Joyent open-sources its core technology

Cloud pioneer Joyent throws down the gauntlet to the bloated world of OpenStack with fresh open source releases

Not all the action is happening at the OpenStack Summit in Paris. In a bold move, cloud specialist Joyent has announced it's open-sourcing its core technology. That includes software that competes directly with OpenStack and enables high-performance use of container technology like Docker. The newly open projects enable easy management of containers at scale.

Joyent is an IaaS/PaaS cloud company doing things differently. In a world using Linux as its cloud substrate, Joyent builds on its SmartOS variant of Illumos (derived from the former OpenSolaris project Oracle unceremoniously trashed when it bought Sun). Steward of the hugely popular Node.js JavaScript server framework, the company runs with a robust pragmatism that sometimes provokes rebellion in its community -- yet seems to pull back from the brink every time. That contrarian spirit saw it bet early on the trend now setting the agenda in IaaS: containers.

Under new management and with $15 million of new funding, Joyent is stepping up to the next level of open source in its business model. Open source has been a part of the company all along, but today the company has announced its core technologies are going open source too. One is SDC (SmartDataCenter), the container-based orchestration software that runs the Joyent public cloud; the other is the Manta object storage system, which CTO Bryan Cantrill describes as a "multi-tenant ZFS-based object storage platform that provides first-class compute by allowing OS containers to be spun up directly upon objects -- effecting arbitrary computation at scale without data movement."

The object store is significant, according to analyst Stephen O'Grady of RedMonk. He told me, "All of the assets being released as open source projects here are interesting, none more so than Manta, an object-store that incorporates distributed data compute functionality that borrows heavily from the Unix tradition."

SDC occupies offers functionality similar to that of OpenStack, but with many differences. Most important, it's built from the ground up for OS containers and offers scalability with observability, the two key attributes you need to run IaaS commercially. It's described as "a large and complex beast" and indeed contains as subsystems several projects that are likely to gain lives of their own. Cantrill calls out Manatee -- an Apache ZooKeeper-based system that manages PostgreSQL replication and automates failover -- and Moray, a key-value service that lives on top of PostgreSQL.

Surprising as it may seem, much of the code is written in JavaScript using Node.js, but this reflects both the investment Joyent has made turning Node.js into a high-performance tool and the preferences of the engineers. The SmartOS base and JavaScript code are no deterrent for community engagement. Cantrill told me that both Pivotal and Docker are already showing interest collaborating over SDC, and it's likely the wide range of subprojects will attract a diverse ecosystem to the SDC project.

The way Joyent is making the projects open source is also interesting. It has clearly been using an inner-source approach, developing its code in a closed community on GitHub in a way that makes it possible to go open by throwing a switch and applying an OSI-approved copyright license.

Significantly, the modern and flexible MPLv2 (Mozilla Public License version 2) is the copyright license for the code. This means Joyent play well both with GPL projects -- MPLv2 is explicitly compatible with the GPL -- and as part of proprietary projects. It also allows the company to avoid any form of contributor agreement by including an explicit warrant of original work and a mechanism to upgrade the license without accumulating copyright. Cantrill is known for his sharp criticisms of corporate vaporware relating to open source, so it's no surprise to see the source code for both projects is already public on GitHub.

Roman Shaposhnik, open source director at Pivotal, told me: "I'm psyched about Joyent's decision to remove the last barrier for adoption of two of its cornerstone technologies. It will be exciting to see what Joyent and Docker can learn from each other. Trying to see how Pivotal's Cloud Foundry can benefit from SDC's no-nonsense, low-complexity architecture will be keeping me busy."

Joyent's move could prove both disruptive and influential in the fast-growing but still-nascent market for clouds of containers. Despite the apparent overwhelming scale of OpenStack, Joyent's performance-focused approach and partnerships with Docker and Pivotal could have a significant impact on how the market evolves.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.