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Friday, April 26, 2013

‘Open’ Season in High Tech

Things must be getting really competitive in high technology. So many big competitive companies are striving to show how good they are at sharing.

In particular, they share the word “open.” In the world of cloud computing, we now have OpenFlow switching specification; the OpenStack cloud platform; Open Compute, dedicated to efficient computing infrastructure; the Open Virtualization Alliance, to create software that makes one computer server do the work of many; and OpenDaylight, to generate similar magic on computer networks.

For good measure, there is also the Open Grid Forum, which works on large-scale corporate and scientific computing, and the Open Cloud Consortium, which backs cloud computing for scientific and medical research.

That pattern you may have noticed in the names is no accident. By calling your group “open” in tech, you intimate that you believe in the free sharing of information to create superior products. It evokes the open source spirit that made the Linux operating system, as well as less-known Internet standards like the Apache Web server, so successful.

Just as important, for public relations purposes, it suggests that companies not in the group should be suspect, as they do not support that sharing, let-everything-be-free sensibility. If they are not outwardly open, they must be closed.

That is a useful message for a big incumbent player trying to combat an upstart that is threatening the incumbent’s business. Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems and Brocade, which for years made proprietary network switches, supported a recent meeting of OpenFlow. H.P. is also in the Open Virtualization, OpenStack and OpenDaylight groups. Cisco is also in OpenDaylight and the Open Cloud Consortium, while Intel is on the board of Open Compute and belongs to Open Virtualization and OpenDaylight.

There are many other such corporate affiliations throughout these groups. Among these many interests, it should be noted, the Open Cloud Initiative does not accept corporate sponsorship.

It may be, of course, that despite running large legal departments that vigilantly look after their company’s intellectual property, these multibillion-dollar companies have bought into the philosophy of open source â€" that all software should be free. If so, the shareholders should probably be told.

Or, more pragmatically, it may be that the big businesses’ products and services are threatened by new software-driven companies. In that case, it makes sense to donate some of the less valuable parts, collaborate together and try to swarm the upstarts with something better.

The fact that Amazon.com, the leader in public clouds, is not in any of the “open” cloud organizations points at who the real competition is. Likewise, VMware, which significantly lowered the value of an individual server by pioneering virtualization, does not belong to Open Virtualization.

The pragmatic reading â€" that the incumbents are motivated by expedience more than a desire to share â€" is perfectly fine. It is business, leveraging as many people as possible in an open source project to undermine what the competition is doing.

But it would be O.K. if they were open about that, too.