open-source project Google gave to a foundation in 2015.

But a few weeks before that event, IBM and other partners were blindsided when Google postponed discussion of donating Istio to a foundation for an undetermined period of time and implied that it had completely ruled out the possibility of ever donating Istio to a foundation, according to those involved in the discussions.

IBM and Lyft declined to comment on Istio's recent history.

"Google Cloud and the community are actively investing in continued project growth, sustainability and adoption for both Knative and Istio," Google said in a statement. "Transparency, governance and inclusion are implemented across both projects to ensure distributed decision-making as much as possible. We welcome new community members, and anyone invested in the success of either project can help influence direction, much as we encourage in Golang, Tensorflow and our other projects."

Google's decision, one of the many changes at Google Cloud in the year since former Oracle executive Thomas Kurian took over the operation, leaves the future of the project's governance in doubt. If Google maintains control over the trademarks and direction of the project, that could prevent the cloud providers, independent software vendors, and others that made Kubernetes so successful from embracing Istio to the same degree, while potentially giving Google Cloud a competitive advantage.

The decision also comes at a time when many companies are rethinking their strategic approach to open-source software, sparking a great degree of tension within a community built around transparency and trust.

"It's a real problem," said Nicolas Chaillan, chief software officer for the U.S. Air Force, which has made a sizable bet on Istio as a key component of its cloud strategy. "I reached out to Google [after Kubecon] to say that if we don't get Istio within the CNCF, we'll have to drop it."

Why would Google cling to Istio?

Despite Google's longtime participation in the open-source movement, its decision to keep control of Istio could be seen as a solid strategy for a company that's trying to make money on its cloud services.

Designed to work with the popular Kubernetes, Istio is gaining traction. It "is a very visible, and arguably the most visible, project within the service mesh space," said Stephen O'Grady, principal analyst at Redmonk.

Istio has always been a joint project between its three creators and, at this point, a roster of several other prominent tech companies, including Cisco and VMware. But again, because Google controls six of the 10 seats on the project's steering committee, it has outsized power over the technical direction of the project and control over how the Istio trademark is used. The company says the number of seats are allocated "to reflect project contributions," according to the GitHub page outlining Istio's governance policies.

That page also acknowledges the elephant in the room, but leaves open the possibility that Istio's governance structure might change, which is not reflected by Google's public statement above or its discussions in private with partners and end users: "We recognize that governance of an open-source project is a living document and evolves as the community and project grows. This is the model that works for the project now. As it matures, and as the community grows, we expect that needs will change."

Because Istio was designed to work with Kubernetes, it's a logical choice for companies that want to invest in service-mesh technology and have already started down the road with Kubernetes, which is not going anywhere. That means Istio could be a huge selling point for Google Cloud, since AWS and Microsoft are unlikely to get closely involved with Istio if it remains under Google's control instead of with a foundation.

"The whole point of a foundation is having a neutral place where people can collaborate," said Abby Kearns, executive director of the Cloud Foundry Foundation. "[Open-source creators] should want or expect other people to participate, but your ideas are not always going to be the ideas that win out."

Foundations have plenty of critics, who see them as beholden to the big tech vendors for sponsorship dollars and removed from the day-to-day toil of maintaining and contributing to an open-source project. But they provide assurances that important projects are worthy of outside time and investment, even from competitors of the project's creators.

Besides the competitive advantage Google might get from keeping close guard on Istio's direction, multiple sources familiar with Google's strategy suggested that the company has soured on foundations in part because Google has more than enough resources to cover one of the primary benefits of joining a foundation: marketing support. While foundations establish clear governance rules for a given project, they also help spread the word about emerging projects, host educational workshops, and put on huge events like Kubecon.

Open-source drama

Google's move to hang onto control of Istio for the foreseeable future comes at a time of tension within the open-source community. Open-source software has had an incalculable impact on enterprise technology, allowing companies building internet applications to legally reuse code developed outside their organization in their products.

The freedom granted by open-source software — the ability to focus on the most unique parts of your application rather than the basic plumbing needs that any application requires — unleashed a torrent of innovation. And almost since its birth, Google has been an enthusiastic participant in many different open-source communities, sharing the lessons it learned building enormous consumer and business internet services with the rest of us.

But an increasing number of companies and people seem less interested in sharing code under permissive licenses, worried about denying themselves a potential business opportunity in the cloud era. Several database companies built around open-source projects changed the terms of the projects last year to prevent, or least discourage, cloud providers from offering that open-source project as a service.

Google's actions with respect to Istio and Knative, another intriguing open-source project that Google acknowledged last year it intends to control, are not even in the same ballpark: Both projects remain available under permissive licenses. They do, however, suggest a shift in Google's thinking about how its open-source strategy affects its cloud business.

It's no secret in cloud circles that during Kurian's first year as Google Cloud CEO in 2019, sizable numbers of Google Cloud employees decided to leave the company. The quantity and quality of people who left the organization was quite noticeable, including prominent contributors to its open-source strategy like Melody Meckfessel (currently CEO of a startup called Observable) and Sarah Novotny, who joined Microsoft to work on open-source issues.

Some attrition is not unusual following a CEO change, and it was certainly a challenging year for Google and Alphabet in general. But Google Cloud definitely appears to be moving in new directions, given Kurian's mandate to overhaul the group's famously engineering-driven culture in favor of a more enterprise-oriented approach. And that has caused some of its open-source partners and end users to worry that Google's commitment to open-source foundations is wavering.

The future of Google and open-source foundations

Challian is "hopeful" that Google will eventually donate Istio to a foundation and noted that the company has a strong record of work in the open-source community. Merely open-sourcing a project like Istio has "delivered incredible value."

"It's game changing," he said, referring to Istio. "Back in the days past, that technology would cost a fortune."

But he can't wait forever: If Istio hasn't found a home in a foundation over the next six months, the Air Force will have to consider other service-mesh options, which would be disappointing because of the integration between Kubernetes and Istio, he said.

Balancing open-source fundamentals against business interests has always been tricky. Google's reputation within the open-source community has long been seen as a valuable recruiting tool in the race to hire the best cloud developers and engineers, yet Kurian faces a clear mandate to grow. Last year, The Information reported that Google executives had discussed shutting down Google Cloud in 2018 before hiring Kurian, who was given a five-year deadline to overtake Microsoft or AWS in this market.

That will be a difficult task, and it might involve some hard decisions about how future open-source projects emerging from Google will be managed. It's quite possible this strategy could backfire, dampening enthusiasm in Istio right at the moment it was poised to make a leap toward broader adoption.

One wedge that cloud rivals have been able to use successfully against AWS and its huge advantages in this market is the cloud giant's historic indifference to the open-source community, which it has been trying to correct. However, just as it took years for this community to acknowledge that Microsoft's commitment to open-source software was real, it could take a long time before people hold AWS in the same light.

Google doesn't have many advantages over AWS among the cloud-buying public, and if Google loses the open-source community, it is likely to lose the war. Either way, if Istio never lands at a foundation, Kurian will have sent a clear message: If you work with Google on open-source projects it controls, you're working for Google.

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