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Samedi, 19 Novembre 2011 00:24

Man Survives Steve Ballmer's Flying Chair To Build '21st Century Linux'

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Mark Lucovsky was the other man in the room when Steve Ballmer threw his chair and called Eric Schmidt a “fucking pussy.”

Yes, the story is true. At least according to Lucovsky. Microsoft calls it a “gross exaggeration,” but Lucovsky says that when he walked into Ballmer’s office and told the Microsoft CEO he was leaving the company for Google, Ballmer picked up his chair and chucked it across the room. “Why does that surprise anyone?” Lucovsky tells, seven years later. “If you play golf with Steve and he loses a five-cent bet, he’s pissy for the next week. Should it surprise you that when I tell Steve I’m quitting and going to work for Google, he would get animated?”

The famous flying chair shows just how volatile Steve Ballmer can be, but it also underlines the talent Mark Lucovsky brings to the art of software engineering. Lucovsky joined Microsoft in 1988 as part of the team that designed and built the company’s Windows NT operating system — which still provides the core code for all Windows releases — and after joining Google, he was one of three engineers who created the search giant’s AJAX APIs, online programming tools that drew more traffic than almost any other service at Google. “[He's] probably in the top 99.9 percentile when it comes to engineers,” says Paul Maritz, the CEO of virtualization kingpin VMware, who worked with Lucovsky as a top exec at Microsoft.

That’s why Maritz turned the tables on Google and coaxed Lucovsky to VMware.

No, Maritz didn’t recruit his old colleague just to squeeze some extra speed from the “hypervisor” that delivers the company’s virtual servers. He wanted VMware to build a new software platform for the internet age, and he relied on Lucovsky to tell him what that would be. Lucovsky pulled in a few more “99.9 percentile” engineers — including the two who helped him build Google’s AJAX APIs, Derek Collison and Vadim Spivak — and little more than a year and a half later, they delivered Cloud Foundry.

Cloud Foundry has many authors, most notably Collison, known for building the TIBCO Rendezvous messaging system that sped data across Wall Street’s machines in the ’90s. But you might describe Cloud Foundry as a culmination of Lucovsky’s career: It takes the idea of a widely used software platform like Windows NT and applies it to the sort of sweeping infrastructure Google erected to run its massively popular web services. But then it goes further. After building the platform, Lucovksy and Collison convinced Maritz and company to open source it, letting others have it for no charge. In the words of Maritz, VMware seeks to provide “the 21st-century equivalent of Linux.”

In short, the platform is a way for software developers to build web applications, deploy them to the net, and scale them to more and more users as time goes by — all without having to worry about the computing infrastructure that runs beneath them. “It lets you worry about the app,” Collison says, “and not virtual machines or what operating system they’re running or all this other stuff.” VMware offers the platform as an online service at, and in open sourcing the project, it hopes to spawn an army of compatible services and push the platform into private data centers.

The aim is a world where modern-day online applications can run across cloud services and data centers in much the same way Windows applications can run across PCs.

Drooling on the Cloud

Lucas Carlson saw an early version of Cloud Foundry before it was released to the world at large. “I immediately started drooling,” he says, “and I kept drooling until I finally got my hands on it.” Carlson is the CEO and founder of AppFog, a Portland, Oregon-based startup that has long offered an online service that does roughly the same thing as VMware’s platform. Four months after getting his hands on it, Carlson launched a new version of his service built atop Cloud Foundry.

There are many services that do what Cloud Foundry does. Google offers a similar service known as Google App Engine, letting outside developers hoist applications onto its internal infrastructure. Microsoft serves up Windows Azure. And now owns Heroku, a San Francisco startup that helped pioneer the idea.

They’re typically called “platform clouds,” or “platform-as-a-service” — not to be confused with “infrastructure clouds” such as Amazon EC2. Whereas EC2 gives you raw resources for running apps, including virtual servers and storage, a platform cloud hides all that. It runs atop an infrastructure cloud, giving you tools for actually creating applications while taking care of the rest underneath the covers.

Cloud Foundry is building on an existing idea. But it takes a more egalitarian approach. For one, it’s designed to accommodate as many developers as possible. Whereas Google App Engine — and to a lesser extent Microsoft Azure — restrain the tools you can use, Cloud Foundry seeks to provide the same rapid scaling without those restrictions. It runs a wide of array of development languages and frameworks, including Java, Ruby, PHP, and Node.js, and it can work in tandem with an ever-expanding array of databases and other complementary services, including MySQL, MongoDB, and Redis.

“Azure comes with one view on the world. It gives you a model and if you bind to that model on how you’re supposed to build applications, you get some added efficiency,” says Patrick Scaglia, the chief technology officer of HP’s cloud services group. “But that’s not the way the new class of developers like to build things. Cloud Foundry is closer to what they want.”

Carlson agrees. “VMware got to see what Google did, and they got to reinvent it in a way that’s better and more attuned to the needs of developers,” he says.

And unlike Google and Microsoft, VMware has open sourced its code. Carlson doesn’t have the option of building a service based on App Engine. Nor does anyone else. But just six months after its debut, Cloud Foundry is running not only AppFog’s service, but services from BlueLock, enStratus, Tier3, and Virtacore. And earlier this month, a big name joined the crusade when HP revealed that will offer a Cloud Foundry service sometime this spring.

Lucovsky — quite the contrarian — takes issue with Maritz calling the platform “an operating system for the cloud.” But this is where the metaphor makes sense. “What differentiates operating systems is the ecosystem that’s built around them — what applications and services interact with these layers of software,” Carlson says.

“Paul wants to create the biggest ecosystem around platform-as-a-service, as if it was an operating system — so that there’s the most interoperability and portability around that technology.”

And Maritz wants to do so without hooking developers to a particular software or hardware vendor, including VMware. “One of the potential bad things about this move to the cloud is that you might go back to how things were with mainframes in the ’60s and ’70s, where you had these very proprietary environments. Once you checked into the IBM universe, you could never check out again. Are we going to go back to that world with the Google cloud and the Microsoft cloud?” Maritz says. “If you’re a developer, you need a set of services that can make your life easy, but that don’t bind you forever and a day to the stack of one vendor.”

In other words, Paul Maritz is playing against type.

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Cade Metz is the editor of Wired Enterprise. Got a NEWS TIP related to this story -- or to anything else in the world of big tech? Please e-mail him: cade_metz at


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