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VMWare and the Open-Source Debate

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Between 2005 and 2010 I was an open-source vigilante.

As a blogger about open-source software for ZDNet, I naturally identified with my readers, who used open-source software and believed in it. So whenever a story crossed my desk, I looked at it from an open-source point of view.

I praised the code revolutionaries as heroes and hissed at the villains -- Oracle (ORCL) and Microsoft (MSFT) -- at every opportunity.

But time has given me a more nuanced view, and when I began reading of VMWare's (VMW - Get Report) latest set-to with the open-source community, I decided there was an important conclusion to draw.

The strength of open source lies at the bottom of the stack. The closer to the computer your software lies, the more likely it is that an open-source process will make economic sense. The closer it is to you, the user, the less likely it is.

Let me explain with an example.

VMWare is sort of the "Microsoft of the cloud." It has a popular virtualization product, ESX, which is part of its cloud operating system, vSphere, and both are proprietary.

But the company wants open-source help in moving "up the stack" and creating a platform as a service (PaaS) offering. So VMWare's Cloud Foundry, which it acquired with SpringSource, is now open-source, under the Apache license.

VMWare has even had Cloud Foundry adopted as an Apache project. This helps counter a Red Hat (RHT) PaaS offering called OpenShift.

Last week, VMWare moved CloudFoundry to a new .org address, Cloudfoundry.org, and added an open-source tool for deployment and lifecycle management of clouds, called BOSH, to the mix. It then referred to itself as "the Linux of the cloud."

Vigilantes took umbrage.

ITworld's Brian Proffitt blogged that CloudFoundry's moves were "more an attempt to supplant Linux's popularity than just attach themselves to the ever-rising Linux star."

VMWare responded by bragging about its business success.

Let's cut through the rhetoric.

All software is complicated, but where it sits makes a difference. A broken application hurts only the user. A broken operating system hurts all applications and users of that system.

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