Pivotal nabs OpenStack co-creator and Piston co-founder Joshua McKenty

Pivotal, the cloud computing and big data company that spun out of EMC and VMware in 2013, has hired Joshua McKenty, a big name in the OpenStack world, as field CTO for the company’s open source Cloud Foundry platform-as-a-service framework. McKenty joins Pivotal from a three-year-old OpenStack startup called Piston, of which he was co-founder and CTO. Before that, he helped build the initial OpenStack technology as a lead architect on NASA’s Nebula project.

McKenty will remain a member of the board at Piston (see disclosure), but will cede his OpenStack Foundation board seat to Piston co-founder and chief scientist Christopher MacGown. McKenty said his departure shouldn’t change much at Piston, which has a strong leadership team in place and is doing well on the sales front.

He made the move to Pivotal for a combination of personal and technological reasons, he told me. On the technology side, he wants to get back to working on what OpenStack was supposed to be when NASA began building Nebula several years ago.

“When I started at NASA, I was hired to build a web application framework … for big data,” he explained. The space agency only began building OpenStack because none of the existing cloud computing software options, such as VMware or Eucalyptus, could handle the infrastructure-level foundation of that framework. Today, he said, OpenStack is the platform NASA needed six years ago and Cloud Foundry “has the beginnings of what we were trying to build at NASA.”

Structure 2011: Joshua McKenty - Co-Founder and CTO, Piston Cloud Computing, Inc.

McKenty talking Piston at Structure 2011. Credit: Pinar Ozger

He pegs Cloud Foundry’s current status at about 60 percent of what he envisioned building at NASA. One big technical challenge will be better integrating the myriad big data tools under the Pivotal banner — Hadoop, GemFire, Greenplum, HAWQ, etc. — more tightly with the Cloud Foundry piece. The application development and big data worlds are very separate right now, “but they need each other,” McKenty said.

“It’s not just about apps,” he added. “Apps need data, and data is meaningless without the apps built on it.” (For more on the road to integrating all of Pivotal’s disparate pieces, check out our podcast interview with Pivotal Senior Vice President of R&D Hugh Williams, embedded below.)

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The move to Pivotal won’t take McKenty entirely out of the OpenStack world, though. Although he acknowledged his interest was pretty much complete the day that Cloud Foundry could run atop OpenStack (Piston helped out with this, in fact), there’s still a lot of integration work yet to do, and a lot of overlap between the corporate membership bases of the two projects. But McKenty cares mostly about the applications — helping make Cloud Foundry a better place to run them, and then helping companies and developers actually deploy them.

He thinks Cloud Foundry can still become the ideal place to do this, and said it’s already taking some cues from newer projects such as Docker that have garnered a lot of love and a lot of users in part because of their great user experiences. Comparing his early days of deploying programs in the RAM on his old Apple machine, McKenty said the process is often just too complex today, especially for everyday developers, because so many applications are so distributed across servers and services.

“I have two daughters, and I can’t figure out how to create for them the same experience that I had because there’s all this complexity that’s exposed now without being hidden,” he said. “… OpenStack was a necessary abstraction layer, but I don’t want to think about it … my kids shouldn’t have to think about it.”

Disclosure: Piston is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of Gigaom.