Who controls Vert.x: Red Hat, VMware, or neither?

Mailing list drama casts spotlight on Vert.x, an open source project for scalable Web development that seems immunized to corporate control

Vert.x is an asynchronous, event-driven open source framework running on the JVM. It supports the most popular Web programming languages, including Java, JavaScript, Groovy, Ruby, and Python. It's getting lots of attention, though not necessarily for the right reasons.

A developer by the name of Tim Fox, who worked at VMware until recently, led the Vert.x project -- before VMware's lawyers forced him to hand over the Vert.x domain, blog, and Google Group. Ironically, the publicity around this action has helped introduce a great technology with an important future to the world. The dustup also illustrates how corporate politics works in the age of open source: As corporate giants grasp for control, community foresight ensures the open development of innovative technology carries on.

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Vert.x under the hood

Think of Vert.x as Node.js written for the JVM, a simplifying technology for advanced solutions in the cloud. It has a simple concurrency model that enables developers to write single-threaded applications, but provides a nonblocking event model and distributed event bus so that sophisticated, scalable, distributed applications can be developed. It potentially has access to the full range of Java class libraries and can be used with a full range of enterprise applications if programmed in a suitable language.

Vert.x was largely developed by its project lead, Tim Fox, who worked for VMware's SpringSource unit -- until he was hired by Red Hat last week. While Vert.x uses existing ideas from Netty (recently spun out from JBoss as an independent community), Vert.x is a complete platform for writing asynchronous applications and is clearly a very powerful tool for the current generation of Web applications. As a consequence, a growing crowd of developers has embraced it; indeed, Nate McCall of Apigee noted they had "recently staked a lot on vert.x" and another list member suggested there were "millions of dollars" of development at stake.

The project looks safe enough from a developer perspective. It's hosted on GitHub and licensed under the Apache license, so every community member has equal access and is free to fork. All the same, VMware had been accumulating copyright assignments, and the company's response to Red Hat hiring Tim Fox was, according to a post he made to the Vert.x community, to call in all his community roles as if they owned them, using legal threats in the end. This move immediately raised concerns, even provoking calls for a fork and comparisons to the Hudson/Jenkins split.

Red Hat politics

Red Hat declined my invitations to comment on the situation, so I'm left to analyze the evidence available in the community to try to understand what's going on. This is clearly an area Red Hat's JBoss unit cares about, and Mark Little -- the Red Hat executive who commented officially on the mailing list -- is its CTO. It seems Tim has been hired competitively from VMware to work on Vert.x full time. Further, Tim's original message was approved for release, so the challenge to VMware was intentional. While it's possible this is a by-product of the well-known rivalry between JBoss and SpringSource, dating from before either was purchased, it seems more likely this is part of Red Hat's strategy.

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