Google Proposes Changes to Istio Steering Committee

Google is making a case for changing the rules under which the open source Istio service mesh project for Kubernetes environments is managed with a proposal to create a new Steering Committee charter around Contributor Seats and Community Seats that would have equal voting weight.

Contributor Seats will be allocated proportionally based on company contributions, while Community Seats are open to any member of the project that has both made a contribution and receives enough votes from their fellow contributors. Google argues community members will be able to make an impact on the project through any combination of code and non-code contributions.

Previously, Istio Steering Committee seats were granted to Google and IBM as founders of the project based on their approximate levels of contribution. Google says the Istio project has outgrown this loose structure. As it stands, Google and IBM will remain the dominant members of the Istio governing body. However, the proposed new rules appear to be at least a step toward making sure that will not always be the case.

Controversy over this proposed change is running high because Google is simultaneously moving to separate the ownership of the trademarks of three open source projects, including Istio, from the bodies that govern those projects. Until now, whenever vendors have donated code to an open source consortium they have included both the intellectual property and the trademark.

Google has stated it now prefers a home for Istio—along with Gerrit, a code collaboration tool, and Angular, a web application framework—that continues to allow for vendor-neutral use of trademarks to ensure companies feel confident building on the software. The Open Usage Commons accomplishes that goal while allowing other organizations to build on top of Istio, as part of an effort to define and shape the future of open source trademarks, Google contends. However, Istio is already available under an Apache license and Google is not being clear why it is backing away from its previous commitment to donate Istio to the CNCF.

IBM has expressed its displeasure with that trademark decision but isn’t signaling any plans to drop Istio in favor of another service mesh. There are plenty of other options: The CNCF, for example, already supports both Linkerd, a service mesh donated by Bouyant Inc., and Kuma, a service mesh from Kong Inc. that was just donated to the CNCF. In both cases, the CNCF owns both the intellectual property and the associated trademarks.

Even prior to the Google decision to hold back the intellectual property of Istio from the CNCF, both Linkerd and Kuma were gaining some traction as lighter-weight alternatives to Istio. Bouyant CEO William Morgan says more than half of the organizations looking for support from Buoyant for Linkerd have employed Istio. Linkerd, however, is not based on the open source Envoy proxy server, which is also developed under the auspices of the CNCF. Kuma, meanwhile, is designed to span more platforms than Istio.

Idit Levine, CEO of, which makes tools based on both Istio and Envoy, says from an end user perspective there will be no difference regardless of who owns Istio because the intellectual property is freely available under the open source Apache license. While the current iteration of Istio may be complex, Levine notes it’s also the most feature-rich.

Jonathan Bryce, executive director of the OpenStack Foundation (OSF), says it appears a legitimate debate about the ownership of open source trademarks unfortunately appears to have been conflated with an internal dispute over the governance on an open source project. The Open Usage Commons at the very least might turn out to be a noble experiment, he says.

While most open source trademarks have been surrendered along with intellectual property, there has been one notable exception: The Linux Mark Institute, which is owned by Linus Torvalds, owns the Linux trademark. That entity is simply managed by The Linux Foundation on Torvalds’ behalf.

It’s too early to say whether what appears to be a spat among IT vendors over control over the Istio open source projects will impact adoption. Historically, many organizations might be reluctant to build on top of an open source project when there is uncertainty about the provenance of the code on which they may become dependent on. In fact, there are plenty of examples where battles over provenance and governance have scuttled an open source community.

Regardless of the outcome, it’s apparent that democracy, as noted by both Winston Churchill and Robert Kennedy, in any form will continue to be messy.

Mike Vizard

Mike Vizard is a seasoned IT journalist with over 25 years of experience. He also contributed to IT Business Edge, Channel Insider, Baseline and a variety of other IT titles. Previously, Vizard was the editorial director for Ziff-Davis Enterprise as well as Editor-in-Chief for CRN and InfoWorld.

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