Over the years, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about why the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) has done things the way it has. I’ve also seen people speculate about things that are going on and reasons for it. Quite often, developers are missing some context or understanding about what the CNCF is or how it operates.
The CNCF often doesn’t operate the way project developers expect. This isn’t a good or a bad thing. It has a lot to do with its mission and goals which are different than those of the projects. Given that, here are some contextual things I’ve learned along the way.
From the Linux Foundation tax forms which are public for non-profits of a certain size.
The CNCF and LF are not unusual in this kind of legal setup. The Rust Foundation, Bytecode Alliance Foundation, and many other open source non-profits have the same sort of legal setup. What does a setup like this mean and look like? The IRS says this kind of organization is for:
A business league is an association of persons having some common business interest, the purpose of which is to promote such common interest and not to engage in a regular business of a kind ordinarily carried on for profit.
So, if you wonder why so much of the organization does so many activities to promote cloud native and not just its projects, it can be traced back to the kind of organization the CNCF is and the mission of the organization. This also signals to me that the CNCF doesn’t exist just to hold the projects and to do right by them in the view of developers. There’s more too it than that. While there are many benefits for projects, I’m mostly going to skip those for this post in an effort to highlight the rest of the CNCF.
The CNCF states its mission, in the charter:
The Foundation’s mission is to make cloud native computing ubiquitous.
Now, consider this mission in light of the type of organization it is and who the members are. The projects are an important part of it but there is far more going on. To achieve this mission, there is marketing (and a marketing committee with its own elections), conferences (events), coordination between technology adopters and vendors, white papers, and more.
As with any non-profit, there is a board at the top. The CNCF has the Governing Board. This board is made up of representatives from the member organizations. The Governing Board (GB) does a lot of work beyond the projects (most of its work is non-project). There are committees, such as the legal committee, that deal with the operational aspects of carrying out the broader mission.
The GB is mostly made up of executives and many of their topics are sensitive. As such, the GB doesn’t operate like an open source project. You aren’t going to see public discussions tracked in comments for their topics. While the open source projects operate in near complete openness - some things like code of conduct investigations can’t be open - the operational side of a non-profit can’t be all open.
Technical Oversight Committee
The Technical Oversight Committee (TOC) deals with the technical side of the CNCF. The charter states:
(a) Mandate. The TOC is expected to facilitate driving neutral consensus for:
- i. defining and maintaining the technical vision for the Cloud Native Computing Foundation,
- ii. approving new projects within the scope for CNCF set by the Governing Board, and creating a conceptual architecture for the projects,
- iii. aligning projects, removing or archiving projects,
- iv. accepting feedback from the end user committee and mapping to projects,
- v. aligning interfaces to components under management (code reference implementations before standardizing), and
- vi. defining common practices to be implemented across CNCF projects, if any.
This is a fairly broad scope and currently focuses on projects and the processes around them.
The TOC is made up of people chosen by the Governing Board, End-User TAB (more on that in a minute), the incubating and graduated projects, and the TOC itself. All of this is outlined in the charter. Just like projects need to have and follow governance, the CNCF does as well.
End-Users and Vendors
The CNCF makes the distinction between vendors and end-users. In fact, in the list of members you can find end-users are classified differently. End-users have their own groups for meeting and discussing topics. The end users select seats on the TOC and have a Technical Advisory Board (TAB).
Vendor Neutral Home
Being a non-profit separate legal entity from any one vendor but with many belonging, the CNCF/LF provides a vendor neutral home for common assets (i.e. projects) and activities (events, white papers, etc). This is useful for end-users who often want multiple vendors to support their core technologies and for vendors who want to pool their efforts around a common thing (i.e. the mission of the CNCF).
I’ve found that understanding what’s going on and why can help me to navigate the CNCF. There are many untapped and useful things for projects. There are other parts that are relevant for companies who are members. And, so much in between.