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Can Open Source Save HP?

You seldom hear about it, but Hewlett-Packard has long been a supporter of open source. The company contributes to the Debian GNU/Linux distribution and has hired several people who were formerly leaders of the Debian Project, including the redoubtable Bdale Garbee. HP also participates in many smaller projects and invests plenty of effort in governance and community activities. Despite its work engaging the community and ensuring HP printers are usable from Linux, open source seems to have made little impact on HP's software portfolio (alas, poor WebOS).

At OSCON last week in Portland, I had the chance to speak once again with Phil Robb, the director for HP's Open Source Program Office. My discussion with him last year was inauspicious; he explained WebOS's importance to HP, but by the time I published my (suitably sceptical) article, the product was canceled. Since then, Robb has kept his job title but moved from HP Labs to the legal department. He was joined for the discussion by his new boss Eileen Evans, now associate general counsel for open source strategy and intellectual property at HP but once a key lawyer at Sun Microsystems.

HP and the OpenStack Cloud

The context for the conversation was HP's launch of a new cloud service. Back in April, HP announced it was joining OpenStack as a top-level Platinum member, and since then has launched a full implementation of OpenStack under the HP Cloud brand. OSCON saw HP Cloud take two services live into commercial production, together with a $20 free trial offer for three months. HP Cloud mas moved in a matter of months from me-too gesture into a production item. The company seems serious both about competing with Amazon.com at all levels and engaging OpenStack in the true spirit of open source.

HP Cloud is still emerging but already offers production-quality object storage and content delivery, and it has compute, block storage, and a relational database in beta (derived from MySQL; I am told it uses Percona). The cloud has come to production amazingly quickly, thanks largely to using open source code -- rather than inventing almost everything, as was the case with the pioneering Amazon. The SLAs offered by HP will reflect a good deal of confidence in the offering, with instant credit for any loss of availability, and the company has staffed up to make those SLAs real -- notably hiring open source veteran Brian Aker as a senior fellow on the cloud services team.

But the most important aspects of the offering come from open source. The fact that HP is implementing OpenStack means customers will have an open choice of provider as public clouds grow, which quells fears of lock-in. Better, the eventual growth of compatible vendors in the market allows the risk of the failure of one provider to be mitigated; it's even possible to blend multiple providers using the likes of Canonical's JuJu cloud provisioning and control tool, demonstrated by Mark Shuttleworth in his OSCON keynote.

This is corporate open source done the right way. HP has benefited hugely from software freedom, bringing a highly capable and comprehensive product offering to market in a very short time. But unlike "open core" providers where the freedom stops with the vendor, HP seems to be leaving open source's four freedoms intact to benefit customers.

Restructuring Around Open Source


That's why the changes I discovered from Robb and Evans were significant. In the past, the Open Source Program Office at HP has been distant from software product activity. Robb told me his role remains unchanged: coordinating open source engagements internally, representing HP in public activities, and ensuring a consistent approach from the various parts of HP's business that engage open source.

But the move into the legal team, together with the arrival of Evans, both seem to signal change led by HP CEO Meg Whitman. Perhaps because of her experiences using the flexibility and cost control that software freedom delivered to create eBay, Whitman is far more of an advocate of open source than her predecessors. That means Evans and Robb have executive cover to accompany their more central location in the company.

For such a historically conservative company, HP has suffered more than its share of unhappiness. The fall of Mark Hurd followed swiftly by the amazing misappointment of Léo Apotheker and the seemingly random strategic changes he attempted have all dented confidence in HP's survival. While the marketing around HP Cloud wants us to believe the open source story, the way Whitman has overseen the rapid construction of a strong bench for open source leadership gives me far more confidence that there's real change afoot that may actually rescue HP.

This article, "Can open source save HP?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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