Why Do Technology Vendors Invest In Open Source?

At Tech Field Day 14, NetApp (@netapp) kicked off the event as the first presenter and also brought the biggest surprise of the event. In a refreshingly modern and progressive set of presentations, the presenters discussed NetApp’s open source contributions and their integrations with cloudy tools with a heavy focus on Kubernetes… and never talked about a storage array!
The heavy emphasis from companies like NetApp and their marketplace peers recently on open source led me to ask the question: why is everyone being so noisy about how they’re contributing to open source projects? What benefit is it to them for their customers to see their investment in the open source ecosystem?
I have a handful of ideas as to why they do this, but rather than make assumptions about what I know, I decided to just ask. I called up Andrew Sullivan (@andrew_ntap) who was half of the presenting team at TFD14 and I asked him. Among the handful of explanations that he and his colleague Brendan gave, some were what I expected and there were also a few things I hadn’t thought of. Here’s a quick rundown on why a company like NetApp would invest so heavily in open source technologies and be sure that their customers know about it.

This Isn’t New

First of all, it’s a bit of a misunderstanding to suggest that just because of all the noise right now, companies like NetApp are just starting to invest heavily in open source right now. Two glaring examples that Brendan and Andrew gave me: NetApp has long been a contributor to NFS, which makes perfect sense given their heavy reliance on NFS for some of their past successes.
As well, NetApp was a founding member of the OpenStack Foundation back in 2011 and has made numerous notable contributions to the development of OpenStack including:

  • First major storage vendor to engage in the community and make contributions available upstream
  • Direct upstream contributions to every release since Essex
  • Most selected commercial storage option for block and file storage options (2016 OpenStack User Survey)
  • Led the creation of the OpenStack Block Storage Service (Cinder) and OpenStack File Share Service (Manila)
  • Currently employs the original Project Technical Leads (PTL) for the Cinder and Manila projects.
  • Major sponsor of the last 12 OpenStack Design Summits and regularly host and speak at OpenStack Days, Summits and Meetups globally.

To me, these points totally unwound my idea that this heavy contribution to open source tools is new. Either it’s just new to me, or it’s just now a point of interest in the industry so it’s convenient to make noise about it; but the work has always been underway.

Customers Are Going to Use It Either Way

It makes sense to invest heavily in the areas that customers are ultimately also going to be invested in – in a Wayne Gretzky, “Skate to where the puck is going” sort of way. Data center technology consumers today, especially the larger ones, are interested in using open source technology for a number of reasons.

  • Open source software offers more flexibility than proprietary software in most cases
  • Using open source tools allows the consumers to participate more actively in the development and maturation of the tools
  • Vendor lock-in becomes a non-issue with open source tools for the most part
  • Being involved in the community developing the tools allows them to transparently see what’s coming and be abreast of common issues or configuration nuances

Since this is where many of their biggest customers are ultimately headed, it’s only logical that a major investment is made here.

Being Invested Long-Term Builds Trust

When a prospect is selecting the technology vendor they’re going to work with for a given project, one of the things they’ll want to see in relation to open source is that the vendor has a true investment in the technology and understands it deeply.
There’s some amount of “me too” bandwagon boarding going on whenever any given technology is hot. If a company like NetApp has been actively contributing to a project over the last 6 years (just as an example), it becomes nearly impossible to say that they’re just jumping on the bandwagon. Clearly this company is making an investment into the open source tools that their customers use or are planning to use. And because of their long term investment in the tool, the prospect can also be reassured that the vendor isn’t going to just jump ship entirely if the adoption of a technology slows down.
As it turns out, the investment pays off. I was told during our chat, “The better citizens we are in the open source community, the more often prospects choose to buy our products.”

Increased Agility

Developing a new type of software allows an organization to change paradigms all over the place. Brendan explained in our chat how because NetApp’s open source team (which you can find at develops in a different way than some of the older parts of the organization, they can structure their process differently. This allows contributors to this subset of projects to iterate very quickly and release new feature updates and bug fixes much faster than the rest of the organization currently does.
The agility afforded by these short release cycles ultimate benefits the customers and consumers of the technology. Because of the rapid releases, customers can get needed features in production significantly faster than they’ve been able to in the past.