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By Alan Ren

I lead VMware’s Advanced Technology and Evangelism Center—or simply, VMware’s R&D efforts—in China and over a series of four posts, I want to share our perspective on the state of open source in China and where VMware, in particular, is making an impact.

This is an exciting time for the Chinese open source community. Open source technologies have long found enthusiastic users in our part of the world, but today we’re making valuable contributions to the technologies as well and doing so at a rate that’s starting to match our peers across the rest of the world.

In this first piece, I want to look at Chinese open source efforts around cloud native computing. Then in the following posts, I’ll explore what’s happening with open source solutions for blockchain, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. These four areas are where the bulk of open source efforts are being directed in China today.

How we got here — open source in China

It’s worth starting out, though, with a bit of history. From an enterprise perspective, open source took longer to gain mindshare in China than in the US and Europe. But that started to change with the advent of Linux, and over the last decade or so, enterprise-facing Chinese developers have really begun to embrace open source methodologies.

The trend gained momentum with the widespread adoption of LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) technologies by pioneering Chinese internet companies like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Then, as cloud computing grew in popularity, we saw developments like the Sina App Engine (modeled on Google’s AppEngine) and the Alibaba Cloud and Shanda Grand Cloud initiatives. To drive these efforts forward, developers embraced open source management tools and platforms like Hadoop, Docker, OpenShift, OpenStack and Kubernetes—to the point that China is now one of the world’s leading contributors to many of these projects.

Today, it’s no longer just internet companies and grassroots developers creating and using open source technology. The leading companies in many of our technology sectors, whether state-owned, private, or multinational are willing to offer the support required to grow and maintain a healthy, sustainable and ever-improving open source ecosystem.

At the same time, the Chinese government has welcomed open source as an important contributor to its Indigenous Innovation initiative, which aims to support more open innovation across the nation. Industry groups like the Linux Foundation and its subsidiaries have started to hold regular conferences in major Chinese cities. Many of our home-grown technology giants like Huawei, Tencent and Alibaba are now senior-level members of key open source efforts such as Linux, Hadoop and the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF).

Given this history, it’s perhaps no surprise that cloud native projects are the most mature when it comes to engagement and contributions from the Chinese open source community. VMware has been involved in many of these efforts from early on, especially as former in-house projects like Cloud Foundry have been shared with the open source community. VMware was also one of the first movers in the Chinese Docker market and we’ve been an active supporter of community events like LC3 and the upcoming KubeCon in Shanghai this November.

open source in china

Building Harbor, China’s first homegrown Linux Foundation project   

But our impact on the cloud native open source space is perhaps best illustrated by Harbor, the open source, enterprise-class cloud registry that stores, signs and scans content. Harbor began life as an internal project initiated by project founder and VMware Technical Director for China R&D Haining Henry Zhang in 2014. From the start, it was clear that the project had broad applicability, especially once Google released Kubernetes the following year.

That inspired us to open source Harbor and initiate the China-based Cloud Native Forum to build a community around cloud native open source efforts in the region. Huawei, Caicloud, Alauda, Dataman and Pivotal were among the mix of enterprise leaders and start-ups that joined us for regular meetups where we worked to advance container technology and our collective open source projects.

The community’s input to Harbor in terms of contributing code, giving feedback to the project roadmap and using it in both trial and production environments made a huge difference. We saw contributions from Caicloud, CloudChef, Alauda, Tencent and BingCloud in China and start-ups like Rancher in the US.

Before long, Harbor was embedded into the Pivotal Container Service (PKS) and several of VMware’s offerings, demonstrating the value that commercial enterprises are increasingly finding in open source software. Harbor’s users now include all of the largest internet providers in China, as well as TalkingData, TrendMicro, OnStar, robotics startup SlamTec and CMsoft, the software arm of ChinaMobile, the largest mobile carrier in the world.

In August, at just four years old, Harbor was accepted as project number 24 into the CNCF. It’s the first project created by the Chinese open source software community to receive that honor and the first VMware-originated open source effort to be accepted under the CNCF umbrella. With VMware as a platinum member of the CNCF, Harbor is likely to raise the visibility of local open source cloud native efforts both for users and contributors. Already a third of Harbor’s contributors originate from outside China, while close to half of all downloads and forks are coming from elsewhere. I anticipate the global users and contributors will soon be in the majority.

Kubernetes in China – and looking ahead

If the growing popularity of Kubernetes in China helped fuel the growth of Harbor, Kubernetes itself has been enjoying increasing support within our community. In recognition of that fact, developers from Caicloud, a Hangzhou-based start-up founded by two ex-Googlers and early Kubernetes contributors, created the Kubernetes China Community in 2016. VMware joined last year and we’re already heavily engaged in helping evangelize open source cloud native efforts among our peers.

Looking ahead, we’ve just agreed to join a third effort in this area called KubeFlow—another initiative started by Caicloud—this time with Google and Alibaba. It aims to combine Kubernetes with TensorFlow and operate at the intersection of cloud native and artificial intelligence. We’ll likely be contributing in the areas of data modeling and packaging, as well as exploring what machine learning-as-a-service might look like in the future.

VMware isn’t the only enterprise bullish on the potential behind Chinese open source efforts in the cloud native arena. Tencent, Intel and others are funding multiple local open source-based cloud native start-ups. And as KubeFlow demonstrates, global players are eager to join in, too.

Certainly, our experience has been that the Chinese open source community has the creativity and productivity to make contributions of lasting value. We have both the talented contributors and the sophisticated, widely differentiated user base required to sustain a vibrant open source ecosystem. Five or six years ago, Chinese efforts in cloud native ran mostly parallel to those in the US and elsewhere. Today, they are very much aligned.

As I suggested at the top of this post, these are exciting times for open source in China. We’re still in the early stages of our cloud native open source journey, for sure, but if the first 23 CNCF projects all came from outside of the country, my guess is that up to a third of the next 23 might originate here.

Next time, I’ll share our outlook on open source efforts around blockchain in China—a fast-changing field in which VMware China R&D is set to make a major contribution. Stay tuned to the Open Source Blog for the next post in this series.