Cloud Foundry and the value of cooperative competition

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In this interview with the Bluemix blog, Sam Ramji, CEO at Cloud Foundry, explains the significance of the grand opening of the IBM Cloud Foundry Dojo in RTP, NC, how the organization balances corporate interests with running an open source project, how they position Cloud Foundry containers versus Docker containers, and more.

[Below is the video transcript]

You’re visiting RTP to attend the opening of the Cloud Foundry Dojo. What do you see as the significance of this new opening?

This is the first Dojo that’s been established that is not part of Pivotal and the EMC Federation, so it’s a huge move for Cloud Foundry as a project. As we look at what makes an open source project great, it’s a diversity of contributors. What makes an open source project great and popular is that those contributors are also projecting Cloud Foundry into the world. IBM runs the largest public instance of Cloud Foundry. Hundreds of thousands of users. Hundreds of thousands of applications. This puts Cloud Foundry as a project under tremendous pressure to scale, which is beneficial. Open source projects get better through pressure. It’s never perfect the first time. In fact, it’s often very wrong the first time, but it’s that sustained pressure. It’s kind of like coal, when you push hard enough in all the right ways eventually you get a diamond.

Ideally, your open source project becomes a diamond over time. It’s that hard, it’s that valuable, it’s that reliable. The Dojo here is kind of this major observable milestone for IBM’s public commitment to Cloud Foundry as a project and demonstrating a pretty big surge in their number of engineers and total contribution to Cloud Foundry as an open source project.

How do you balance the corporate interests in Cloud Foundry with running an open source project?

That’s a fantastic question. It’s one that I learn more about every day. The thing that I’ve learned that an effective open source project has multiple poles. It’s not unipolar. It’s got two poles or three poles or four poles and somehow between all of those the project starts to take its natural shape. If you’ve only got one company that’s behind an open source project, you tend to see that it is a subset of their commercial product. That’s an early maturity stage, but it often means that it could get starved for resources or the boundary between the open source and the commercial product can get blurred. Why does that matter? That matters because open source is a promise around the ability of users to be able to take that project in new directions but if you take it far enough out of its core architecture that can be really fragile.

When you start getting IBM and SAP and EMC and HPE involved, you start pulling the project out of its original shape and into maybe what its natural shape’s going to be. The big challenge for us as a foundation is to observe and govern the project as it develops because you’ve got all these competing interests. An effective open source project is one that multiple companies will use to collectively develop but then they’re also going to compete in the market based on them.

So corporate diversity is really a strength.

Corporate diversity is a strength and it creates the challenge that requires a 501(c) like the Cloud Foundry Foundation that we sit in the middle of, kind of mediates the points of conflict and then identify both strategies. You have to have standards in order for there to be a community so when we have conflicts how do we resolve those. It turns out conflict resolution is very healthy. If nobody is in conflict that means the thing is useless.

Conflict resolution is where we find one of our sort of strengths as a community. If you think about family life you learn what’s your family’s style based on how conflicts get resolved between the kids or between the parents. You learn your corporate style, how do you resolve disputes. Is it done on the merits and the logic of the issue? Is it based on who’s got seniority? All those things, not whether they’re right or wrong, determine a particular style. So our job as the foundation is to establish a consistent style that everyone can rely on. These diverse corporate interests can be a strength and don’t just represent sort of random scattered conflict which that might just be detrimental chaos.

Bluemix supports Cloud Foundry, Docker, OpenStack and now OpenWhisk runtimes. How do you position Cloud Foundry containers versus Docker containers given all of those other runtimes?

Within the first two weeks on the job… I took this job in late January 2015, I surveyed about two dozen users of Cloud Foundry that are all Global 2000 companies and their feedback was, “We use Cloud Foundry with OpenStack and Docker. The more those projects work well together, the more cost and inefficiency you take out of our IT operation.” So I took that as my marching orders and I presented that immediately to the Board. We need to have first class relationships with Docker and with OpenStack. So we made that a strategy and a goal for 2015.

By June of 2015, we had been able to work with the Linux Foundation and others to help create the Open Container Initiative. So Docker took libcontainer and some of their core assets. CoreOS took appc, the definition for the file system and put that into another foundation. So you’ve got this kind of safeguarding, this 501(c) had taken care of that. That also made it much easier for Cloud Foundry as a project to adopt open container initiative based technology. So runC, and then pragmatically, Docker, Rocket, Garden, Warden. So the Cloud Foundry point of view is that it’s not our job to pick a single winning container format or a winning container runtime. Our job is to be the platform that scales all of those things horizontally, let’s you choose which container format, which container environment you’re going to favor.

So it’s not a competition, it’s a synergy.

It’s not a competition. It’s an “and”. One of the things we believe at Cloud Foundry is it’s our job to get you out of the tyranny of the “or”. We want to keep you into the “yes and”, sort of like the rule of improvisation. If we can make this thing work with more things, more technologies, then we’ve done something good for you.

Not forcing a choice on someone.

That’s right. That rolls into OpenStack as well. When you look at OpenStack, which Cloud Foundry runs on Openstack in Bluemix, but also runs directly on SoftLayer. There’s a SoftLayer plugin for Cloud Foundry. It also runs on Amazon, runs on Azure, runs on Google Cloud Platform, runs on VMware. That’s part of the job.

If you really want to get the mindset of Cloud Foundry, I’d come back to an old joke about a zen Buddhist priest who walked into a very famous bar in Manhattan. He’s wearing all of his saffron robes, not a very typical sight. As soon as he walked in, the bartender stood up, looked at him and said, “What are you doing here?” The zen priest said, “I hear you can make me one with everything.”

The Cloud Foundation logo changed last year. Can you explain the significance and what does this branding change say about the Cloud Foundry?

I’ll start with just the idea of that the logo is meant to represent. It was a fantastic process. We had over 750 participants in designing the logo and reflecting on it. They were all over the world. We had an even split roughly between men and women, just to get a sense of what does this thing mean.

We wanted it to stand for innovation. We also wanted it to reflect the logo itself, the trade name Cloud Foundry, so what we ended up having was the idea of a foundry as a place where you take hot metal and pour into a form and then you take that form and you build bigger machines. Well, what is that in the digital world? It represents basically a picture of hot bits pouring over into this gear, which is the idea that you would use Cloud Foundry to build apps, take that set of bits and build bigger and bigger machines. So there’s an innovation construct behind.

There’s a lot of depth in this image, isn’t there?

There’s a lot of depth in the image and we wanted it to be very versatile. We wanted to be able to render just as that O. We wanted to be able to render right into the middle of the Cloud Foundry. Maybe later you’ll take a shot of the etched in glass Cloud Foundry on the front of the Dojo here.

The significance in it and the positive feedback we’ve gotten back from the community has been really at a level that I didn’t expect. What it represented to them was this marks the transition from this being a project that was owned by one vendor to one where this really represents the will and the goodwill of the whole community. So we see ourselves at the foundation as being the custodians of the copyright, the trademark, these logos, on behalf of this worldwide community of developers, corporations, customers, partners who rely on Cloud Foundry.

It’s funny that we’re very visual creatures. Human cognition is heavily visual. If you take your hand and you put it in the back of your head, about 20%, that’s your whole visual cortex. That’s a lot of brain to be given over to visual processing. Although the copyright was already owned by the foundation as of February of last year, it really made a mark on people when they saw, “Oh wow, that’s a new logo. That’s a whole new thing.” That was when they realized that structure had changed and this was really a project by the community, for the community.

Listening to your answer, I was reminded of a melding almost of corporations.

Maybe the molten bits are actually molten corporations. It’s quite possible. We’re going to melt it all together.

You have to think about innovation all the time. Do you have a routine for getting yourself into the mindset of innovative thinking?

I think a couple of things. One, I think innovation is based on a few keys memes and I think the most important one is “Science is fun”. There’s this sort of sense that innovation happens in a mountaintop and some genius person is struck by lightning and they come from the mountain and they say, “I’ve had this innovative idea.” I actually have experienced innovation as a process of fumbling forward, always trying to get to the next step. Sometimes you take a step sideways, sometimes a step backwards, and you don’t end up necessarily where you thought. But where you end up is much more important than your original plan.

It’s really a scientific process of hypothesis, tests, what have we learned, and it’s a thousand tiny moves, so I think that grasping is not about being the smartest, best-est, innovative-est person. It’s about being around a collective where the ideas are moving and you just keep innovating forward and don’t try to own it.

Finally, a silly question. If you could have any super hero power, what would it be and why?

Oh, that is a great question. I have a ready answer because being an old time comic books and video games and science fiction nerd, I’ve always thought I would take the power to fly. It’s not a good answer. The right answer is I’d have the power to cure cancer or extend everybody’s life or turn all the oceans clean but when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut and I had many dreams of flying. They always were me, didn’t have a suit, no special powers, but just could just fly. I just thought that would be absolutely unbelievable, just the vision that you get, maybe the feeling of having the wind underneath you and just get a better sense of perspective.

Can you imagine birds’ lives? They get to have that every day.

I have many times. Then I have to think about how they are cold and wet and they have to eat seeds. My winters are much nicer than the birds’ winters.

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