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The OpenStack Promise

The OpenStack developers were also keenly aware of what being open involved as this page on the OpenStack wiki attests:

We will not produce "open core" software. We are committed to creating truly open source software that is usable and scalable. Truly open source software is not feature or performance limited and is not crippled. There will be no "Enterprise Edition".

We are committed to an open design process. Every six months the development community will hold a design summit to gather requirements and write specifications for upcoming release. The summits, which are open to the public, will include users, developers, and upstream projects. We will gather requirements and produce an approved roadmap used to guide development for the next six months.

One of our core goals is to produce a healthy, vibrant developer and user community. Most decisions will be made using a lazy consensus model. All processes will be documented, open and transparent.

We make the following promises:

The community will be involved in the design process. You can help make this software meet your needs.

The community will have representation on the technical board, which has the ability to override decisions by the project lead.

This will always be truly free software. We will never purposefully limit the functionality or scalability of the software to try and sell you an "enterprise" version

All project meetings will be held in public IRC channels and recorded.

The OpenStack project has been running for six months now, and is already working on its second release:

It has been an intense and productive three months since OpenStack unveiled the initial “Austin” release to the world. We have had code contributions from 130 developers and have added over 30 new features to the project for the “Bexar” release. The project has matured in the processes for managing and tracking milestone targets, with the Bexar release coming together smoothly and without hiccups with our new release manager.

Looking forward we will continue to execute on delivering project milestones but at the same time start to introduce and discuss longer term visions and roadmaps for this project. There is consistent community feedback that in addition to understanding the current project as scoped a longer term view needs to be communicated. This will introduce new projects, new opportunities for the community to contribute, and greater value and impact of the OpenStack project in the cloud industry.

That call to the community is crucially important. The OpenStack project will only succeed if it manages to build up a thriving ecosystem around its open standards. After all, a key aim is to offer users the freedom to move between service providers: if there aren't many of these, it's a poor kind of freedom. That's what makes this news slightly troubling:

The web-hosting provider Rackspace has announced that it is to purchase Anso Labs, the software and services company. Anso are known for developing Nebula, the cloud platform for scientific research, for its highest profile client NASA.

Last summer NASA contributed the Nebula code to OpenStack, a community project founded and supported by Rackspace to develop an open operating system for cloud computing. Rackspace open sourced its cloud infrastructure code for the OpenStack project in July 2010.

Anso Labs held one of the four seats on the OpenStack governance board and three of the nine seats on the project oversight committee. The purchase of Anso by Rackspace means that Rackspace now dominate OpenStack's governance, three to one, and project oversight, eight to one; the "one" in both cases being Citrix.

That matters, because this concentration of influence changes the dynamics of the project quite dramatically. It is no longer really a loose group of major partners, but a fairly traditional open source project where most of the power lies with one company, with others tagging along for all the good reasons that open source provides. That's still valuable, but it's very different from the premise and promise of a vibrant collection of companies working and competing in this space.

It comes down to the tricky area of governance, and raises general questions about how open source projects that involve commercial players should be run. This is made all the more pertinent in the wake of Oracle's acquisition of Sun, and the increasing fall-out from its rather aggressive management style.

Ironically, it is the GNU GPL that gives companies based on open source using that licence their power; by retaining the copyright to the code, they ensure that only they can offer it under a proprietary licence, creating an asymmetry in the business ecosystem.

Fortunately, OpenStack uses the Apache licence, which does not give the copyright holder any advantage. This means that at least in terms of licensing, other members of the OpenStack community have just the same rights as Rackspace, even if the latter has more influence elsewhere. Moreover, the use of the Apache licence also makes it easier to fork the project, which remains as the ultimate sanction for dissatisfied partners.

Now, I'm not suggesting that this is even remotely necessary; Rackspace seems genuinely to want a flourishing and truly open ecosystem around the OpenStack initiative, as the statements on openness quoted above indicate. But it now needs to take steps to reassure other members of that community that it still wants their input and influence, and that it is not simply taking over the project. Ideally, it will encourage others to assume larger roles in determining the way forward.

The good news is that this latest move has happened after OpenStack has been established for a while, and already has code to show for its efforts. That reality should make it easier to widen the group of companies and coders involved, and help to drive forward what remains an important open source project.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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