Microsoft is diving into the controversy between Google, IBM, and the open source community by launching a new attempt to dethrone hot cloud service Istio

  • Microsoft is taking advantage of a controversy created by Google last month to push its own new competing open source cloud technology.
  • Last month, Google ticked off IBM and many others in the open source community over a popular open source project known as Istio. 
  • Developers had been looking forward to the project being turned over to a vendor-independent organization run by the Linux Foundation. 
  • Instead, Google created an odd new entity and turned the project over to that org.
  • So on Wednesday, Microsoft announced its own new competitor to Istio and said it has already asked the Linux-run org to take control of it.  
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The controversy Google kicked up last month — where it angered IBM and others in the open source community over its handling of a popular open source project called Istio — was apparently too juicy for Microsoft to resist. 

To briefly recap the controversy: In 2017 when Istio was a young project, Google promised to transfer responsibility for it to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, an independent organization run by the Linux Foundation. But in June, it created an unusual new organization and transferred the project to that entity instead, angering many in the open source community.

On Wednesday, Microsoft waded in by offering its own competitor to Istio called Open Service Mesh. Microsoft also promised to do what Google refused to do: Turn the project over to CNCF. 

"We believe an open source, openly governed, standards-compliant service mesh is important for the community," the company told Business Insider in a statement. 

Free software is lucrative for cloud providers

Open source projects are the communal property of the tech world, software anyone can use for free or modify. As they grow popular dozens of major companies and thousands of programmers may contribute to them. They still need leadership: Someone has to decide which contributions get included in the main project and which do not. And, although the software is free, as they become popular they gain tremendous commercial value. In the cloud world, cloud providers will offer these open-source software projects as services that their customers pay fees to use.

Organizations like the CNCF exist to ensure no one vendor has undue control over important open-source projects — so they can't manipulate them to benefit their commercial interests at the expense of others. Google itself helped establish CNCF a few years ago for another popular cloud open source cloud technology it created called Kubernetes.

Open sourcing its technology puts Google between a rock and a hard place. It is hoping to rise to the top of the cloud wars by creating new cloud tools. However, it's watched as two of its most popular projects — Kubernetes and Tensorflow — become popular, key services on competitors' clouds, particularly on Amazon Web Services.

Then, last month, after Istio had grown in popularity to the point where big names in the industry had contributed to it, including IBM/Red Hat, Cisco and others, Google did something unexpected.

It created an odd new organization, one dedicated just to dealing with open-source project trademarks (controlling the use of a brand name or logo), and not handling the total management of the project. It then transferred Istio (and a couple of its other projects) to that new organization. 

Some people praised the new organization. Others said Google's move reflected badly on the Linux Foundation, which they accused of becoming a political landmine where vendors with the deepest pockets can buy influence.

"New leadership at Google and Google Cloud are having second thoughts about turning over the fruits of their work to foundations that they eventually lose control over," wrote developer Alan Shimel on DevOps.com.

But, as we previously reported, many others were angry at Google, pointing out that the the Linux Foundation — as well as other established open source foundations — are already equipped to handle trademarks and logo use.

Major Istio contributor IBM wrote a public blog post condemning Google's move, as did a famous programmer who now works for Oracle's cloud.

What Istio is and why Microsoft's move matters 

Istio is a "mesh service," which is software tool that helps developers run "microservices." Microservices give developers a way to build cloud apps in tiny modular pieces, rather than in one big block of code. A "mesh service" then connects microservices together so they can function as one app.

Even before Microsoft jumped in, there were other competitors to Istio. But Istio was holding a golden spot thanks to the big names using and working on it — assured to do so, in part, by the assumption it would one day go to the CNCF. Thanks to Google's decision, some of those big names are now jumping ship.

When a top member of CNCF spoke out against Google's decision, he implied that the Linux Foundation would throw its considerable weight behind a competing project. Enter Microsoft, and Open Mesh Service, stage left.

Gabe Monroy, a Microsoft partner program manager — and a CNCF board member — told TechCrunch that Open Mesh Service is gunning to be dethrone Istio by being easier to use, and that Microsoft is also "not interested" in contributing to Istio, deflating Google's project even more. (Microsoft isn't and never has been an official contributor to the Istio project.)

"The truth is that customers are not having a great time with Istio in the wild today," Monroy told TechCrunch. "I think even folks who are deep in that community will acknowledge that and that's really the reason why we're not interested in contributing to that ecosystem at the moment."

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