As a software architect attending a developer conference like the 2013 Red Hat Summit, one of the least interesting vendors on the docket has to be Intel. They are always there, set up with a big booth in the exhibitors pavilion at the Oracle OpenWorld and IBM Innovate conferences, and while it all seems interesting to the low-level hardware guys, chips and processors simply aren’t the bailiwick of coders. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that processors aren’t important to the wellbeing of developers, but they’re important in the same way that air is important for sustaining life – things fall apart if it disappears, but so long as it’s there, it’s boring as hell.
Interestingly though, Dirk Hohndel , Chief Linux and Open Source Technologist at Intel, in the most entertaining of the array of morning keynotes at the 2013 Red Hat Summit made some pretty compelling arguments about why Intel should be taken more seriously as a player in the open-source software development world.
Intel and open source
Now if you threw up in your throat just a little bit when you heard the word Intel and open source spoken in the same sentence, you’re not alone. After all, simply by virtue of the segment they are in, hardware companies hoard patents and protect their intellectual property (IP) at levels of extreme to which the software industry could only aspire. And this isn’t said to disparage Intel. Patent trolling is the scourge of the software development industry, but when it comes to hardware, IT professionals understand the need for hardware companies to protect the inventions that innovate and drive the industry forward. But why is Intel keynoting at a Red Hat conference and cozying up to the open-source crowd?
“We are an IP company. Everything we do is about our intellectual property, about our ability to make better chips than anybody else,” admits Intel’s Dirk Hohndel. But along with being a hardware behemoth, Intel is also one of the top ten biggest software development companies in the world, and much of that effort goes into open source, be it Intel’s open source KVM based hypervisor, or source code commits to the development branch of the latest Linux kernel. “In the last kernel, we actually surpassed Red Hat in the statistics,” says Hohndel “We were the number one contributor to the 3.9 Linux kernel.”
Innovation, adoption and computer chip sales
So why does Intel invest so much into open source software development. Clearly, Intel believes that open source software is a key driver for innovation, and when people innovate, new technologies emerge, and when new technologies emerge, those technologies need to run on computers. That means the need for more Intel processors. A brilliant innovation such as Facebook or Twitter, accelerated in its development and deployment by the availability of open source software and tools, means a need for hundreds of thousands of servers, and hundreds of millions of client devices. “What do all these things have in common?” says Hohndel. “They have a CPU on the inside, and now, often more than one.”
Intel’s support and investment in open source technology clearly isn’t a purely philanthropic one. It’s an investment motivated by their evil desires to make money, sell more chips, dominate the market and return value to their shareholders. But that really is the point that Hohndel was trying to make – that open source software can be a great driver of innovation and technology. If it wasn’t for Linux, the financial industry would still be in UNIX RISC jail, but instead, they are now heavily vested in an Intel and Linux ecosystem, and the foothold Intel has on that market wouldn’t have been possible without open source. In the end, open source makes the industry as a whole stronger, regardless of whether the vendor is a heavy IP protectorate like Intel, or more of an open source play like Red Hat.