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Open Source Wins: Now What?

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) is inviting open source developers to write and contribute code to The Machine project, an effort to juice up its ambitious plan to reinvent computing. During my reporting on that news I had the opportunity to talk with a real veteran of the Open Source Wars. (Not officially a thing, I know, but it should be.)

Bdale Garbee, HPE Fellow and Office of the CTO at Hewlett Packard Labs, has been involved with open source software professionally since the early 1990s. He was one of the first Debian developers, and set up the original developer machine for that open source OS in 1995. Garbee said he actually made his first contribution to what would later be called free and open source software (FOSS) in 1979. He has been continuously involved ever since.

Garbee had been working at HP for 26 years when he took early retirement from his job as Chief Technologist for Linux and Open Source in 2012. He was called out of retirement in late 2014 by Martin Fink, EVP, CTO and Director of Hewlett Packard Labs. Garbee agreed to come back and help with The Machine in no small part because of Fink's reputation as an exec who gets open source.

"He twisted my arm to come back, because he saw that there was an opportunity to grow the company's open-source strategy into a major pillar of its general technology, development, and evolution strategy," Garbee said. "We're now working with others inside the company, thinking about our future technology roadmap and our development activities as an opportunity to be more open and collaborative by default."

Of course, nowadays everybody gets open source. During one of his first conference keynotes, Microsoft's newish CEO, Satya Nadella, famously declared "Microsoft loves Linux!" But HPE opened The Machine much earlier in that project's lifecycle than is typical, and Garbee expects that to happen more often at HPE. And HP has been involved in the open source world for decades, chiefly around the Linux kernel, but also as a big contributor to OpenStack and other projects.

"Somewhere between the time I took early retirement and when Martin brought me back, we turned a corner," Garbee said. "It's just different today. I'm no longer beating on people's doors to get them to open up and listen. It's very much the other way around. It's no longer a question of whether open source is a good idea. It's all about finding the right way to structure the work and build communities of interest around the pieces of technology and the work that are most interesting to us."

"I've had this conversation with some of my peers in the industry who have also been involved with free and open source for a very long time, where we look at each other and say, 'Oh my god, we won! Now what?'" Garbee added. "It's immensely satisfying, but the stress level does go up a bit. We've convinced everybody that these are good ideas. We've shown the world that you can run successful businesses around this model of collaborative development. HPE is making what amount to company sized bets on doing things this way. We definitely have to deliver. We have to make it all work."

BTW: "Bdale" is a non-punctuated contraction of "Barksdale," Garbee told me, which was his maternal grandfather's last name. His full name: Alfred Dickenson Barksdale Garbee II.

Posted by John K. Waters on June 13, 2016