Linux at HP: A Decade of Leadership

While at the HP Technology Forum 2010, a particular breakout session stood out in that it was all about Linux. In fact, I’ve stolen the title of the presentation and made it the name of this article. Bdale Garbee, a very comprehensive and impressive individual (also the HP Open Source & Linux Chief Technologist), gave a talk on the basics of Linux and HP’s involvement in it.

He outlined the community development model (in his words: “no one company in charge; a range of contributors with varied interests, abilities, and motivations”) and the freedom of choice (“users have flexibility in how they acquire support for open source technology; any user can become a developer or pay someone to develop or support… on their behalf; if ‘upstream’ ever behaves unacceptably, developers have the power to ‘fork'”). He said that, to profit while maintaining the openness of open source, HP needs to add unique value that customers want to pay for.

Obviously HP has embraced the open-source model as far as being profitable goes– so many aspects of IT live off of it. Whether they like it or not, just about any company in the IT field has had to deal with open source; I personally don’t feel that HP has the attitude of having to deal with open source but rather getting to.

According to Garbee, HP has a somewhat unique approach to open source. HP participates not just by funding projects but truly getting their hands dirty as a direct open source member, collaboratively supporting existing community values and behaviors and developing even more robust enterprise capabilities. HP is especially unique in the open source field in that they have only ever used existing licences: HP has never created its own license. In addition, HP was an early contender in fighting license proliferation, or when pieces of software cannot be combined because their licences are incompatible. Finally, HP combines its efforts with Linux distributions in order to bring the most effective solutions for its customers.

History-wise, HP has a rich relationship with Linux and open source in general. I didn’t know this until I began to research the company’s history, but Hewlett-Packard was actually founded in 1939 in a garage (similar to Google’s beginnings), so HP has been around longer than most technologically-based companies these days, especially ones so publicly known. They were well-rooted when Linux first became viable, and they were one of the earliest and widespread contributors to its cause. HP’s work with open source includes being a leader in the Eclipse Development Environment, running a dedicated open source and Linux R&D lab, being a key proponent in the OpenSSI project, extensively supporting SAMBA and Apache, and helping to lead and maintain Debain; HP still actively supports and works with open source today.

On a legal note, since HP has been so involved with open source, HP’s legal staff has had to become at least generally familiar with the collaboration processes required for open source and commercial software to mesh. Garbee said that HP recognized very early “the need for an explicit internal governance process to ensure intersections between proprietary development and open source were consciously managed… today, all HP commercial attorneys participate in reviews!” Also, HP’s open source legal structure has been so successful that the company has worked with various other large companies to help establish their own internal governance policies and practices.

Garbee also mentioned the now-dead SCO scuffle. HP was the first entity to offer an indemnification program against any risks associated with the danger of SCO winning its temper tantrum. He also mentioned that now that the SCO lawsuits are out of the way, “Linux has emerged from this attack much stronger than before”, and he invited anyone else to attack Linux because it would only make it stronger (and– I’m adding this of my own accord– bring to life more tech-humor; we’ll just say that “they’re pulling an SCO”).

“HP is absolutely committed to open source”. Garbee shares some statistics to back up this claim:

  • Over 6,500 HP service employees to implement and support Linux and open sstyle=”width:512px;height:284px;border:px;”ource worldwide
  • Over 3,000 open source software projects initiated
  • Over 2,500 HP developers focused on open source
  • Over 1,200 open source printer drivers provided

Finally, at the close of the session that Bdale Garbee was conducting, the topic altered slightly towards HP’s recent acquisition of various companies and who would be next. Garbee seemed to know about these plans but was unwilling to elaborate. However, after some coaxing and guessing from the crowd, he did say that Novell and many others were in “interesting situations”, that there have been some “interesting conversations”, and that there are a “rich range of possible futures” for the company; as for which future HP may pursue, though, he “couldn’t talk about”. Vague, yes, but interesting.

Very interesting.


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