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Swapnil Byartiya from TFIR.io, a news and analysis outlet that targets CXOs and decision-makers in the realm of “The Fourth Industrial Revolution,” sat down with VMware Chief Open Source Officer Dirk Hohndel to discuss open source at VMware, how to keep a project healthy, and VMware’s changing presence in the open source community. Here is a synopsis of that podcast interview, and be sure to watch the full interview on TIFR.io.

An Enterprise Open Source Software Company

Lately, VMware has been outspoken with its intent to become a leader and responsible “good citizen” in the open source community. The company’s investments over the past four years have certainly gone a long way towards bringing that to fruition. This is evidenced in VMware’s own technology portfolio, where the highly visible presence of open source and the experts who create it has risen in importance. Obviously, Dirk is very pleased with this philosophic shift.

“I think if you look at the last three years I have been here, you will see a very notable change in the way VMware talks about ourselves in the context of open source. And Pat Gelsinger, our CEO, said that we are becoming an ‘enterprise open source software company.’ That is a remarkable change compared to three to four years ago when a lot of people saw VMware purely as a proprietary software company. So, there is a massive shift in the company, and there’s a massive shift in our footprint in the industry.”

The reason for this shift is because open source itself has become much more significant. Many emerging technologies—like IoT, ML, AI, and blockchain—are infused with it and led from an open source starting point, so the commercialization and subsequent products actually lag behind. As Dirk puts it:

“I think the way modern applications are being built has changed over the last few years. In-house application development is truly the largest area of application development in the industry. And as more and more companies develop in-house applications along a cloud-native model, the importance of that infrastructure, that tooling and the whole cloud-native ecosystem for our customers has increased. And obviously, when your customers are interested in an area, you as their provider want to make sure you invest there. This is the shift that you’ve seen [in VMware] over the last few years.”

Learning and Preserving the Culture of Open Source at VMware

Listening and learning is all part of culture change. This has never been more necessary for VMware as it has made many acquisitions in 2019, in rapid-fire succession. For VMware, the late 2018 acquisition of Heptio, a Kubernetes leader, signaled the beginning of a trend. This major move was swiftly followed by the addition of Bitnami to the VMware family (May 2019). In August, the addition of Pivotal became the third open source-focused acquisition in a matter of a year. Assimilating this much open source expertise and ethos has naturally influenced VMware culture. After all, these companies built their reputation and market presence using open source as their core. These acquisitions enhance and expand open source at VMware, including our  Kubernetes portfolio and open source presence, but just as important, they usher in a new way of thinking about how open source connects to commercial products.

“It’s much more about listening very carefully to what people do, what they think, and why they do it. It’s this very slow movement towards each other. If I look at the culture the Heptio engineers brought into VMware—we now consider them VMware engineers, of course—certainly those teams have different approaches than the rest of the company.  I would say we have done a wonderful job of bringing the teams together and creating a very healthy internal culture.”

The Difference between Open Source and Commercial Products

When it comes to offering a commercial product based upon an open source project, Dirk maintains that there is a significant difference between that initial project and the resulting product.

“The projects fundamentally live for themselves,” says Dirk.  “They are their own purpose. Their communities define their scope, their features and releases. They live outside…independent of a company. Versus the product, which is something the company creates based on customer requirements, their own architecture, and the family of products that they want to create to solve customer problems.”

Even though open source projects are generally stable and viable, commercial versions are needed to accommodate the unique needs of large companies, such as scaling, data compliance, compatibility, and dedicated support. This benefits any given project in that these large companies are pouring engineering improvements into the code, which benefits everyone in the community. Formal code reviews, debugging, newly-formed processes, and (in the case of Kubernetes) managing a project that has over 10,000 developers working on it are examples of the community advantages of major interests in open source.

“It’s a big investment for a company,” adds Dirk.  “At VMware, our engineers volunteer to shadow release managers before stepping into the lead role while they mentor another person. It’s a significant time investment during which that developer isn’t working on commercial things because they are dedicated to the community. But that’s part of being all-in.”

To watch the full interview with Dirk Hohndel, visit TIFR.io.

Stay tuned to the Open Source Blog for more around open source at VMware and be sure to follow us (@vmwopensource) and Dirk (@_dirkhh) on Twitter for all the latest open source insights and updates.