VMware embraces open source with Dirk Hohndel leading the way

VMware's Chief Open Source Officer Dirk Hohndel discusses his new role.

dirk hohndel
Credit: Linux Foundation /Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Dirk Hohndel is one of the most recognizable faces at Linux and open source conferences. You often see him sharing the stage with Linus Torvalds during panel discussions.

Hohndel recently joined VMware as vice president and chief open source officer. He moved to VMware from Intel where he was the chief Linux and open source technologist since 2001. Previously, Hohndel held the position of CTO of SUSE, one of the three major Linux companies.

Hohndel also maintains Subsurface, the open source divelog software, which was created by Torvalds. Outside of his open source work, Scuba diving is Hohndel’s hobby and he takes stunning underwater pictures when he goes diving with Torvalds.

I interviewed Hohndel to learn more about his new role at VMware. Here is an edited version of that interview.

What does a chief open source officer do?

I think the job varies from company to company. In the end, titles are just words and what matters is what you make of your role. For me, I see a chief open source officer as the person who leads a company on a path to greater success in and around open source.  

What are your roles and responsibilities at VMware?

My role will be very much around three areas:

  • Develop and drive stronger open source culture and values across the company.
  • Lead strategic initiatives around open source projects across the company.
  • Help the company innovate with a focus on the needs of the constantly-developing and often open source-based DevOps-centric hybrid data center of the future.

Ha, that sounds a bit buzzword heavy, but it’s a little hard to describe where I think this is going without picking up some of the slang.

Intel was a hardware vendor whereas VMware is a software company, how has this transition been for you?

While I no longer speak for Intel, I can promise you that a lot of people at Intel would vehemently argue that Intel is also a huge software company. That said, the transition for me is quite interesting because the value creation between the two companies is different. But the underlying value of open source, the benefits of the development methodology, the opportunities that rapid, open and collaborative innovation bring for a company are very much the same.

It seems VMware is today where Intel was when you joined the company. VMware is not known for its open source software, so what challenges do you foresee?

I think the situations are very different. VMware today has a strong investment in open source and already is contributing to a large number of existing open source projects. And increasingly we are driving our own open source projects in order to create solutions for our customers that allow them to take advantage of the production-quality infrastructure that they are used to from VMware, together with fast-moving open source software that so often defines the “new normal” in cloud computing.

VMware has stakes in the container world which is all about Linux and open source, will you be involved in those efforts? Will there be VMware contributions beyond Cloud Foundry and OpenStack? What areas do you see that hold the potential to go open source?

Yes, I will be very much involved in these efforts, but I’m sure you’ll understand that I’m not able to announce future plans.

That said, VMware’s open source contributions today go beyond Cloud Foundry and OpenStack. For example, VMware has been a key driver behind Open vSwitch and several of the key committers in this project work for us.

VMware is of course engaged in many other areas that are important to our customers, for example containers. We are already providing the ability to make containers first-class citizens, well supported on the VMware infrastructure. We do this because of the customers that tell us that they want to explore containers, but in a way where they can still be managed and secured. And we’ve open sourced a majority of these cloud-native application technologies.

First is VMware vSphere Integrated Containers, supporting containers without changing networking policy, security or management. Second is VMware Photon Platform, which is a new, robust infrastructure solution optimized for cloud-native applications leveraging microservices and Linux containers.

I believe open source is as much about culture as it is about technology. Does your job also entail influencing the culture within the company to make it more open source friendly from within? How challenging is it to change/influence the culture of a company vs. open sourcing technologies?

In my first couple of weeks at VMware I was impressed just how much excitement and energy exists all over VMware for open source software and for the opportunities that we have in this space.

As I mentioned earlier, encouraging a strong open source culture is certainly one of the things high on my list of priorities, but so far that has seemed a lot easier than I might have expected going in. VMware is filled with outstanding engineers who love technology and who are looking for ways to engage with the community.

Of course VMware continues to be a software company focused on providing solutions to our customers, but I expect that over time open source software will play a bigger and bigger role in this.

From your perspective, what areas does VMware need to improve in to better its relationship with the open source community?

I have yet to run into a team inside VMware that isn’t excited to work with the open source community. As I get to know more of the engineers and more of the projects, I’m sure I’ll run into areas where I have ideas on how to make things better, how to communicate better, how to contribute more and how to create more value for our customers, but I’m impressed by the openness and the desire to work together and to solve the big problems on our way to a well-integrated data center and cloud infrastructure.

Will the VMware Player for Linux be open source to take on VirtualBox?

I just got here. I’m not making any announcements today.  But I’m looking forward to being able to make a difference at VMware, a difference that both the open source community and our customers will notice and appreciate. 

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