He brought Microsoft the open source it had viewed with such dread and now former Redmond man Bill Hilf is challenging the thinking at Hewlett-Packard.
Microsoft plucked Hilf from IBM in 2004 to become its general manager for open source and platform strategy at a time when Microsoft was waging a war on open source, calling it a “cancer”.
IBM, meanwhile, was so enthralled with the stuff it was spray-painting peace signs, hearts and Tuxes on city pavements in San Francisco and Chicago in an “IBM loves Linux guerilla" ad campaign.
“When I first started at Microsoft, open source was truly considered a societal evil,” Hilf reflected on those early days for The Reg.
Since Hilf's time there, Microsoft now participates in open-source projects, has improved the way open-source code runs on Windows and has even developed software that manages Linux servers.
After ascending to general manager of Windows Azure product management, Hilf left Microsoft in June 2013 to become HP's vice president of converged cloud products and services. He now oversees the HP enterprise group's portfolio of products being built and/or integrated for HP’s private, public and managed cloud.
Open wide... but not THAT wide
Things are different at HP: the computer and server maker has been involved in the open-source and Linux movement for a long time – both have helped it shift servers. Before that, HP was an early mover in open systems by backing Unix.
Hilf is preaching to the converted at HP but admits to challenges building a cloud that’s open – founded on OpenStack – but whose bricks are HP’s not inconsiderable non-open-source assets.
“I very rarely have conversations internally with somebody doesn't understand the dynamics of working with the [open source] community,” Hilf told The Reg in a recent interview.
“But there’s still a proprietary business inside HP, so there are still times when we are building open source that groups [within HP] say: 'Why do we need to do that?'."
An HP cloud group was formed to help people understand the new technologies. The units is based not near corporate HQ in Silicon Valley but in Seattle, centre of ops for cloud services giant Amazon and, er, Microsoft.
HP might be pro open source but it remains a PC, server and printer OEM – albeit struggling to pull itself up by its commodity box-pusher roots and plant itself into services under chief executive Meg Whitman.
Engaging with the community is important in terms of making its cloud successful rather than just a vehicle to flog more servers.
Building a 'hardened' OpenStack infrastructure
That means committing paid HP programmers to work on the open-source OpenStack code, code that might also help other companies – including potential rivals.
Hilf claims he’s hiring a “ton” of people in dev and testing to deliver and OpenStack product HP can credibly claim it's able to support. The firm is now the third largest single contributor to OpenStack – behind Rackspace and Red Hat – with “others” the largest block.
Hilf promised HP would “invest a lot” in things like stability, QA and hardening of the OpenStack code to build an infrastructure that’s “enterprise ready.”
How committed is HP to OpenStack? Very.
Hilf quotes the example of how HP last year killed its own proprietary UI for OpenStack and backed Horizon, the OpenStack dashboard, instead.
It was a step backwards in functionality until HP invested time in improving Horizon, but Hilf reckons it was worth it.
“Now we are at parity with where we were before and we are in the trunk of the open source project - that’s what we are doing all over the place,” he said.
But Hilf is plugging a skills gap inside HP and the industry as a whole. Three years in, OpenStack programmers are in relatively short supply with many of those from the early days having spun out to create well-paid consulting operations.
Investing in people now will pay off for HP in the long term, Hilf believes. He subscribes to the view that OpenStack is doing what Linux did on the desktop and server, but he’s not complacent about the obstacles – technical or political – and, therefore, not sitting back on the naive belief that OpenStack's destiny is simply manifest.
In today's cloud world, OpenStack is looking decidedly outgunned: with Amazon in the lead and Google, Microsoft, IBM, SAP and Oracle racing to catch up.
Each of these companies’ cloud operations have their corporate sponsors behind them, but no one big operation of comparable size or influence is driving OpenStack.
“OpenStack is three years old and it has to go through a lot of growth but it’s not something we at HP are going to wait for until it’s ready. HP has decided we would shape that future to make OpenStack what we and customers need it to be,” Hilf said.
“A lot of guys are trying OpenStack today and saying it’s hard. They sit back and say: ‘Do I have to?’. When I started at Microsoft, the same statements being made today were being said about Linux and MySQL.
Beware the godfathers of SQL
“The godfathers of SQL server would say there’s no way an open-source database can be mature enough for an enterprise, or that the competition is too hard and too advanced,” says the former Redmond man.
What of Hilf’s former employer Microsoft and its cloud gambit Windows Azure – does this feature in HP’s future?
Back in 2010, at least according to Microsoft, the answer was “yes”. Announcing Azure, Microsoft named HP with Dell, Fujitsu and eBay as those firms which would offer cloud services and appliances using the then-new Windows Azure.
Several years on, only Fujitsu has released a true Windows-Azure based cloud. Microsoft is present in HP’s cloud, but only in the form of Windows that runs as a guest on HP’s public cloud – along with Linux. You can pay to use them. The operating system that underpins HP's cloud environment is Ubuntu 12.04 LTS with KVM.
There will be no HP-Azure or Windows HP cloud, but applications on HP’s OpenStack cloud will be able to talk to apps on Microsoft's cloud should the users wish.
“I see interoperability with Windows Azure higher up the stack,” Hilf said. “If a customer has an application running in Windows Azure and wants OpenStack cloud-to-cloud communication, we will allow that interoperability.’
The billion-dollar question: What do enterprise customers want?
The cloud-wrangler reckons if he’s bringing anything from Microsoft, it’s the experience of building a system that’s suited to enterprise customers.
“A lot of what I learned, and our strategy, was formed by spending considerable time in the last five years with enterprise customers – talking to them about cloud in my role on Windows Azure,” Hilf reckons.
What did he pick up? That enterprises like the idea of paying for gigabits-per-second without owning the servers but are constrained by softer issues like putting their legacy online or by regulatory compliance that restricts where their data can go.
What many are doing as a result is taking a hybrid approach, like running mobile apps via a web tier and keeping large chunks of what they run behind the firewall, he says. They also want a "big" vendor that they can call for support, he adds.
Hilf said HP isn’t chasing the Bitcoin or Snapchat user, but rather the enterprise customer that wants a secure and reliable and product environment.
He claimed 1,500 customers on the HP private cloud with a “wide amount of customers for others areas”. These are what he called “classic” customers in more traditional IT shops – large enterprises in the Global 2000.
“These companies are telling us: 'We want a big enterprise behind open source that we can get support and services from'," he says.
The two Michaels
Hilf's position at HP has been to bring the firm’s assets together to create the kind of coherent platform that facilitates this enterprise use.
HP claims part of its increased $811m R&D spend – small by comparison to some of HP’s tech rivals – is because of the investment it’s making in cloud.
“What I spend most time working on is 'How do I build a coherent stack, not just a virtual machine structure, but platform layer, management tools coherent across any deployment environment, in our data centre or their data centre',” the cloud man said.
Recent examples include the HP Cloud System that was built using the firm's 3PAR storage, FlexFabric networking, VirtualSystem and VMware management.
Late in 2013, HP announced big data analytics as a service using software from enterprise search specialist Autonomy and from post-SQL database Vertica – companies acquired from the two Michaels (Lynch and Stonebraker respectively).
Hilf said his goal is to build an HP cloud capable of running the same applications and services anywhere around the world in public and private data centres.
HP wants cloud customers to be running HP database services, messaging, networking and storage, whether they are behind or outside the firewall.
“A lot of work is to bring together the one HP cloud portfolio,” Hilf told us. “The start of the work was getting the execs to understand – and aligning down further in the pipe product plans and roadmaps are going in the same direction.
“You will see us more about productification of the cloud assets – and more and more [companies] turning specifically to the enterprise,” he promised. ®