Konstantin Emelyanov - Fotolia

Google's OUC play muddies Istio service mesh outlook

Google surprised even major partners with the transfer of Istio's trademark to a new organization it launched last week, leaving some key governance details undefined.

Google launched Open Usage Commons last week and donated the trademark for its Istio service mesh project to the new organization, deepening ongoing industry debate about the project's governance and long-term future.

Service mesh, which distributes network performance and security management workloads among a network of sidecar containers, has emerged as an important networking approach amid the rise of Kubernetes container orchestration and microservices. Istio, initially the brainchild of Kubernetes creator Google and IBM, captured immediate market attention when it emerged in 2017.

Industry buzz about potential problems with Istio's open source governance first became widespread last fall when Google announced it would not donate another Kubernetes-related project, Knative, to an independent open source foundation. The company didn't address Istio in that statement, but industry watchers concluded it, too, would not be destined for a foundation, and so far, that has been the case.

As a result, discussion about Knative at last year's KubeCon was muted, and it became clear that Istio had not yet achieved the market domination of Kubernetes container orchestration, as competitors such as Linkerd and HashiCorp Consul Connect remained competitive among early service mesh adopters.

Now, debate about Istio's governance has returned to a high pitch with the release of Istio's trademark to the Open Usage Commons (OUC), an organization created by Google last week with the promise of improved trademark management for open source projects. In official blog posts about OUC, to which it also donated its Angular and Gerrit trademarks, Google indicated the organization will focus solely on trademark management for projects governed by other open source foundations.

"Foundations do great work, and the OUC is not trying to mirror existing foundations, running conferences, etc.," said Chris DiBona, head of open source for Google and its parent company, Alphabet, in a statement provided by a Google spokesperson this week. "The OUC is focused on a very specific pain point we see in open source -- trademarks."

Industry observers noted that trademarks have historically been an underserved aspect of open source governance.

"The industry has typically handled them via common consensus rather than explicit legal mechanisms as it has for, say, copyright," wrote RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady in a blog post last week.

But trademarks can be just as important when it comes to dictating how open source software is used, and they have been the cause of contention in open source communities in the past -- for example, Elastic Inc.'s legal complaint against AWS for its Elasticsearch service focuses on trademark infringement.

However, O'Grady lamented Google's decision to involve Istio in OUC, saying it created an unnecessary distraction from these issues.

"Predictably, discussions of the foundation have been colored by impressions of Google's stewardship of and behavior around the Istio project," O'Grady wrote. "In many cases, perhaps the majority of cases, discussions of the OUC devolve into a referendum on Istio rather than the trademark foundation."

This could also be because there isn't much material to discuss yet on the trademark front; OUC has not yet published a specific trademark policy, or detailed guidelines for third-party participation in the organization. Nor has the organization specifically addressed what pains exist with current open source trademark policies at open source foundations including The Linux Foundation / Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), or how OUC will be different.

Google reps this week also declined to specify a time frame for publication of more detailed trademark policy and third-party participation guidelines.

Istio uncertainty gives some users pause -- but not all

The OUC news surprised even Google's major Istio partner, IBM, which registered its objection to the move in a terse company blog post. In it, IBM indicated Google had reneged on an early promise to donate Istio to the CNCF, which Google co-founded with IBM and other tech giants to house Kubernetes five years ago.

"IBM continues to believe that the best way to manage key open source projects such as Istio is with true open governance, under the auspices of a reputable organization with a level playing field for all contributors, transparency for users, and vendor-neutral management of the license and trademarks," wrote IBM cloud platform vice president Jason McGee in the IBM post.

The CNCF also published an explanation of its approach to trademarks, which did not specifically mention OUC, but which was posted July 8, the same day OUC was launched.

One enterprise IT pro highly involved in open source communities said his company has begun to experiment with Istio service mesh, but hasn't yet put it into production in part due to ongoing uncertainty about the project's governance, including the lack of detail about OUC's trademark policy so far.

"There are probably venues where they could've prompted this discussion [about open source trademarks] in existing organizations, but they went off and created this thing and made a big splashy announcement without any actual meat behind it," said the IT pro, an engineer at a large enterprise who requested anonymity because his company does not want to take a public stance on Open Usage Commons yet.

Nicolas ChaillanNicolas Chaillan

While much of the initial reaction to OUC, and Istio's presence within it, was negative, another Istio early adopter dismissed the controversy as misinformed. In a less-heralded move, Google has also been working behind the scenes to change Istio's project charter to add end user members to its steering committee. Istio's technical oversight committee also already has members from companies other than Google, including IBM, Red Hat, Aspen Mesh and Tetrate, said Nicolas Chaillan, chief software officer for the U.S. Air Force.

"I put Google a little bit on the spot and said I'd stop using Istio within a year if they didn't give it to a foundation, particularly the trademark," Chaillan said.

However, OUC and the proposed changes to the steering committee charter are enough to assuage Chaillan's concerns about the project's governance.

Trademark ease of access is critical, and it's important that other companies can use the project name and build products around it. If one company controls the trademark, by definition it makes it something we can't use.
Nicolas ChaillanChief Software Officer, U.S. Air Force

"Trademark ease of access is critical, and it's important that other companies can use the project name and build products around it," he said. "If one company controls the trademark, by definition it makes it something we can't use."

Google has yet to accept any non-Google projects into OUC, but the OUC's board of directors includes members from outside the company, including academic organizations, other open source foundations and one cloud service provider, SADA Systems. End user members have also not yet been elected to Istio's steering committee, and Istio contributors must sign a Google-specific contributor license agreement, but Chaillan said he's convinced the project is on a path to open governance, with or without the CNCF.

"What matters is the outcome, not which foundation it goes to," Chaillan said. "Once they take care of the steering committee changes, it checks all the boxes for me."

Multi-cloud outlook still, well, cloudy

Another potential obstacle to widespread Istio adoption is a major architectural change introduced in version 1.5 earlier this year. Coupled with uncertainty around the specifics of the OUC, as well as proposed but not-yet-official changes to the project's governance, the overall outlook for Istio is mixed at the moment, according to one IDC analyst.

Brad CasemoreBrad Casemore

"Among customers with whom we've spoken recently … [these factors have] caused them to look more broadly at options," said Brad Casemore, vice president of data center networks at the analyst firm in Framingham, Mass. "It's caused them to ask more questions and be more open to looking at competitors."

The architectural change in Istio 1.5 was the right move and done for the right reasons, Casemore said, but it has made prospective users more cautious in their evaluation of the service mesh framework.

Continued uncertainty about Istio's governance won't be a showstopper for every enterprise, he added, since many companies choose technology based on support from a major cloud provider or trusted vendor, such as IBM.

However, IBM's clear displeasure at Google's OUC move leaves open the question of whether it might eventually switch support to another service mesh project. Similarly, if Istio is seen as a Google-controlled project, cloud provider competitors will likely move forward with their own service mesh control planes rather than signing on with Istio.

None of this means Istio won't remain viable, Casemore said, but it's increasingly unlikely it will reach the same industry-standard status as Kubernetes. This would complicate the multi-cloud portability vision for Kubernetes if the market for multi-cloud networking remains fragmented, and potentially shift enterprise vendor lock-in into the multi-cloud management layer, he said.

"Kubernetes was the clear winner from a long way out," Casemore said. "There doesn't seem to be a similarly universal service mesh."

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