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Q. Why's Oracle so two-faced over open source? A. Moolah, wonga, dosh
And lobbying US government against it is NOT modernising IT
Oracle loves open source. Except when the database giant hates open source. Which, according to its recent lobbying of the US federal government, seems to be "most of the time".
Yes, Oracle has recently joined the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) to up its support for open-source Kubernetes and, yes, it has long supported (and contributed to) Linux. And, yes, Oracle has even gone so far as to (finally) open up Java development by putting it under a foundation's stewardship.
Yet this same, seemingly open Oracle has actively hammered the US government to consider that "there is no math that can justify open source from a cost perspective as the cost of support plus the opportunity cost of forgoing features, functions, automation and security overwhelm any presumed cost savings."
That punch to the face was delivered in a letter to Christopher Liddell, a former Microsoft CFO and now director of Trump's American Technology Council, by Kenneth Glueck, Oracle senior vice president.
The US government had courted input on its IT modernisation programme. Others writing back to Liddell included AT&T, Cisco, Microsoft and VMware.
In other words, based on its letter, what Oracle wants us to believe is that open source leads to greater costs and poorly secured, limply featured software. Nor is Oracle content to leave it there, also arguing that open source is exactly how the private sector does not function, seemingly forgetting that most of the leading infrastructure, big data, and mobile software today is open source.
Rather than take this counterproductive detour into self-serving silliness, Oracle would do better to follow Microsoft's path. Microsoft, too, used to Janus-face its way through open source, simultaneously supporting and bashing it. Only under chief executive Satya Nadella's reign did Microsoft realise it's OK to fully embrace open source, and its financial results have loved the commitment. Oracle has much to learn, and emulate, in Microsoft's approach.
I love you, you're perfect. Now change
Oracle has never been particularly warm and fuzzy about open source. As founder Larry Ellison might put it, Oracle is a profit-seeking corporation, not a peace-loving charity. To the extent that Oracle embraces open source, therefore it does so for financial reward, just like every other corporation.
Few, however, are as blunt as Oracle about this fact of corporate open-source life. As Ellison told the Financial Times back in 2006: "If an open-source product gets good enough, we'll simply take it. So the great thing about open source is nobody owns it – a company like Oracle is free to take it for nothing, include it in our products and charge for support, and that's what we'll do.
"So it is not disruptive at all – you have to find places to add value. Once open source gets good enough, competing with it would be insane... We don't have to fight open source, we have to exploit open source."
"Exploit" sounds about right. While Oracle doesn't crack the top-10 corporate contributors to the Linux kernel, it does register a respectable number 12, which helps it influence the platform enough to feel comfortable building its IaaS offering on Linux (and Xen for virtualisation). Oracle has also managed to continue growing MySQL's clout in the industry while improving it as a product and business. As for Kubernetes, Oracle's decision to join the CNCF also came with P&L strings attached. "CNCF technologies such as Kubernetes, Prometheus, gRPC and OpenTracing are critical parts of both our own and our customers' development toolchains," said Mark Cavage, vice president of software development at Oracle.
One can argue that Oracle has figured out the exploitation angle reasonably well.
This, however, refers to the right kind of exploitation, the kind that even free software activist Richard Stallman can love (or, at least, tolerate). But when it comes to government lobbying, Oracle looks a lot more like Mr Hyde than Dr Jekyll.
Lies, damned lies, and Oracle lobbying
The current US president has many problems (OK, many, many problems), but his decision to follow the Obama administration's support for IT modernisation is commendable. Most recently, the Trump White House asked for feedback on how best to continue improving government IT. Oracle's response is high comedy in many respects.
As TechDirt's Mike Masnick summarises, Oracle's "latest crusade is against open-source technology being used by the federal government – and against the government hiring people out of Silicon Valley to help create more modern systems. Instead, Oracle would apparently prefer the government just give it lots of money." Oracle is very good at making lots of money. As such, its request for even more isn't too surprising.
What is surprising is the brazenness of its position. As Masnick opines: "The sheer contempt found in Oracle's submission on IT modernization is pretty stunning." Why? Because Oracle contradicts much that it publicly states in other forums about open source and innovation. More than this, Oracle contradicts much of what we now know is essential to competitive differentiation in an increasingly software and data-driven world.
Take, for example, Oracle's contention that "significant IT development expertise is not... central to successful modernization efforts".
What? In our "software is eating the world" existence Oracle clearly believes that CIOs are buyers, not doers: "The most important skill set of CIOs today is to critically compete and evaluate commercial alternatives to capture the benefits of innovation conducted at scale, and then to manage the implementation of those technologies efficiently."
While there is some truth to Oracle's claim – every project shouldn't be a custom one-off that must be supported forever – it's crazy to think that a CIO – government or otherwise – is doing their job effectively by simply shovelling cash into vendors' bank accounts.
Indeed, as Masnick points out: "If it weren't for Oracle's failures, there might not even be a USDS [the US Digital Service created in 2014 to modernise federal IT]. USDS really grew out of the emergency hiring of some top-notch internet engineers in response to the Healthcare.gov rollout debacle. And if you don't recall, a big part of that debacle was blamed on Oracle's technology."
In short, blindly giving money to Oracle and other big vendors is the opposite of IT modernisation.
In its letter to Liddell, Oracle proceeded to make the fantastic (by which I mean "silly and false") claim that "the fact is that the use of open-source software has been declining rapidly in the private sector". What?!? This is so incredibly untrue that Oracle should score points for being willing to say it out loud. Take a stroll through the most prominent software in big data (Hadoop, Spark, Kafka, etc.), mobile (Android), application development (Kubernetes, Docker), machine learning/AI (TensorFlow, MxNet), and compare it to Oracle's statement. One conclusion must be that Oracle believes its CIO audience is incredibly stupid.
Oracle then tells a half-truth by declaring: "There is no math that can justify open source from a cost perspective." How so? Because "the cost of support plus the opportunity cost of forgoing features, functions, automation and security overwhelm any presumed cost savings." Which I guess is why Oracle doesn't use any open source like Linux, Kubernetes, etc. in its services.
The Vendor Formerly Known As Satan
The thing is, Oracle doesn't need to do this and, for its own good, shouldn't do this. After all, we already know how this plays out. We need only look at what happened with Microsoft.
Remember when Microsoft wanted us to "get the facts" about Linux? Now it's a big-time contributor to Linux. Remember when it told us open source was anti-American and a cancer? Now it aggressively contributes to a huge variety of open-source projects, some of them homegrown in Redmond, and tells the world that "Microsoft loves open source." Of course, Microsoft loves open source for the same reason any corporation does: it drives revenue as developers look to build applications filled with open-source components on Azure. There's nothing wrong with that.
Would Microsoft prefer government IT to purchase SQL Server instead of open-source-licensed PostgreSQL? Sure. But look for a single line in its response to the Trump executive order that signals "open source is bad". You won't find it. Why? Because Microsoft understands that open source is a friend, not foe, and has learned how to monetise it.
Microsoft, in short, is no longer conflicted about open source. It can compete at the product level while embracing open source at the project level, which helps fuel its overall product and business strategy. Oracle isn't there yet, and is still stuck where Microsoft was a decade ago.
It's time to grow up, Oracle. For a company that builds great software and understands that it increasingly needs to depend on open source to build that software, it's disingenuous at best to lobby the US government to put the freeze on open source. Oracle needs to learn from Microsoft, stop worrying and love the open-source bomb. It was a key ingredient in Microsoft's resurgence. Maybe it could help Oracle get a cloud clue, too. ®