You can read the news on what we’re doing at rackspace (open sourcing our cloud) and why elsewhere, including interviews dropping throughout this week. Instead I thought I’d share my personal perspective on how we got here. The greatest biz dev deal I’ve ever closed was with my own company.
Since I joined Rackspace a year ago, intrigued by the disruptive power of cloud computing, I’ve been amazed at just how wild and wooly this industry is. From the characters you meet to the ever changing alliances and consolidation, it truly has been one wild ride. And Rackspace, improbably, has been right at the center of the action. Out gunned by competitors that could seemingly squash us like a bug, we’ve managed to claw our way to be the #2 cloud, with some decent mindshare to boot. One of the keys is our ecosystem of developers, who’ve built amazing things on our API. Having a hand in building that community has been a real pleasure. You can see the state of things at Cloud Tools. But that’s small beer compared to what we’re doing today.
One of the first things Jim Curry asked me to think about when I joined was whether or not we should open up some piece of our code, such as our Control Panel. My immediate reaction was “hell yes!” but I also gave it some more thought, and the more I pulled on the string the more convinced I became it was the right answer for our entire development model. This was crystalized for me last June during a panel at GIGAOM’s Structure 2009, where Matt Mullenweg (founder of Wordpess, and someone I’ve always admired) said something to the effect that “if you find yourself competing with Amazon, Microsoft, and Google for the first time, realize who you’re competing with: Amazon, Microsoft and Google. The only way you’ll get leverage is Open Source.” That was it. I was convinced.
Having spent 7 years at Dell and 5 years at Yahoo! with a startup in there somewhere, I think it’s fair to say that 12 years of my career have been spent trying to change big companies without much to show for it. Yeah I’ve hit a few doubles, learned a lot and made great friends, but changing a company of any size is just really, really hard. But I’m way too stubborn to stop trying. Now if it sounds like all of this is a set up to declare that I single handedly changed Rackspace, it’s not. But I am very proud to have been a part of what I believe is a “bet the company” move for Rackspace. A move that is all about knowing your comparative advantage, and above all, understanding 3 things I am pretty passionate about: The power of Freedom (my libertarian side), The Leverage of Community (my ‘everyone bring a side and I’ll fire up the smoker for some BBQ’ side), and how to align interests (Biz Dev).
So I pushed from time to time on the idea internally, and got a few head nods but mostly we were all just so busy hanging on in the midst of cloud mania that there wasn’t much traction (or action) on the idea. This all changed in a fateful meeting just before Christmas (December 2009) when Jason Seats (founder of Slicehost, and another person I admire greatly!) made a presentation to the cloud leadership team proposing the radical notion that we open source our entire cloud. Every last bit. Our junk hanging out, for the world to see. I am going to post that deck for posterity, as soon as I check with Jason I’m not sure the slides alone will do it justice without his delivery style, but suffice it to say he had the room buzzing with the possibilities, with plenty of naysayers and questions as you’d expect. Without his championing of the idea, I don’t think I ever would have gotten the green light (a few weeks later) from Lew to actually start pulling a formal plan together for the CEO and Board to approve.
This quickly became a team effort, with Jim Curry focused on the internal issues (which were many, and daunting), such as organizational impacts, approvals, etc. Before Jim starts yelling about the way I’ve characterized him as the paperwork guy on this, let me make this 100% clear: I think the reason I’ve never really been able to change a company before is that I just did not have the will to keep fighting the internal fight. Jim has as strong of a will as anyone I’ve worked for so I knew I had the right partner in crime. The third amigo was Bret Piatt, who was locked in a conference room in Austin with us for days trying to build powerpoints and business cases that could possibly explain in a compelling way to management why in the hell we want to give away the millions of dollars worth of IP they’ve spent building a cloud — to our competitors!
The biggest key to the argument in my mind was always LEVERAGE. The competitors have an ARMY of developers. More developers than we have employees! We’ve got to build our own army, out of all of the people out there who have an interest in seeing an open cloud emerge (there are a lot of us!). But I’m not sure that’s what convinced most people. I think it was really two things: 1) Rackspace is about Fanatical Support. If you follow the company at all, you’ll know we beat this drum day in and day out. But it’s really true. The company gets paid because we care. We don’t care because we’re paid. I know this sounds impossible to the average cynic (myself included), but it really runs through the company. And this move is the ULTIMATE bet on fanatical support. level the playing field, focus on customers. 2) Leadership. This move puts in the spotlight, but in the role of community builder not technology hoarder. This is software development done the Rackspace way (see #1). I do think the Android analogy has convinced a few people, which is a real world example of community leverage at work to compete against a more proprietary (yet dominant) player.
In between the pitches to management and today, about 5,000 other things happened including the formation of dedicated teams and people pitching in from across the company as this thing snowballed to today’s launch. Since this post is already too long I’ll just hat tip Rick Clark, who has been our secret weapon in all this, bringing his incredible experience working at open source leader Canonical, and note that a hundred other Rackers also pitched in. Maybe they can add their perspective in the comments or their own blogs.
How’s it going on the leverage front… can we deliver the community I promised management? Well, let’s just say we are now working with NASA. Freaking NASA! RIght now, images from outer space are being recorded to hard drives in an undisclosed location running Rackspace software, which just gained it’s freedom from our datacenter. And the amazing breakthroughs NASA has made operating cloud computing at scale are being incorporated into the future of the Rackspace Cloud. Just to put this in perspective: NASA is the largest collector of data in human history. If they lose data, they have to fire off a rocket. People’s lives are on the line. Clearly my blog needs this kind of technology behind it (for my annual post.)
But of course we couldn’t stop with a community of two, so we set out to bring thought leaders from across the globe together to comb over the designs in the heads of the architects, validate assumptions, and start hacking on REAL code as a TEAM. Over 25 companies participated, just last week. Since I was asked to corral all of the geeks, naturally I planned the “Design Summit” in Austin, TX. We just wrapped that up, and now here we are making the announcement today. Special thanks to my secret weapon, my wife Dianna who has had to play the single parent role with our headstrong 4 and 6 year old daughters (no idea where they get that from) while I’ve been immersed in all things OpenStack the past week weeks and months.
So what’s next? What crazy promise am I going to make to the Rackspace and the rest of the OpenStack community? Easy: the first partnership with an alien race. WIth a little help from my friends at NASA.
Cloud Freedom starts today! It’s never too late to start doing the right thing, Amazon If you love your code, set it free. If it was meant to be, it will come back to you (in python).
OpenStack: Free, as in Beer, Speech, And Love.
You can learn a lot more about it at openstack.org and of course by following @openstack on twitter. Also, don’t hesitate to become a fan of OpenStack on Facebook if you have one more Like button click left in you today.