Open-source software is becoming the default foundation of modern IT. For many business leaders, choosing a service provider with a true commitment to openness helps ensure that developers stay nimble and that teams get to focus on innovation — not maintaining the status quo.
How can you tell if a prospective vendor makes the grade? Experts say you should do some digging into how they harness, support, and contribute to open-source technologies. Kick off your assessment by asking the following questions, based on advice from some of the leading authorities on open source.
Have they open-sourced any of their own tools?
When enterprises release their code for others to use and help improve, it drives adoption and speeds innovation, says Mike Evans, vice president of technical business development at Red Hat. “No single company could ever have enough engineers to add features, make upgrades, and fix bugs at such a fast rate and on such a massive scale,” he explains.
Give your prospective cloud provider extra points if they’ve contributed projects to a vendor-neutral foundation, suggests Chris Aniszczyk, COO of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF). These organizations provide open governance, promote collaboration among competing companies and with the developer community, and offer end-users freedom and the flexibility of choice. “The amazing thing is that open-source projects don’t slow down when foundations take over their management,” Aniszczyk says. “As we’ve seen with Kubernetes since Google contributed it to CNCF in 2015, development velocity can actually speed up.”
Do they contribute to other open-source projects and communities?
Businesses also participate in open-source ecosystems by funding foundations and standards bodies, hosting events, and encouraging employees to contribute code and lead projects on company time. The latter type of involvement becomes particularly important if you plan to use a prominent open-source tool on a cloud provider’s platform. Ask for data on their contributions to that tool’s underlying open-source project, such as the number of commits made by employees over the past month or year.
“It’s important for providers to contribute back to the open-source technologies and foundations they’re using to build their cloud,” Aniszczyk notes. “The currency of open source is contribution, and contribution brings influence to projects your business depends on. Without a voice in the room, your cloud provider won’t be able to shape these projects.”
Are their internal implementations of open-source projects 100-percent compatible with the external versions?
Even when providers build their cloud on top of open source, they may not offer full protection from lock-in, cautions Jonathan Donaldson, technical director for Google Cloud and former board member of CNCF. If they differentiate their products with proprietary features and enhancements, compatibility problems can arise when customers try to move workloads and data to a competing platform. Confirm that a prospective provider’s in-house version of an open-source solution stays close to the shared “trunk” of code and generally follows its release schedule.
Donaldson also draws a distinction between doctoring open source to the point of incompatibility and providing an optimized platform for harnessing open technologies. “TensorFlow is TensorFlow whether you deploy it on Google Cloud, on another cloud, or in your own data center,” he says, referring to the open-source machine learning framework that was originally developed by researchers and engineers at Google. “It may run faster on Google Cloud thanks to our TPUs, which are special chips designed for machine learning workloads. But that’s because of our hardware, not because we have a proprietary version of TensorFlow for internal use.”
What kind of technical support do they offer for open-source technologies?
If you plan to power business-critical systems with open-source software, you need to know whether your cloud provider can help you fix things that break, says Evans. “There are so many open-source technologies out there, and sometimes there can be little accountability,” he says. “What if you build your ATM software on top of one of them? If something goes wrong, you don’t want to be on your own.”
Many vendors offer several support packages at different price points, but some don’t cover open source under their service-level agreements. Others will attempt to solve your problem before referring you to a relevant partner company or open-source community. For help with setup and ongoing administration, consider cloud providers that offer managed services for key open-source solutions. Instead of having to provision, scale, and monitor infrastructure, IT teams can focus on what matters to their business — while maintaining the freedom to move workloads or take advantage of multiple clouds.
Does their organization embrace openness as a philosophy?
Businesses can be open without a single line of code — and when they are, their customers always benefit. That’s because open workplace cultures encourage relationships based on authenticity, transparency, and trust, says Jen Kelchner, who runs a business consultancy that specializes in open practices. They also foster rapid innovation, smart decisions, and careful consideration of internal and external feedback.
To gauge whether a prospective cloud provider’s organization values openness, ask a few questions about their resources and processes, Kelchner recommends. “If they make their documentation and support materials publicly available so anyone can use them, that’s a step in the right direction toward open access and inclusivity,” she says. “It’s also important to ask about mechanisms for sharing your thoughts about the customer experience, as well as how that information will be handled.”
In the coming years, openness will grow in importance as a driver of competitiveness, innovation, and business agility. Need ideas on how to incorporate open technologies into your cloud strategy? Check out CNCF’s landscape of cloud-based solutions, projects, and vendors. These open-source cloud solutions are building blocks that forward-thinking businesses can mix and match to meet their needs, creating the systems that will power our world for years to come.