What's the real reason Microsoft and Google are releasing open source?

Google and Microsoft might be generously helping the open source community, but there are real strategic reasons for their open source projects too

When individuals release open source projects, their motivations are often altruistic. Their intention is to give back to the community, get as many people as possible to help improve the project, or just to release what they think is a useful tool to others.

Although the general perception of open source has definitely advanced since Microsoft's "un-American" comments, the best companies are not open sourcing things for the altruism. There are real, strategic reasons hidden behind the warm and fuzzy glow of open source.

Google and Microsoft are good examples of this.

Google Cloud and open source

Google has a major advantage when it comes to container tooling because it effectively invented the concept and has been running containers in production for almost a decade. As a result, Kubernetes is perhaps the most famous of Google's recent open source releases. For the uninitiated, Kubernetes is a cluster and container orchestration framework that allows you to schedule workloads across many nodes.

The goal for this project seems to be to provide a standard platform for deploying and managing containerized environments. Developers will build their infrastructure using Kubernetes because it's free, and it has good documentation, well-designed APIs, and a growing ecosystem.

This works well for experiments and personal projects, but in the words of AWS's CTO, Werner Vogels, all this management is "undifferentiated heavy lifting" that you really should be outsourcing to an experienced provider.

AWS has a massive head start with its huge cloud portfolio, but Google's Container Engine happens to be what amounts to a hosted SaaS version of Kubernetes. This means that if Kubernetes becomes the default way of running containers, Container Engine could become the default managed, supported service for it. Managed, supported services are things that businesses like.

The recently open sourced Seesaw load balancer follows exactly the same approach. Sure, you can run the load balancer yourself, but you can get the exact same functionality with Google Cloud Platform's load balancer products. They come with elastic scalability, support, an easy-to-use-control panel, and APIs.

Another Google project that may follow the same example is TensorFlow, the machine learning framework. This used inside Google's massively distributed data centers but the open source version is limited to a single node. It seems inevitable that Google will release an elastic machine learning service running on Google Cloud Platform that utilizes TensorFlow.

Microsoft and open source

Google's competitive advantage is its advanced infrastructure. Cloud Platform is its attempt to productize that, and open source is a great way to drive adoption. You can run it yourself, but a cheaper, easier and more flexible approach would be to let Google run it for you.

Microsoft has a different approach. Azure may be ahead of Google in terms of customer adoption but many would argue that Google has a much larger scale infrastructure, it just hasn't effectively sold it to customers yet. This might mean that people end up picking the open source library to build on because they know they can eventually move the workloads over to the best platform (Google).

To counter all that, Microsoft has to provide a better open source option so that people pick the product because it has the best features. They may or may not decide to run it on Azure, but it reduces the chances that Google's platform will become the default choice.

This is what we can see developing in CNTK, a machine learning framework. According to Microsoft:

CNTK has a big advantage over TensorFlow for people outside of academia: it can take advantage of the power of many servers at the same time. That's important because it's rare that a single computer is powerful enough to handle a real-world artificial intelligence application, such as speech recognition on an app used by millions of people. Internally, Google likely uses TensorFlow on thousands of servers at a time. But the version Google released to the public, Huang says, can't be used in this way.

This is important because Google considers its infrastructure to be a competitive advantage and is probably why the restriction exists in the open source version.

The next logical step for Microsoft would be to integrate it into its own Azure Machine Learning service. Indeed, it may already be more efficient to run CNTK on top of Azure's upcoming GPU Lab product.

It's no longer a race just to have the best proprietary cloud services. Open source is a key strategy behind their adoption, especially for workloads that evolve past personal projects into large scale commercial systems.

Who will get there first: Microsoft or Google?

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.