VMware's Dirk Hohndel Talks (What Else) Open Source

Dirk Hohndel, VMware's chief open source officer, talked about the “symbiotic relationship” between open source and the enterprise.

Christine Hall

November 17, 2020

12 Min Read
dirk hohndel of vmware black and white
Dirk Hohndel, VMWare's chief open source officer. (© Peter Adams Photography)Peter Adams

Dirk Hohndel has a resume in open source software that goes back to the days before the term "open source" was coined and the GNU General Public License (GPL), the software license that underpins Linux, was called a "free software" license.

He spent six years at SUSE, a Linux distribution that debuted in 1994, climbing to CTO before leaving to spend nearly 15 years as the chief Linux and open source technologist at chipmaker Intel. Since 2016, he's been the chief open source officer at VMware.

However, most people involved with open source software probably know him best as the guy who interviews Linux's creator, Linus Torvalds, on stage at various Linux Foundation events.

ITPro Today had a chance to sit down with Hohndel at this year's VMworld conference. The meeting, like the conference, was virtual.

Politeness dictated that we begin the conversation by inquiring about his life at VMware, a question he answered with a chuckle.

Dirk Hohndel: I would like to say I am super thrilled today. I'm no longer the only open source guy in VMware.

When I came in four and a half years ago, sometimes I felt like I was the lone crazy. Then, of course, once you start talking to people you immediately find a lot more people in the various business units in the weirdest roles who have done open source for many years and who were like, "finally there's an executive that listens to me."

So the transition of VMware over the last four years has been pretty spectacular. To see the amount of open source we create, the amount we contribute to existing projects out there, and, overall, just how the company has changed its persona as a core enterprise open source provider is very, very rewarding for me.

ITPro Today: I think it'd be fair to say that open source has taken over the enterprise. I was wondering if you have an opinion about which you think has benefited most – open source or the enterprise?

DH: Oh, that's a false dichotomy – because it's both. This is a symbiotic relationship.

Open source is a methodology that allows fast innovation, and that has displaced the concept of a joint venture and of standards in creating technology infrastructures that cooperate and collaborate and integrate well, which has been the holy grail of enterprise IT since the word was invented. Initially, the way you did business is you bought a mainframe – everything from one vendor and it was all integrated. Then came the times when you had Unix workstations and servers from 10 different companies that wouldn't talk to each other.

Today, thanks to open source, we again have integrated infrastructures. A lot of vendors collaborate and compete, but, at the same time, use the same set of API's and the same set of infrastructure components to help them be successful.

On the flip side, the open source community has benefited greatly from the investment, from the opportunities for developers to get jobs and be paid, and from the influx of ideas and – let's be honest – money into this space. If you had talked to us 25 years ago, we would all have laughed at this being a pipe dream.

ITPro Today: How much has open source methodology – which has a lot to do with sharing, the fact that you don't have to own it, and the fact that you can work with your competition – changed the mindset with vendors and open source users?

DH: I would split this apart between the users and the vendors.

On the user side, we still see a lot of people who may not fully understand how open source works, what the fine distinctions are, and what to pay attention to when talking to a vendor. The customer community is so huge, with new people constantly entering, and there's so much context and so much history that you really need to understand the subtleties of [in order to say,] "Oh, look at what this vendor is doing over there. That should have me concerned because they're trying to control, to lock down something that was previously open."

That sensitivity, that awareness in the users, isn't there. But that overall understanding that technologies like Kubernetes are in the user's best interest because they create this set of API's that work across many different products and services, that's definitely there.

On the vendor side, I think it's different. On the vendor side you have, with very few exceptions, this idea of, we have this open source infrastructure, we understand how it works and we try to figure out the business model around it. You see the people who are brought into the open core idea who want to prevent the open source community from doing certain things because "that's mine, that's my enterprise product." Typically, that fails.

On the flip side, you have the people who say we need a healthy open source underpinning for what we're doing and we want to support this open source community in their growth.

At VMware, we invest a lot in chopping wood and carrying water, making these projects better by doing thankless tasks in the projects because we need these projects to be healthy. VMware has provided release maintainers, SIG leaders and a lot of things that aren't part of our production service but a part of making the Cloud Native Computing Foundation communities healthy.

We do this because, to us, if the open source community can't grow, can't thrive, then our products and services around that won't be successful. There's plenty of space in augmenting what is there in open source and integrating it into existing product lines to be successful in this space.

ITPro Today: How much change have you seen within VMware since you came in with an open source mandate? Jim Whitehurst talks a lot about the open organization, and certainly practices that at Red Hat. How much of that was him and his leadership, and how much of that is part of what happens when people start getting exposed to open source?

DH: I think every company has their own journey there and the corporate culture plays a huge role. If I look at my 15 years at Intel, the corporate culture at Intel is very hierarchical; it's very ‘command and control.’ The corporate culture at VMware is very different. It's a very collaborative, very nice, very friendly culture, and very supportive. People generally listen to you, people take you at your word, and so it is a joy to work here.

That really helps when you bring in new ideas because you aren't just ignored or yelled at. Instead, people say, "Oh, that's a perspective that I haven't had." I've had so many fascinating conversations with people who, just looking at their resume, you would assume would never take me seriously and who, quite the contrary, have been super supportive of the ideas that I've brought into the company.

I keep joking that two of my closest partners at VMware are a senior member of the marketing team and a deputy general counsel in the legal team. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would list those as my closest allies in the company, I would've likely have laughed. Yet, that's part of who VMware is. It's a very open, very inclusive company that really is certainly willing to look at new opportunities and jump in with both feet.

ITPro Today: In spite of open source’s huge success in the data center, on the consumer level, users are still pretty much stuck using proprietary software. (This is counter to how the whole idea of free software got started.) Even Android with its Linux kernel is still basically a proprietary product. Why is that? What happened?

DH: You're talking to a guy who maintains an end user focused open source project for scuba divers, and I can tell you many sad stories about why this is the way it is.

Some of the biggest strengths of open source – the diversity of ideas, the lack of a hierarchical structure, the lack of a design team that can make decisions outside of a single vendor construct – are great in an enterprise space where you want to innovate and then have highly technical user teams interacting with you to shape it into something that they can be successful with.

If you have an end user on the other hand, unfortunately, the Apple model of a top to bottom integration of a strong design idea that you then stick with, is the path to success.

You mentioned Android as a “not really open” success story that uses a lot of open source components. Obviously, we need to talk about Chrome OS in that same breath, because that's a close cousin. Those two are examples where you have a single vendor going in, taking strong open source components, shaping them to a single design idea, and focusing it on a nontechnical user. Without that control, I don't think you can create really broadly applicable consumer devices.

If you go to an open source or a free software conference and you talk to the true believers, they will tell you about all their open source devices and it's very obvious that to the true geek, to someone who actually wants to do it, you can be in a truly open source environment [as an end user]. But it requires tremendous sacrifice and tremendous willingness to invest hours and hours of your time to make things that should be trivial actually work. That's just not what makes you successful in the consumer space.

On Subsurface, my dive log, two thirds of my users are on Windows. I have a single Windows binary that runs on every Windows OS from the last 15 years. Nine percent of my users are in Linux. I currently produce 31 different binaries and I cover only about two thirds of the Linux ecosystem.

So if you're thinking about that, that tells you pretty much everything you need to know about why this is so hard. Because when you say, "Hey, I'm running Linux," my first question is which one, which version? That's really the Achilles heel of open source in a consumer product.

But I want to poke at your starting point, because you said the idea of free software was about users. Yes, [Richard] Stallman talked about users when he wrote his first manifesto, when he talked about the printers at the university. If you read what he's actually writing, when he thinks of users, he thinks of people like himself, software developers who happen to use a product, but that's not the user, the consumer, that we think about today.

When I think about users, I think about my mom or the neighbor who can't get their WiFi set up. I think about the people who aren't tech savvy, and that really is the hurdle that the open source community hasn't cracked.

ITPro Today: How would you sum up the state of open source right now?

DH: I think overall the status is great. I think open source has certainly reached a golden age and has penetrated this industry in ways that even the most optimistic early adopters in open source would never have foreseen. If you look at what we expected would happen when we all started development, we never thought we would get this far.

There are certainly aspects in today's ecosystem that are concerning.

On the one hand, the shift to web development and web delivery of applications kind of undermines the way the open source licenses work. A lot of what these copyright licenses were trying to achieve in bringing together developer communities, you can circumvent by the delivery of your applications. That's a concern that a lot of people in this ecosystem have.

The hyperscalers, at times sucking up the ability to create profits for startups in the open source space, are certainly a concern. We've seen a number of companies very successfully deal with this, and we've seen a lot of models that show that even in today's world, you can be very successful with an open source company. If you look at our friends at SaltStack [an open source company acquired by VMware in October], they have done a phenomenal job with a super strong open source community around Salt, and a bunch of enterprise products and services around that, that create true customer value. So, it's still possible, but there are certainly a number of business models that have gotten a lot harder due to the hyperscalers.

Another concern in this space is that software as an industry is moving from an engineering skill to what I would more describe as a trade. There is a lot more, "Oh, I just put these six pieces together and I create this YAML and then something happens – I don't know exactly what happens, but it does what I want."

That this generation of people doesn't look at this as an engineering task but as an assembly task has a huge impact on some of the core tenants of software engineering – around performance, around security, and around compliance with the open source licenses. That, I certainly am nervous about.

So it's not all unicorns and rainbows, but overall I think we have an amazing industry with fascinating technologies, and as long as we pay attention to those clouds on the horizon, I think we'll be doing great for another few decades.

Editor's note: Minor edits were made to this interview with Dirk Hohndel for context and clarity.

About the Author(s)

Christine Hall

Freelance author

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001 she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and began covering IT full time in 2002, focusing on Linux and open source software. Since 2010 she's published and edited the website FOSS Force. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux.

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