SAP embraces opens source -- sort of

Years of slow change are finally leading to new openness at SAP, at least in connection with SAP HANA

At the annual OSCON (Open Source Convention) last week, those stuck in a worldview of open source from the previous decade would have suffered serious cognitive dissonance.

First, Microsoft was an anchor of the conference, with a full-scale display from Jean Paoli's subsidiary Microsoft Open Technologies. As I walked past I repeatedly heard people expressing shock that Microsoft was there at such scale. Wholehearted support for open source still largely stops at the boundaries of Microsoft's Azure cloud offering, but plenty of staff people with genuine open source credentials were showing their wares. Microsoft's journey is definitely progressing.

[ More from OSCON: OpenStack execs: Red Hat, Yahoo, Comcast are our adopters -- and contributors | Why one developer switched from Java to Google Go | Track trends in open source with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

Another surprising newcomer showed up as well: German IT superpower SAP had a stand on the show floor for the first time. SAP announced that it has become a sponsor of two key open source communities: the Cloud Foundry platform-as-a-service community initiated by Pivotal, and the ever-expanding OpenStack Foundation. SAP's new steps revolve around adding support for its SAP HANA in-memory database to both platforms, including a Cloud Foundry service broker being developed at GitHub.

SAP also discussed its own open source project, OpenUI5, a substantial JavaScript UI library it previously delivered as a proprietary project under the name SAPUI5. Having built the code in-house, it started a move to fully open development late last year and now has the code on GitHub, where it is attempting to develop in public. Earlier open sources moves also include an embrace of Apache Spark and code to allow use of SAP HANA from Node.js.

While SAP has been a major participant at Eclipse for quite some time, these three activities signal the company is taking another step on the journey to openness. I spent some time with Thomas Grassl, SAP's vice president of developer relations. He explained how important these new moves to open source are for SAP, especially in the cloud where open source is the assumed default. Cloud deployments are especially sensitive to any aspect where licensing permission must be sought before deployment and the permissionless flexibility delivered by open source brings a clear advantage.

Like Microsoft, SAP sees the inevitability of open source and is taking steps to adapt its business for open source. Grassl told me that his developer relations team works closely with SAP's internal open source office -- which deals mainly with governance aspects. He explained that as well as producing open source software, recent policy changes have finally allowed SAP's product developers to consume open source code. That has in turn led to contributions upstream to around 100 different open source projects. Coupled with a move to zero-dollar licenses for developer use of their products, SAP's developer activities are finally moving into the same circles that competitors have occupied for some time.

In an earlier article on Microsoft's open source journey, I suggested a seven-stage model, which can also be applied to SAP:

  1. Open source as enemy: Outright opposition to open source. It may not seem much of a step, but obsessing about an enemy is a sign that the threat of change has been understood.
  2. Damage containment: Open source messages are for marketing purposes and are isolated to business units or product dimensions that are market followers rather than market leaders.
  3. Embrace and extend: Larger strategies are reframed as "open source" while semantic games attempt to conceal the resulting cognitive dissonance. An open source office is created to manage this and build reputational credit with developers.
  4. Executive air cover: A new C-level exec is able to defend actions by the open source office and to counter strategies elsewhere in the corporation that threaten to destroy the reputational credit the open source office creates.
  5. Exploratory opening: The company sets limited business unit strategies that involve coherent plans for profit while depending on effective software production in the community.
  6. General opening: Open source is the default for new business activities, and existing businesses are expected to transform profitably into open source-based business. Holdouts get escalated to the CEO.
  7. Full embrace: Software freedom -- both delivering it to customers and benefiting from it within the business -- is a fundamental part of the overall company strategy.

While the pace is stately, these are all genuine, strategic steps SAP is taking on its open source journey. SAP seems to have reached the middle of the model I proposed since there's still little impact on their proprietary products. Nonetheless, SAP's exhibiting at OSCON is most welcome, despite the company having a long way to go.

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