After years of touting its cloud computing tech, Joyent open sources it

Cloud computing provider Joyent has long been respected for its technological chops, but has struggled to find an identity among a sea of cloud providers and technologies with much larger operations and much larger marketing budgets. Now, the tides might finally be shifting in Joyent’s direction — and it’s doing everything it can to ride them.

Last week, it was the announcement of a $15 million investment and a repositioning of itself as an infrastructure platform that’s all about containers. The company has actually been touting its container approach for years, but the fast rise of technologies such as Docker, CoreOS and Google’s Kubernetes container-management system has put containers at the top of a lot of minds. On Thursday, Joyent took an even bigger step by open sourcing the code that powers its cloud computing and object storage systems, respectively called SmartDataCenter and Manta.

Joyent CTO Bryan Cantrill announced the decision in a blog post, explaining what’s available in some detail. Notably, the systems’ GitHub repositories are actually meta-repositories that also include all the components that support them. “For example,” Cantrill wrote, “Manatee is a ZooKeeper-based system that manages Postgres replication and automates failover; Moray is a key-value service that lives on top of Postgres. Taken together, Manatee and Moray implement a highly-available key-value service that we use as the foundation for many other components in SDC and Manta — and one that we think others will find useful as well.”

Bryan Cantrill at Structure 2014. Credit: Jakub Mosur

Bryan Cantrill at Structure 2014. Credit: Jakub Mosur

The company isn’t exactly a stranger to open source. It has been managing the Node.js project for years and has also open sourced its SmartOS cloud operating system. Jason Hoffman, Joyent’s founder and former CTO (who’s now vice president of cloud at Ericsson), said via email that the effort to open source SmartDataCenter and Manta have been in the works for about 3 years.

The bigger question in all of this, of course, is how it positions (or repositions) Joyent among larger clouds from Amazon Web Services and Google, and large open source projects such as OpenStack. It’s certainly true that popular open source projects can result in better technologies, easier hiring and a greater number of potential paying customers down the road. Cantrill wrote in the blog post that “this is not an act of altruism: it is a business decision — if a multifaceted one that we believe has benefits beyond the balance sheet.”

Hoffman, never one for understatement, thinks the technologies — which include a full API system and multi-datacenter storage and database systems — should certainly become popular if people are willing to give them a look. “There are so many hard things fundamentally addressed and implemented in this system, it should be embarrassing when everyone else looks at what they’ve dumped out into the public domain,” he told me. “This is Michelangelo and DaVinci showing up to a space full of a bunch of kindergarten crayon drawings.”

Speakers: Jason Hoffman - CTO, Joyent

Jason Hoffman at Structure 2013. Credit: Pinar Ozger

To the question of whether this is too little, too late — OpenStack and even CloudStack have been in the wild for years now — Hoffman said correct timing isn’t just a function of which open source technologies come first. He thinks projects tend to be based around programming languages, and Joyent’s technology is written in Node.js and C for a Node.js community that is just now reaching critical mass. (Although, OpenStack does have software development kits for Node.js, and the Cloud Foundry platform that runs atop OpenStack supports it, too.)

Despite their popularity among certain groups, it’s also worth noting that containers are hardly ubiquitous. Docker appears to be solidly the container technology of choice, but we’re very early in terms a shift toward container-based computing. Multiple companies — including Microsoft, Google, Amazon Web ServicesRed Hat and, now, Joyent– will be jockeying for some time to become the platform of choice for running those containers.

But it won’t be easy to get heard above the noise from those big companies or even the well-heeled OpenStack project. Even Hoffman’s current employer, Ericsson, runs OpenStack. And Google, which also knows a lot about containers, is also relishing the fact that the mainstream is finally catching up with what it has been doing for years.

So of course Joyent is pulling out all the stops. If it’s ever going to have its moment in the sun, it’s now or never.