Can open source save HP?

Bold new cloud offering built on open source -- with a subtle restructuring -- may plant the seeds for the future rescue of HP

You seldom hear about it, but Hewlett-Packard has long been a supporter of open source. The company contributes to the Debian GNU/Linux distribution and has hired several people who were formerly leaders of the Debian Project, including the redoubtable Bdale Garbee. HP also participates in many smaller projects and invests plenty of effort in governance and community activities. Despite its work engaging the community and ensuring HP printers are usable from Linux, open source seems to have made little impact on HP's software portfolio (alas, poor WebOS).

At OSCON last week in Portland, I had the chance to speak once again with Phil Robb, the director for HP's Open Source Program Office. My discussion with him last year was inauspicious; he explained WebOS's importance to HP, but by the time I published my (suitably sceptical) article, the product was canceled. Since then, Robb has kept his job title but moved from HP Labs to the legal department. He was joined for the discussion by his new boss Eileen Evans, now associate general counsel for open source strategy and intellectual property at HP but once a key lawyer at Sun Microsystems.

[ Move over, Amazon -- IaaS providers are elbowing into the cloud. See how they compare in InfoWorld's slideshow. | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

HP and the OpenStack cloud
The context for the conversation was HP's launch of a new cloud service. Back in April, HP announced it was joining OpenStack as a top-level Platinum member, and since then has launched a full implementation of OpenStack under the HP Cloud brand. OSCON saw HP Cloud take two services live into commercial production, together with a $20 free trial offer for three months. HP Cloud mas moved in a matter of months from me-too gesture into a production item. The company seems serious both about competing with Amazon.com at all levels and engaging OpenStack in the true spirit of open source.

HP Cloud is still emerging but already offers production-quality object storage and content delivery, and it has compute, block storage, and a relational database in beta (derived from MySQL; I am told it uses Percona). The cloud has come to production amazingly quickly, thanks largely to using open source code -- rather than inventing almost everything, as was the case with the pioneering Amazon. The SLAs offered by HP will reflect a good deal of confidence in the offering, with instant credit for any loss of availability, and the company has staffed up to make those SLAs real -- notably hiring open source veteran Brian Aker as a senior fellow on the cloud services team.

But the most important aspects of the offering come from open source. The fact that HP is implementing OpenStack means customers will have an open choice of provider as public clouds grow, which quells fears of lock-in. Better, the eventual growth of compatible vendors in the market allows the risk of the failure of one provider to be mitigated; it's even possible to blend multiple providers using the likes of Canonical's JuJu cloud provisioning and control tool, demonstrated by Mark Shuttleworth in his OSCON keynote.

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