Is Pivotal's Cloud Foundry open enough?

A year ago, Pivotal announced its intent to set up a foundation for the open source Cloud Foundry project, but issues lurk in the bylaws and ownership of the name

With Pivotal announcing the results of its first year selling Cloud Foundry products, I was surprised to see so little evaluation of the company's foray into the world of open source nonprofits, the Cloud Foundry Foundation. It claims a unique vision:

Some open source projects foster inclusiveness and sacrifice velocity while some increase velocity at the expense of transparency. Cloud’s unique vision is to foster contributions from a broad community of developers, users, customers, partners and ISVs while advancing development of the platform at extreme velocity.

How well is the Cloud Foundry Foundation delivering on those claims? Before digging into the governance of the nonprofit, it’s worth understanding the nature of Pivotal. Some people refer to it as a startup or a new business, but it's more complicated.

While the name came from a high-end mobile/Web design and development house, Pivotal Labs, the company itself is an exceptionally well-funded spinout of EMC and VMware. Pivotal combines assets and initiatives such as Greenplum, Cloud Foundry, Spring, Hadoop, GemFire, and other projects and acquisitions of the founding companies. Starting Pivotal meant refactoring a rich existing portfolio, not building from the ground up. It also has a $105 million investment from GE to spend.

Given the amount of value pumped into the company and the accumulated person-years of effort its products represent, Pivotal is better seen as a maturing corporate division attempting to turn a profit than as a startup. With its parentage and accumulated corporate skills, it's able to sell directly into the CxO levels of its prospects in a manner inaccessible to most startups.

Pivotal is no startup. We can expect its behavior to be corporate and to prioritize political and commercial priorities over community. In that context, the governance of the new Cloud Foundry Foundation makes more sense.

The Cloud Foundry Foundation

As with the OpenStack Foundation, companies have been flocking to join. Many are using the software or are a Pivotal customer, but there’s undoubtedly a parallel political motivation: Some players are present at least partly to ensure that the founders can’t define the market alone -- exactly as with OpenStack.

That’s why governance rules have been rushed into place for the foundation that show unmistakable signs of the politicians inhabiting the standards functions of its primary members: EMC, HP, IBM, Pivotal, Rackspace, SAP, and VMware. One source told me that IBM’s love of Cloud Foundry (its Bluemix PaaS, based on Cloud Foundry, fared better than Pivotal CF in a recent InfoWorld review) was a particular motivation for the brisk pace. As I remember from the days when the Java Community Process first came into existence, defining governance that stops the likes of IBM exerting control is not easy and comes with costs.

It comes as no surprise to find issues with the Cloud Foundry Foundation governance that could affect the software freedoms of its participants in the future. Most obviously, the Cloud Foundry trademark remains Pivotal’s property. By contrast, other open source trade association nonprofits -- including OpenStack and Eclipse -- own their trademark and have sovereignty over its use.

Why is that a problem? When the name of an open source organization does not belong to it, that's an instant red flag. Some examples:

  • Any programs the foundation conceives will need to satisfy the trademark license offered by its owner. Activities that appear to detract from those plans will be vetoed.
  • Members will need to look over their shoulder any time they use the name. Even if their activities complement the community, they may not complement the trademark owner’s plans.
  • The trademark owner is free to abuse the name without recourse. This is not theoretical; Sun eventually did this with the term “Java” when it used the word to brand Web server products.

Along with trademark control, I found several other potential issues in the bylaws:

  • Pivotal, EMC, and VMware are explicitly allocated a board seat each (s. 3.3).
  • They are treated as independent for anti-bloc-membership (s.6.1) purposes; other members can’t have their affiliates join.
  • Pivotal gets extra board votes for three years, on a tapering allocation (s.3.13(b)).
  • Individual members can’t be employed by members and remain members themselves (s.6.3(c)).
  • The board is pay-to-play (for Platinum members, $500,000), but unlike Eclipse there is no matching requirement to allocate headcount to development (s.6.5).
  • A Pivotal product is mentioned by name, (definitions section). A no-charge usage option is available, however.

These aren’t terribly surprising for a vendor-created industry association [CFF aims to be a 501(c)(6) nonprofit]. Preventing well-funded and politically experienced companies like IBM, SAP, and HP from gaming the rules and taking de facto control makes terms like these inevitable. But for an open source community, giving certain members guaranteed roles in perpetuity indicates a lack of equality. Granting them extra votes and privileged commercial relationships ensures that lack of equality is real. Preventing individuals from maintaining influence as they pursue their careers ensures corporate matters take priority.

That’s unlikely to make the stated vision to “foster contributions from a broad community of developers, users, customers, partners and ISVs” as easy to realize once the political frenzy dies down. In particular, the “most favored member” status of Pivotal is likely to chill transparent engagement. Getting things done in a context where the founder effectively has veto power requires private channel negotiations.

The future of Cloud Foundry

Making predictions about what will happen next is tough in such a dynamic young market. But the built-in permanent privilege of Pivotal, together with the competition-controlling trade association rules, amount to a regrettable start for an open source community. Setting up certain companies as potential gatekeepers reduces the degree of permission in advance.

In the longer term, and as the JCP found when faced with requests from Apache to remove restrictions from Java so they could independently implement it, rules devised to control competition in one era can become a burden in the next. Open source developers would be wise to ensure that, if they throw in their lot with Cloud Foundry, they have other ways to preserve their software freedoms.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform