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The foundation of cloud-native computing

July 21, 2015

The older I get, the more engineering values matter to me — and the more I seek out shared values in those with whom I endeavor to build things. For us at Joyent, those engineering values reflect that we operate the software we make: we believe that foundational systems must be designed to be robust and high-performing — and when they fail in this regard, it is incumbent upon the system itself to provide the tooling to diagnose the errant behavior. These values are not new (indeed, they are some of the oldest in computing), but there are times when they can feel endangered. It is our belief that the rise of cloud computing has — if anything — made the traditional values of systems software robustness more important. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know some of the Google engineers involved in the Kubernetes effort, and I have found that they broadly share Joyent’s engineering values — that they too seek to build a robust software substrate, as informed by their (substantial) experience operating systems at scale. Given our shared values, I was particularly pleased to learn of Google’s desire to create a new kind of foundation with their formation of the Cloud-native Computing Foundation. Today, I am excited to announce that Joyent is a charter member of the Cloud-native Computing Foundation, as it represents the values we sought to embody in the Triton stack — and I am honored to have been personally asked to serve on the foundation’s technical steering committee. We believe that we haven’t just joined a(nother) foundation, we have joined with those who share the mission that we have always had for ourselves: to help effect the next revolution in computing.

That I could possibly be so enthusiastic for a foundation merits further explanation, as I have historically been very forthright with my skepticism about foundations with respect to open source: three years ago, in a presentation on Corporate Open Source Anti-patterns (video), I described the insistence of giving newly-opened source code to a foundation as an anti-pattern, noting that giving up ownership also eschews leadership. I further cautioned that many underestimate the complexity and constraints of a 501(c)(3) — while overestimating the need for an explicitly non-profit organization’s involvement in a company’s open source efforts. While these statements about foundations were unequivocal, I also ended that presentation by saying that my observations shouldn’t be perceived as hard rules — and implied that the thinking may change over time as we continue to learn from our own experiences.

Three years after that presentation, I still broadly stand by my claims — but (as my enthusiasm for the Cloud Native Computing Foundation indicates) foundations are one area where my thinking has definitely shifted. In particular, in those rare instances when an open source technology reaches a level of ubiquity such as to sediment into collective bedrock, I believe that it actually does belong in a foundation. How do you know if your open source project is in this category? If multiple companies are betting their future on your open source project, congratulate yourself for laying down the bedrock upon which others are building — and then get it into a foundation to assure its future. This can be hard to internalize (after all, you have almost certainly put more resources into it than anyone else; why should you be expected to simply give that away?!), but the reality is that the commercial pressures that are now being exerted on your (incredibly popular!) technology will rip it apart if you don’t preserve its fate. This can be doubly frustrating when you feel you are acting in the community’s best interests, but as soon as that community includes rival commercial interests, only a foundation can provide the necessary (but not sufficient!) neutrality to assure the community that the technology’s future transcends the fate of any one company. Certainly, we learned all this the hard way with node.js — but the problem is in no way unique to node.js or to Joyent. Indeed, with open source now essentially a constraint on new infrastructure software, we can expect this transition (from corporate-owned open source to foundation-owned open source) will happen with increasing frequency. (Should you find yourself at OSCON this week, this trend and its ramifications is the subject of my talk on Thursday.)

In this regard, the Docker world has been particularly interesting of late: the domain is entirely open source, with many companies (including Joyent!) betting their futures not just on Docker, but on the many other technologies in the ecosystem. With so much bedrock suddenly forming, foundations were practically preordained — so it was no surprise to see the announcement of the Open Container Project at DockerCon just a few weeks ago. We at Joyent applaud these developments (and we are a charter member of the OCP), but I confess that the sprouting of foundations has left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed: are we really to have a foundation for every GitHub repo that reaches a certain level of popularity? To be clear, I don’t object to the foundations in the abstract so much as the cacophony of their putative missions: having the mission of a foundation being merely to promote a particular technology feels like it’s aiming a bit low in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Now, one can certainly collect open source software into a foundation like the Apache Foundation — but as we move to a world where an increasing amount of software is open source, what becomes of their mission? Foundations that are amalgamations of otherwise unrelated software seem to me to run the risk of becoming open source orphanages: providing shelter and a modicum of structure, perhaps, but lacking a sense of collective purpose.

The promise of the Cloud-native Computing Foundation is that it offers a potential third model: while the foundation will serve as the new home for Kubernetes, it’s not limited to Kubernetes — nor is it an open source dumping ground. Rather, this foundation is dedicated to a particular ethos: the creation of the new kinds of application and (especially) service stacks that represent modern, server-side computing. That is, it is a foundation with a true mission: to advance key open source technologies that constitute modern, elastic computing. As such, it seeks to transcend any single technology — it has a raison d’ĂȘtre that runs deeper than mere self-preservation. I would like to think that this third parth can serve as a model in the new, all-open world: foundations as entities that don’t let their corporate neutrality prevent them from being opinionated as to their mission, their constituent technologies or — importantly — their engineering values!

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