SHARING AMERICA'S TECH NEWS FROM THE VALLEY TO THE ALLEY
by Cade Metz, courtesy wired.com –
Alex Polvi is living the great Silicon Valley archetype. Together with some old school friends, he’s piecing together a tech revolution from inside a two-car Palo Alto garage.
He’s like Dave Packard or Steve Jobs or Sergey Brin — at least up to a point. The difference is that, from his vantage point here in the 21st century, Polvi views his garage with a certain sense of irony — “straight-up Palo Alto-style,” he says — and he harbors ambitions that suit our particular time. He wants to change the way we build the entire internet, making this worldwide network of computer servers as easy to update as the browsers on our laptops.
Inside that Palo Alto garage — the door open to the Silicon Valley summer sun, and the camping gear stacked against the wall — Polvi and his colleagues are fashioning a new computer operating system known as CoreOS. This isn’t an OS for running desktop PCs or laptops or tablets. It’s meant to run the hundreds of thousands of servers that underpin the modern internet.
The project is based on Google’s ChromeOS, the new-age laptop operating system that automatically updates itself every few weeks, but unlike ChromeOS, it can run more than just your personal machine. It can run every web service you ever visit, no matter how big. And it will let the companies that run those services evolve their online operations much more quickly — and cheaply — than they can with traditional server software.
“We’ve borrowed a lot of concepts from the browser world,” Polvi explains, “and applied them to servers.”
You can think of CoreOS as a new substrate for the internet. Web giants such as Google and Amazon and big Wall Street financial outfits, including the NASDAQ stock exchange, have built similar server operating systems for their own use, but with CoreOS — an open source software project — Polvi’s startup is creating something anyone can use. “We’re building Google’s infrastructure for everyone else,” he says. In doing so, Polvi and his team hope this OS can more rapidly fill the security holes that plague our computer servers, while speeding the evolution of the software applications that run atop them.
It’s yet another example of how the Googles and the Amazons are pushing the rest of the net towards a new future. Because they operate at such an enormous scale and must evolve so quickly, the web’s biggest players are forced to build all sorts of new technologies inside the data centers that drive their online empires, and inevitably, as other companies expand their own online operations, these technologies trickle down to the rest of the world.
The CoreOS project is still in its infancy, but Polvi and his cohorts have the pedigree to make things happen. Polvi has already sold one open source software startup — a server-juggling outfit called Cloudkick, now owned by cloud computing giant Rackspace — and one of his CoreOS collaborators is Greg Kroah-Hartman, an engineer at the very heart of the operating system world. Kroah-Hartman helps oversee the Linux kernel, the open source software that underpins every Linux operating system.
Polvi first met Kroah-Hartman about a decade ago when he was a computer science major at Oregon State, a school tightly bound with the open source movement. That’s also where Polvi met two other CoreOS collaborators, former Googler Michael Marineau and Linux developer Brandon Philips. The three ran the university’s Linux Users’ Group – “we were cool dudes,” Polvi says, with a grin and another healthy dose of irony — and at one point, they invited Kroah-Hartman to teach a Saturday class on Linux device drivers “just for fun.” Polvi remembers the Linux man helping them build a computer-powered USB thermometer.
The four have been friends ever since, and some have worked together on occasion. But the CoreOS project is a reunion of sorts. “At one point,” Polvi says, “we just had to get the band back together.” Kroah-Hartman is just an advisor to Polvi’s company — he’s employed by the Linux Foundation, the nonprofit that drives the OS — but every so often, he makes the trip from the Pacific Northwest to that Palo Alto garage to hang out and chat while they code. He recently dubbed a new version of the Linux kernel “Black Squirrel Wakeup Call,” after a varmint that hopped over the roof of the guest studio in Polvi’s backyard.
Kroah-Hartman says he’s been wanting to build something like CoreOS for over half a decade. Traditionally, server operating systems, including most Linux distros, are built to be replaced every few years. Over those years, developers may spruce them up with security patches and other updates, but more ambitious upgrades are too much of a hassle, and in the end, the OS — and the software built atop it — starts to ossify. With CoreOS, the idea is to build an OS that you can instantly replace whenever you like, without breaking the software applications that run on it.
Google has long done this sort of thing on desktops and laptops. The search giant built its web browser, Chrome, so that it can automatically update the thing whenever it likes, and it eventually extended this arrangement to ChromeOS, which revolves around the Chrome browser. If you own a Chromebook, you get a new operating system every six weeks or so — and all you have to do is reboot your machine.
“This has not only narrowed the window for security vulnerabilities in browsers, it has moved the entire web forward,” says Polvi, pointing out that new model has helped speed the arrival of HTML5, the standard means of building applications that run in web browsers.
The CoreOS project is a fork of Google’s ChromeOS code, meaning Polvi and company grabbed the open source code and started reshaping it for the project at hand. The result is a super streamlined server operating system that can evolve as quickly as ChromeOS.
Part of the trick is that Polvi’s team has pared a server operating system down to the bare minimum. The thing doesn’t include all the bells and whistles you’ll find in other server OSes, including most versions of Linux, and it cleanly separates the OS from the applications that run atop it.
With CoreOS, all applications sit inside “containers” — little bubbles of software code that include everything an application needs to run. These containers then latch onto the main OS through the simplest of interfaces. That means you can easily move applications from OS to OS and from machine to machine — much as you move shipping containers from boat to boat and train to train — but it also means you can easily update the OS without disturbing the applications. “The way we’re able to consistently update the OS — and be nimble — is to make sure we have a consistent way of running applications,” Polvi says.
Building such a system is far more complicated than it might seem, but Google has already done much of the work with ChromeOS, and the project taps into an existing container project called Docker, which seeks to ease the use of these software building blocks. Like ChromeOS, CoreOS is based on the Linux kernel, and it can run containers much like any other Linux operating system.
What’s more, in Kroah-Hartman, the team has someone who can ensure that the project doesn’t run afoul of the way people typically build Linux applications. As a Linux kernel developer, Kroah-Hartman oversees the way applications hook into the OS.
A few weeks back, CoreOS had a coming out party of sorts when Polvi and crew tossed a link to their website onto Hacker News, the preeminent online hangout for hardcore Silicon Valley developers. According to Polvi, about 1,300 companies have expressed interest in the software — and about 50 are Fortune 500 companies — and many have signed agreements to test the code.
The project also has the financial backing of Lew Moorman, the Rackspace president and board member who worked with Polvi in the wake of the Cloudkick deal. “This is the way a lot of modern applications are going to get built — though it’s very early days,” Moorman says, from inside a company that already runs tens of thousands of servers. “This is not super-mainstream today … but having a lightweight system like this where you can easily manage a huge number of machines will be very, very valuable.”
According to Adam Jacob — who, as the co-founder of a company called OpsCode, helps companies juggle hundreds or even thousands of computer servers — CoreOS is just what the data center world needs: a way for companies to expand their online operations without depending on more complex and more expensive software from the likes of Linux kingpin Red Hat. “If I didn’t have OpsCode,” he says, “that’s the business I would pitch.”
No doubt, there will be others competing for the hearts and minds of the world’s online businesses, but Polvi and CoreOS have a certain spiritual edge on the rest. They’re already in the garage.