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) 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.

What Linux and open source proved is that when you "give away" operating system code, there are more eyes on it when something goes wrong, more hands working to make it better.

In practice, this means the closer to the user the code is, the fewer people are affected by a problem, while the closer to the computer the code is, the more people have an incentive to get the problem solved.

With Cloud Foundry, VMWare tries to turn this on its head. The operating system is proprietary. Cloud Foundry, which is closer to cloud users, is open. VMWare wants the help of proprietary customers in building the open-source platform they need to use its operating system.

That doesn't make VMWare open-source, say the vigilantes. Just the opposite. It's like Tom Sawyer is getting kids to pay not to whitewash his Aunt Polly's fence, but their own fences. They do the work, VMWare gets the benefit, but if the fence is designed wrong only VMWare can fix it.

It's this last that's the key to the whole thing, because bad guys don't know from open or closed, allowed or forbidden. They open up Microsoft code all the time. What if they created an exploit for vSphere? Then only VMWare could fix it. And what if I could make vSphere better? I couldn't; only VMWare can.

That's the problem. Where you're open matters more than whether you're open. Keeping secret something that's close to the users is no big deal. Keeping secret what's close to the computer can become a very big deal.

Calling yourself "open" while keeping what's vital "closed" is what the open-source vigilantes are on about. And in the end, open wins. More Web servers now run Linux software than Microsoft.

At the time of publication, Dana Blankenhorn owned shares of Microsoft.

Dana Blankenhorn holds no positions in any of the securities mentioned in this article.

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