Even if you don’t follow Istio, or the Cloud Native landscape, you may have heard some news about Istio this week. Two big updates are in the works:

The short story is that the Open Usage Commons, a brand new body created by Google, SADA, independent open source maintainers, and computer science academics, will hold the Istio trademarks in a neutral, non-Google entity. The goal is to alleviate concerns from many about the future of the project where Google has ownership of the trademarks. Second, Istio is adopting a governance charter that expands the steering committee to 13 seats: 9 allocated based on project contribution and 4 for community diversity. No single vendor is allowed to hold more than 5 seats. (The final composition is still being debated in the community, but this describes the current proposal of record.)

So what do these two changes actually mean for the project? First and foremost, ownership of the Istio trademarks will no longer rest with Google, but with the Open Usage Commons. This is a good thing overall for the project– and it may surprise some– but in fact this is the primary purpose for which the CNCF exists too: to be a neutral body that holds trademarks. Secondly, expanding the membership of the steering committee also benefits the larger community by bringing more views to bear on the direction of the entire project. These changes are very close to the hearts of all us Tetrands. Many of us have been involved in Istio since its inception. As individual, we’re all invested in seeing Istio succeed. As a company, Tetrate’s biggest investment of our most precious resource — the time of our team members — is in OSS projects, especially Istio and Envoy.

We believe that the service mesh architecture is a fundamental enabler of the next generation of distributed systems that will power the world, and that Istio and Envoy are the beginnings that deliver on that vision. Istio as control plane and Envoy as data plane are undeniably the leading service mesh in terms of technical vision, feature richness, and adoption by end users. But there is a lot more work, and a lot more innovation by this entire community, needed in both Envoy and Istio to truly enable the widespread adoption of Istio we believe is possible. 

Community, not Foundations

The core strength of any successful open source project is its community: the contributors and users who strive to push its boundaries and make it better. The way to grow our community is to make it easy to get started (both using Istio itself, as well as contributing to Istio), have clear and reliable documentation with code examples associated with common vectors of adoption, and to be welcoming of new community members. Projects get embedded in platforms when platform owners feel they can trust the community, its governance, and its neutrality.

The reason Istio has seen phenomenal adoption, far beyond any other mesh implementation, is not because it was in some foundation. It’s because of the community’s faith in the open processes defined as part of Istio’s governance, the fact that Istio itself solves a set of hard problems that end users care about, and the overall technical vision as defined by the TOC. In short, governance has been “good enough,” freeing Istio to win on technical excellence.

Karl Stoney, Principal Engineer, Auto Trader, who was one of the earliest users of Istio sums it up perfectly: “We invested in Istio from an early stage, and continue to see it as a key part of our platform going forward.  We believe the project will reach its full potential through an open, transparent and diversified decision making process and will do what we can to support any steps in that direction”

However, that’s not to say that this has been without hitches. We believe that this is a first step in good faith by Google to ensure the long-term health of the Istio project. Unfortunately, we believe that the way in which Google went about this has created unnecessary stress in the community (both among contributors and end users). Specifically, the fact that there was not a robust discussion within the Istio community about the donation of Istio’s trademark but rather a unilateral decision by Google to transfer them to a new and as-yet unproven organization. That is not a good starting point for a truly neutral body to build trust with the community. For any project, IP, trademark, and governance should be non-issues, but Google has put them at the forefront of our minds. We look forward to seeing how Open Usage Commons earns trust and puts these concerns to rest over time.

Making Istio Stronger

The strength of the community is the most important aspect of Istio’s health in the long term. The community grows by increased adoption and usage of the project. To enable adoption of Istio as part of many organizations’ platforms, the owners of those platforms need to trust the people shepherding the project. Istio’s Steering Committee should enable that goal through all possible means at its disposal. We believe the first ingredient is to give end users who rely on Istio as a critical piece of their infrastructure a voice in steering, and not just vendors building products around Istio. Having their voices at steering will help ensure that every decision made by steering includes their concerns, which is critical to the lasting adoption and growth of our community.

Closing

Our goal at Tetrate, and we believe this goal is shared by the Istio community, is to see Istio run everywhere. Trust in the project’s long term health and sustainability is critical if we want to see Istio expand. How Istio’s trademarks are handled is of vital importance to us as a company building products on top of and around Istio. The Open Usage Commons needs to put in work to win end user trust and vendor confidence. In our opinion, the saddest possible outcome for the vibrant, growing community that is Istio would be to have that growth stifled by a loss of trust. We look forward to the Open Usage Commons serving the Istio community’s vision of widespread adoption.

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