In what amounts to a denominational spat between two adherents of the open-source religion, Dell, the privately held computing giant founded by Michael Dell, issued a statement ahead of HP’s Web conference, chiding HP’s plan to offer a commercial version of OpenStack in addition to the free version known as the community version.

May 7, 2014

By Arik Hesseldahl

Remember that last year, Dell and Red Hat, the company known for helping companies deploy and manage the open source Linux operating system, teamed up to develop an enterprise-grade version of OpenStack.

Anyone choosing HP’s commercial version runs the risk of having a hard time switching to another vendor if and when they decide to make a change later on. In this context the word “proprietary” is sort of an epithet.

“At Dell, our cloud solutions are based on open architectures with no proprietary lock in. Customers get choice, flexibility and the maximum benefit from their investment,” said Michael Dell in the statement.

In a separate blog post, Dell Enterprise VP Sam Greenblatt (who happens to be a former HP employee) singled out the commercial version, and hearkened back to the days when companies had to choose between hundreds of different versions of Linux:

“Today, Hewlett-Packard announced Helion, which is made up of two components … the open source community edition, which we applaud, and a proprietary edition which includes closed software targeted toward enterprises. With this approach, HP chooses how much proprietary software they want to include into a distribution, which runs counter to the principles of open source distributions. … [and] burdens organizations to have the OpenStack expertise and resources in house to sort through and decide which distribution is right for them, and how to deploy and maintain it.”

I asked analyst Pat Moorhead, head of the boutique research firm Moor Insights and Strategy, to tease out some of the nuance here. Basically it comes down to the degree of openness that each company is practicing and how much that matters to the customer. Different paths to enlightenment if you will.

“In a pure, open-source model you get the pure, open bits and then add other open bits to make it usable in a business,” he said. “This is what Dell and Red Hat are doing. They are giving the customer the option to use different bits to make the software work.”

What HP is doing with its commercial version, he said, is adding some of those extra bits of software to make OpenStack useful in a business setting, and then selling that as a package. “If you adopt the HP model, you get a turnkey product where a lot of the decisions have been made for you.” The result is something that works but which is arguably harder to move away from if you decide later on you want a change. But the end result is still essentially the same: You get a useful version of OpenStack.

Under the terms of the arrangement between Dell and Red Hat, Dell is selling hardware with Red Hat’s OpenStack installed, amounting to what’s typically known as an OEM arrangement. But the relationship goes further in that Dell has been handling service and support efforts for Red Hat’s OpenStack product, essentially playing the role of consultant, even in instances where the customer is not using Dell hardware. It’s not exactly charity. Dell uses the relationship as a way to build up a channel to sell its hardware and other software products.

In fact the whole arrangement is a replay of an alliance the two struck around Linux more than a decade ago. With Dell’s considerable sales muscle in its corner, Red Hat’s implementation of Linux went on to become the de facto standard for enterprise computing environments. They’re looking for a repeat.