Friday, August 23, 2019

William Henry on open source innovation, the role of standards, and consuming software

William Henry is a senior distinguished engineer at Red Hat who has been involved with open source since Slackware. In this podcast, William talks about some of tensions in the open source world, including those between innovation and standardization, which have taken many forms over the years.

Show notes:



Gordon Haff:   I'm very happy today to have with me a co‑author of mine, a frequent collaborator in many things, open source. That is, William Henry, senior distinguished engineer at Red Hat. Why don't we start with some background in your part? How did you get involved with open source?
William Henry:  It was probably two different areas going on at the time. It would have been late '90s and then early 2000 when I was working in the whole distributed computing space and CORBA and JEE.
I was on one side obviously experimenting with Linux. I had downloaded Slackware probably in '97 and was playing with this at home on an old IBM Aptiva.
At the same time at work, I was seeing a lot of open source initiatives in the CORBA space for example and also in JEE or J2EE at the time or JBoss. Then of course there was a lot of other projects like Fuse and Camel that were coming out on the SOA side for things like messaging and Web services.
I was getting involved somewhat with those but not maybe as much hands‑on but more as a user and a person who was advising folks the new upstream community from companies I worked with.
Then of course, I joined Red Hat in 2008 and that was a completely different level of experience with open source, complete explosion. It was like drinking from the firehose. Because I'd been working so far up the stack, on the SOA side you almost assumed that a lot of thing were already done in operating system.
We had lots of cool things like Solaris, IBM AIX, and HP‑UX, those sort of things on the Unix side surely, all the real innovation was kind of done.
Perhaps Linux was trying to catch up, in some ways, to some of the innovations on those platforms, but there wasn't any real innovation going on.
Of course, I discovered very quickly there was massive innovation in terms of real time, then containers come along, and we still see that we're innovating quite a lot of Linux platforms while there's an explosion of technologies on top of that, as well.
Gordon:  That seems to be one of the watershed changes that's happened with open source over the last, maybe 10, 15 years. But, even more so recently is that open source software, Linux, various message buses, and things like that. Really, what their "innovation" was, initially, much lower cost. That was really a disruptive factor of open source.
The big change that we've been seeing over the last 10 years, and I'd argue it's accelerated in the last 5, is open source has become where much of the innovation in the tech industry is happening.
William:  Yeah, I think it's still a combination though. In other words, yes, there's an explosion of innovation, particularly if you look at gravitating around the Linux platform. In many ways, some of the innovation has already been invented before, and we've just come up with different flavors of it. Less expensive flavors of it.
The whole Linux‑based platform, be that everything up front, the Linux kernel to things like containers or virtualization of the cloud, it's almost like a reinvention of technology we were doing in the '60s and '70s, just at a much greater scale. We've reinvented the mainframe.
At the same time, you're right. Some of the innovation is around the scale. It is a massive scale that we can do now because of the cheapness, and because of the availability of infrastructure as a service, where the access to the time sharing of a platform is much broader. It's very simple for me to go to the cloud today, just for a simple demo. I don't have to go out and acquire anything or do anything.
I can get that resource in Sydney or in Ireland on the cloud there. It doesn't really matter. The scale and the amount of technology out there provides a huge, layered platform for innovation on top of that. At the same time, we're still doing things we did 20 or 30 years ago, just cooler in color with video and streaming and everything else.
Gordon:  In a way, I think the meme that everything has been done before is a little bit tired. Of course, there's many echoes and many instantiations of concepts which may go back decades and decades. For instance, to say, "Oh, public Clouds are just like timesharing." Well, they're really not.
William:  Right. We've got the type of multi‑tenancy that you're seeing on clouds today. Almost certainly to the user, the opaqueness of the geographical distribution of those assets is incredible. The types of tools and innovation and availability of software and services on top of that are a lot different.
Gordon:  We just talked about, I'm not sure if it's a tension, but certainly there's these two faces of open source about easy to acquire, low cost, very accessible on the one hand, and this engine for innovation on the other hand.
I'd like to take us into some of the other dual aspects that we see around open source today. We just touched on one of them, which is also relevant to your work with container tools like Podman, Buildah, and so forth.
That is, when do you standardize and when you innovate, and how does standardization and innovation play against each other?
William:  This is a tough one because you can see certain innovations out there thriving because of standards. Yet, you can see other innovations out there dying despite standards. Not so much dying but perhaps not delivering where people thought they would deliver.
Then the de facto standards, for example, you could look at things like container area for a start, where that was driven by an open source, but very non‑standard technology called Docker. Docker then moved with the rest of the community that were developing it into an open source standard OCI.
That has obviously become very successful. You can see other things like Kafka which comes out of the Apache Software Foundation. They came out with essentially another messaging type system which was living in Apache alongside things like Qpid.
Qpid became perhaps less interesting despite the fact that it was based on the AMQP standard. Less interesting from a commercial perspective than something like Kafka which, as we know, exploded.
Just because you build a standard, it needs a huge community behind it. In some ways, a large community can drive the standards. You have projects like Kubernetes which obviously came out of Google and open source.It wasn't like a standard, but companies like Red Hat and others saw how powerful it was going to be. We jumped in on that project. Now Kubernetes has become the de facto standard. Of course, the whole Cloud Native Computing Foundation which is part of the Linux Foundation has essentially grown up out of that.
It's a complex area where you have communities. You have commercial. You have standards. It's about trying to find a perfect storm of bringing those three things together that really drive the popularity or the success of open source project.
Gordon:  It's not universal, and there certainly are areas that are standards first. I think you are highlighting an important way in which standardization has evolved in many cases. You talked about some of your work in the middleware, in the eventing space.
If you look at the first iteration of that SOA 1.0 if you would, that was very much standardized in principle, but it was very heavy weight, very big vendor‑driven type of standardization. Whereas what we're seeing with the OCI container specs, obviously what we're seeing with Kubernetes.
What we're seeing with many many of the projects in cloud‑native space, is some company, some individual is going out and writing software that scratches some edge.
Other people are using that. Other people participating in the community. People are going, "Hey, this works. Let's make it a standard now." There's code‑first approach to standardization.
William:  It's really fascinating because when you look at it the whole...When you talk about SOA 1.0 and you talk about things like CORBA for example, there was a massive consortium, a huge standards effort with CORBA with massive commercial backing, with banks and telecommunication companies etc.
Perhaps it slowed down because of that. It didn't have a clear vision and scale‑level approach to it. Also, you can look at the W3C around standards as well. That was almost dead on arrival. Lots of lesson learned.
I was involved with the WS policy work. You can see again massive collaboration, huge organizations, massive money behind it. Folks like IBM and Microsoft and others, but they never really took off.
What had happened instead was the free market and innovation in the industry to solve problems first. For example, REST‑based approaches won. Standards doesn't always solve the problem. What I tell you what it will do though is what standard will help figure out is whether something will last.
When you look at the lessons learned from things like CORBA or things like W3C, it's very easy to get a cool "hello world" demonstration up and going in the space. When it comes to massive scale and transactions and security and all those other things, you pull in from all these standards bodies and industry experts and all that.
That's where the drag comes in, the lag comes. In many ways, the innovation today benefits from those early standards not because they were successful, [laughs] but in many ways because they were successful for a time and there were these lessons learned from them.
When you look at some of the hugely scalable architectures we have today, they are ‑‑ as you say ‑‑ built on the backs of the knowledge we gained from those quite frankly successful standards from the past.
It's not that they were all closed‑sourced sided because you had things in the CORBA space and other areas there. Obviously, we still got things like JBoss around today in the JEE.
Essentially lots of lesson learned there, but not exactly a lot of open source products that you will regard as massively successful in today's enterprise computing deployment.
Gordon:  OSI [Open Systems Interconnection, in this context] was another one I was involved with back in the day somewhat. The network model, people use it. It's a pretty good model, but the products that came out of it… There was an awful lot of money wasted on that.
William:  We still learned the lesson though. We still talk about L3 or whatever level layer 3 on today when we talk or whatever layer.
We still use that as a standard way of talking about how we're going to communicate in a distributed way and whether a piece of open‑sourced software you used in today's speaking at one of those layers etc. They are not OSI projects as you say.
Gordon:  Let's talk about some of the other trade‑offs or challenges or conflicts that we see in the space. You've mentioned community a number of times, what are some of the challenges you see with communities around factors like standardization, innovation, stability and trading off all of those things?
William:  Again, it's a tough one because I tell you that one of the areas that a lot of community people don't understand fully is the marketability of the technology they are using and how they are bringing it to market.
An example of that that I would use would be on the Qpid side. Here you had open source projects with a huge backing from the many of the banks out there because of AMQP, the standard.
You had an AMQP standard, you had an open‑sourced project called Qpid. When you take that to market, it was a very long sale cycle. There were people who would understand it. The low latency nature, all that coolness, it's open source, super‑fast, scalable, had a fault tolerance and all that stuff built in.
Unless you know how to sell that and sell it at scale, it comes hard to take it to market. You have a salesforce that's selling lots of different products and some of them are easier to sell than others and maybe are bigger price point.
Maybe your Qpid‑based product is less interesting. Something on the other hand like Kafka comes out and not so much geared towards a massive commercial product sale but more as a service, when it comes to thing like cloud or how to build it into a platform.
Suddenly it becomes a hugely more popular way of doing things because the way it's brought to market was different.
Gordon:  Maybe this would serve a good segue to talk about business models and some of the trade‑offs there a bit. We'll hear an argument with some of my colleagues about whether open source is a business model or not.
It's certainly fair to say that whether or not software's is open source or more broadly how software is licensed enables and forecloses certain pass in a business model.
That said, I still find it's useful to separate the open sourceness and the business modelish because while they interact with each other, they are not the same thing. Open source is not a business model by itself.
William:  No, it is not. The other thing I would say is just because your open source project isn't able to be directly marketed doesn't mean that there's not a market for it within something else. For example, Qpid, it's still got a market there as something that's deployed within other larger platforms.
For example, the Proton Project there can be used extensively for a non‑brokered, more distributed messaging pattern. It's very good. What you have to understand is that when you're taking things to market in the open‑source world you're competing with a lot of other different stories. Particularly, you as a community, in terms of how successful this will be commercially, you're very dependent on the people who are taking it to market for you.
A lot of communities will build really wonderful technology. You're sending a guy off to the bazaar. He's taking his rugs, his baskets, or whatever it is to it. How is he presenting those in the bazaar at his stall? How is he showing them?
Is your product sitting down on a back shelf because he looks at it and goes, "I don't know how to sell it. If somebody asks me for it, I'll sell it to them, but really I don't want it up front on my countertop. What I want up on front of my countertop are the things that sell maybe easily or maybe bring me a lot of markup." Whatever it might be.
How you're taking your open source project from the community, and how you expect that to be delivered in the market is super important. Sometimes it may be that you're not selling it direct. You're selling it as part of platform or something else that you're doing.
Messaging becomes an example of that where people really don't want to handle the complexity of setting up and managing complex messaging systems, but they may certainly consume a messaging service because it's easy, and they don't have to worry about it.
Gordon:  We've been seeing things play out in the Hadoop space, for example, about this recently. That seems to be a difficult stand‑alone sale. In a way, this doesn't even have that much to do directly with open source because I can look up other areas of software, like developer tools for example, that have historically been very difficult to sell for the most part.
Another trade‑off that we frequently see is between the speed of innovation ‑‑ rapid change, come out with a new incompatible build every day ‑‑ and stability, particularly for enterprise customers who just want something that works.
It doesn't necessarily need to be the latest and greatest. Fairly or not, open source communities' projects have sometimes gotten a little bit of a bad rap for being, maybe, a little too focused on the change ‑‑ early change, often, rule of development. What are some of your experiences with those trade‑offs?
William:  Obviously, there's a thirst, particularly the bleeding edge curve of that innovation, where people want newer features faster. They want to be able to turn around and consume. We want to do fault tolerance. It needs to be multi‑tenant or it needs to be more secure.
They're hungry for these new features but they also are struggling with how they're going to consume it now. There's two aspects of that too. There's the cloud‑native world or whatever, and your traditional apps, where you want more stability.
You still want more stability but at the same time you want to innovate. You want to be able to consume these newer technologies faster. One of the things I would say that's changed is that, in the past, communities would want people to catch up. The consumer would say, "No. We wanna slow down."
That's why companies like Red Hat were so successful because we were able to provide stability for 10 years. For example, on Linux, when Red Hat opened Red Hat Enterprise Linux. We're able to provide that stability for them.
At the same time you had innovation on the cloud space which has accelerated including DevOps and, as you say, the break it early, fix it and deploy often ‑‑ all that good stuff or whatever. Anyway, what I'm seeing now is a very different trend.
We've gone through three stages. One is the stability side with a, "We want the innovation but we can't really handle this in our infrastructure," to the world of DevOps and CICD where it was more of a, "Yes, we want to consume it and we can consume it. Give it to us faster."
To now, almost a situation where it has become, "Yes, we want to consume it faster, but we don't want to own it anymore. We just want to consume it as a service."
We're almost at this third phase of...It's like this comedian that I heard who was talking about a joke...his name is Gary Coleman, I believe. He's talking about how this generation will say "I want all of my music on my phone now," and they're going "What do you mean all of the music on your phone?"
He says, "Sorry, what I meant was all the music on my phone, right now, this moment." "How much are you willing to pay for it?" "Pay for it? Nothing."
That's the joke. My final offer is nothing. If people want everything now to be consumable as a service for free. It's a struggle on the...It's great in some ways for the upstream communities, but it also means they have to be innovating faster. It's interesting for customers like Red Hat as they have to try to pivot to perhaps more of a services‑based model.
Software as a service, providing messaging as a service, for example, or container build as a service, or whatever that might be. It obviously fits nicely into some of the cloud vendors, but also puts a challenge on the consumers as to "How do we want to standardize all this?" If we want to innovate fast and consume these things as a service what are they tradeoffs?
Do we expect a standardized consumption model across all of this or do we expect that we're going to have different pipelines into these different deployment platforms.
Gordon:  That's why the critical tradeoffs you have here is we went into near the end of our book that I'll put a free download link in the show notes. You have this ease of consumption in public clouds and software as a service, but in order to get that ease of consumption you are in many ways locking yourself into that single provider.
One of the great both opportunities and challenges for open source broadly is how do you get those attractive experiences to customers in a way that has a sustainable business model while allowing the end users the ability to move their work loads, move their data, move their intellectual property to wherever they want to run it.
William:  I think that's going to be a challenge for a while. That's where the industry is in a waiting mode a little bit. Obviously they're not waiting for it in terms of business. They're expecting someone to solve that for them.
Whether that's their open source vendor or someone like Red Hat or whether it's the cloud provider themselves, but as they rushed to the cloud and as they're embracing open‑hybrid cloud and multi‑cloud approaches. They are hitting that whole, just how portable is this container stuff, for example? How easy is it for me to move my instances across these various clouds and to bring them back on‑prem?
We've done a very good job, people like you and me, of talking about the benefits of open hyper‑cloud and multi‑cloud but the industry itself is still trying to catch up with that model. Things like OpenShift can provide a single consolidated platform across public clouds and private clouds, etc. The question is whether in this approach how will these developers and operators and essentially CIO offices respond to that?
They're trying to look at a consumption model. Other things like OpenShift Dedicated and other things like Azure OpenShift or Red Hat OpenShift also help with that model. I still think it's a, "Hurry up with my business." "Keep going everybody." "Go fast." "Do things quickly." But really, are you all making the right decision here?
Because there seems to be, "I don't want to own all this stuff anymore, I want somebody else to own it." Are we doing it right? I think that a lot of the people I've been talking to are struggling with that decision.
Gordon:  Well, there's really been this fundamental shift with Cloud, with software as a service. To provide a different way of consuming software and for that matter, really consuming services to your music example earlier. That changed environment. I'm not sure...In fact, I am sure it really hasn't been internalized by everyone.
We run software differently than we used to. Even when we do it on premise and a lot of those implications are still being thrashed out there.
William, anything that you'd like to add before we close? There's a couple of topics I would love to dive down to but I think those are entire podcast by themselves. So let's hit those another day.
William:  I would just say that what's exciting is that open source is running strong. Never before have we seen such validation of open sources we do today. In terms of the innovation, there's enterprise‑type projects for almost everything and they continue to improve. You're seeing things like Federation getting added to things like Kubernetes.
We're seeing some good collaboration around these open source projects with companies. With a view to moving more and more of these community‑led projects into a standards approach. All that has been wonderful.
On the other hand, we have this consumption model that there's some hesitation in. Because despite the appetite for all of this innovation there is still struggles, as there always has been with open source world of how people are going to consume this. How they want to consume it and who do they want to own the problem.
Before it was, "Can you own this from an upstream management perspective?" Now it's, "Yes, can I have it on‑prem but can you also own it off‑prem in the cloud so I don't have to do anything up there to play it because I really don't want to be in this mess of complicated IT business."
On the other hand, you’ve got small practitioners and consumers out there that are just quite happy to roll up their sleeves, deploy a bunch of servers and build all the cool stuff on top of it. It's really an exciting place to be. There's all sorts of different people in the marketplace consuming this. There's some super smart people in the communities upstream.
Of course, there's some excellent standards been driven out of these projects that everyone's going to benefit from and continue to make money in the market on.

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