Thomas Kurian, chief executive officer of Google Cloud, at the company's campus in Sunnyvale, California
Photo: Cayce Clifford/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The twists and turns of Google’s Knative open-source project

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Good morning, and welcome to Protocol | Enterprise. This Monday: Google Cloud has a (new) feeling about Knative, why chip executives want Congress to get back, and AWS heads into the Studio.

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As Google finally started to get its cloud division oriented around the enterprise customer during the last few years, the company’s once-clear stance on open-source software and the value of industry foundations has become much murkier.

The latest source of confusion came last week, when Google announced that it would submit Knative — a key serverless computing open-source project — to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. Curiously released right as the cloud world’s attention was focused on AWS CEO Adam Selipsky’s first re:Invent keynote address, the decision means that the project’s intellectual property, trademark and — most importantly — code will be managed by a vendor-neutral group.

It’s been quite a journey for Knative, which drew a lot of attention from across the cloud-computing industry after it was first announced in 2018.

  • Kubernetes has become an important part of the toolbox for running multicloud applications, and Knative allows developers to build serverless applications designed around Kubernetes that aren’t tied to any one cloud — a concern cited by many companies considering serverless.
  • But Google’s direct control of the project raised concerns that the company intended to use it to drive Google Cloud adoption.
  • Google kicked off a firestorm of controversy at KubeCon 2019 when it said it had no plans to submit Knative or Istio, its open-source service-mesh technology, to a foundation. That was particularly surprising given that it created the CNCF for the original launch of Kubernetes.
  • The anti-foundation stance was driven by an influential group of Google Cloud executives who believed the company had made a mistake by relinquishing control of Kubernetes.
  • However, Google had implied to its partners for years that it would follow the Kubernetes roadmap and cede ultimate control of both projects to a foundation. They were incensed at the deception, and that their hard work stood to benefit Google and not the wider industry.

Developers found Google’s approach particularly egregious given the company’s longtime support for open-source software and causes, for which it enjoyed outsized goodwill compared to one-time open-source foe Microsoft as well as AWS. But Google began ceding a degree of control over both Istio and Knative during 2020.

  • It created the Open Usage Commons over the summer of 2020 and gave that organization control over the trademarks for both Istio and Knative, which is more important than it might seem at first, if a small step overall.
  • And then, in October 2020, Google allowed the Knative project to change its governance structure to one where no single vendor could hold a controlling number of seats on the steering committee.
  • Still, those changes weren’t enough for a lot of developers and companies that might be interested in working closely with either project but have no interest in helping Google Cloud make money.

Why does this all matter? Foundations have their issues, but most enterprise tech people we’ve talked to in recent years agree that there’s no way Kubernetes would have become such an important part of the cloud if it was controlled by a single cloud vendor.

  • This could be an important step for industrywide serverless adoption, the progress of which is hard to assess but appears to be growing more slowly than the containers that underpin Kubernetes.
  • AWS and Microsoft will probably feel much more comfortable about building support for Knative into some of their products, and that could create a new ecosystem of vendors and users similar to the ones that have already organized around Kubernetes.

This decision could rehabilitate Google’s image among developers and partners who felt cheated by its late 2019 stance toward Istio and Knative, but some will still be skeptical.

— Tom Krazit (email | twitter)

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This week on Protocol

Congress, amirite: For all the talk in Washington about the need to make sure the U.S. stays ahead of China in tech competition, there’s been much less action on billions of dollars in potential subsidies for domestic chip production. Protocol’s Max Cherney took a deeper look at delays that are starting to frustrate chip executives and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

Cloudy AI: The major U.S. cloud vendors have all proposed donating time and services to create an AI research cloud for the federal government, but some in the Biden administration are wary about further entrenching the power of Big Cloud. Protocol’s Kate Kaye examined how two executive-branch priorities — keeping up with China’s AI research and reining in the tech industry — are competing for attention.

Upcoming at Protocol

Join us Wednesday, Dec. 8, at 10 a.m. PT for The Year in Enterprise Tech, a live virtual event recapping the week that was at AWS re:Invent and discussing some of the most important trends and developments that will shape enterprise computing in 2022. Our panel features Shelia Gulati of Tola Capital, Liz Fong-Jones of Honeycomb, and Corey Quinn of The Duckbill Group in a free-wheeling discussion moderated by Protocol's Tom Krazit. RSVP here.

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What’s the mood like at Google Cloud? It’s been three years since Kurian took control, and both revenue and resentment at his sales-oriented style have grown, according to Business Insider.

Like most consulting companies, Deloitte has come to recognize the importance of homegrown software talent. It just acquired Bias, a company that specializes in developing applications for Oracle’s cloud.

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Thanks for reading — see you Thursday!

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