How Intel Supports Open Source from the Inside Out



Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

You may be familiar with Intel’s work in open source, but have you ever wondered how we balance it with our commercial offering? According to Arun Gupta, Intel VP and GM for Open Ecosystem, and Joe Curley, Intel VP and GM of Software Products and Ecosystem, when done properly, contributing to open source projects directly supports our core business.

On a recent episode of the Test and Code podcast, Gupta and Curley joined host Brian Okken to talk about how Intel ingrains open source into our company culture and how it benefits our customers—and Intel.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.

Why Intel invests in open source: “It’s a customer obsession”

Brian Okken: I think of Intel as a chip manufacturer, so I’m really curious to hear about your involvement in the open source world.

Joe Curley: Intel is more complicated than our Inside® Intel work. Many people recognize Intel’s value in the server or notebook, but when I joined Intel 15 years ago to create a product with a new level of energy efficiency, the key to that work was having great software on top of it. During my research, I was amazed by Intel’s tremendous competence in software. There’s the intuitive work we do, such as building device drivers that come with the hardware, which is software for hardware, or building stable platforms that enable everyone else to drive innovation—the ecosystem profits from running their software on top of our platform.

But beyond that work, the Intel® C Compiler has become an industry standard. If you want performant code, people know to use Intel® software developer tools, math kernel libraries, and other tools we’ve been building for decades. There are also some exciting things happening in software that help expose the value of unique hardware through our developer tools, open standards, and the community. These have helped Intel prosper for three or four decades as a computing company. You know us for hardware, but Intel has around 19,000 software developers.

Arun Gupta: When I came to Intel, I was asked to build an open ecosystem team. The perception around Intel and software is exactly the problem Intel wanted to fix—the reality is Intel has been invested in software for decades. We’re a founding member of the Linux Foundation (LF)*. We’ve been the top corporate contributor to the Linux kernel for more than 15 years. We’re a top 10 contributor to both Kubernetes* and OpenJDK* and a top contributor to PyTorch*.

The reason we contribute to open source is because it ties to our core business. Yes, Intel is a silicon company, but the way our customers consume silicon is by using open source projects. They’re using our silicon for private cloud, public cloud, data center, client desktop, edge—wherever they’re running it, they expect their application to operate at optimal performance. For instance, if they’re using a Windows* laptop, they expect Chrome* to operate at maximum capacity. That’s why, after Google*, Intel is the largest contributor to Chromium*. We contribute to upstream projects so that our optimizations are available downstream to all the distros. Intel’s culture is built around contributing to open source because our customers care about it. In fact, it’s a customer obsession. That’s why Intel contributes to more than 300 community-managed projects.

Joe Curley: It’s not a charity—this work is in everybody’s best interest. If we build innovative hardware, such as adding additional cores to a CPU, it delivers more value and causes people to consume more of our products. Rather than building hardware and hoping people will write software for it, we work with communities to help them drive value from the technology as early as possible. The open ecosystem is a great way to expose hardware innovation and create what really matters, which is user value and user preference.

Arun Gupta: There’s a phrase we use at Intel: Software-defined, hardware-enabled. Hardware that doesn’t enable software to run on top of it is a bug. That’s the mentality we take across the company, whether it’s an Intel-managed product that we’ve given to the community or a community-managed project that we join, like Python* or Kubernetes. In either case, we work with the open ecosystem because it allows everyone to participate, it offers the customer more choice, and it builds trust in the solution.

Investing in commercial and open source projects creates a virtuous cycle

Brian Okken: In the open source world lately, we see more and more people volunteering their free time to contribute to projects alongside companies like Microsoft*, Intel, and Google*, which may have their own corporate interests. Do you see any friction there?

Arun Gupta: We love that aspect. Coding is considered glorious work but we have a lot of people who do the not glorious work. For example, Intel has members on the OpenSSF* Technical Advisory Council (TAC). Marlow Weston, a cloud software architect at Intel, is the cochair of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF)* Environmental Sustainability Technical Advisory Group (TAG). Cathy Zhang, a senior principal engineer at Intel, is on the CNCF Technical Committee. I’m a member of the OpenSSF governing board and the chair of the CNCF governing board. All of these are no-code roles, but they involve deep technical work that propels groups forward.

For instance, a couple of months ago we ran an internal event called the Open Ecosystems Summit at Intel. More than 2,500 Intel employees who work on open ecosystem projects came together to share what they’re doing. From there, we determine who could potentially be external speakers and what kind of content we can generate. CNCF is organizing WasmCon*, the first conference for WebAssembly. There are people from Intel on the committee reviewing those talks. Facilitating conferences is the kind of not glorious work we value at Intel.

Joe Curley: Whether you’re a corporate contributor or an individual contributor, what you’re bringing to the table must fit what the community needs. The further removed the developer is from the hardware, the less they care about what’s in it. They just care about whether the job gets done. But when you work in a community with its own standards and self-governance mechanisms, everyone’s working together to make it easy for the developer at the top of the stack.

Brian Okken: There are probably software projects that Intel employees care about that Intel doesn’t. Do you allow employees to contribute to open source projects in their free time?

Arun Gupta: We encourage it. Through our open source program office (OSPO), our process empowers employees to contribute to any project they care about, as long as they fill out a form and share it with their manager. Over the last three years, we’ve learned that independent projects spark software developers’ energy and innovation.

Joe Curley: Before you make a big investment in building up a product, you can do work out in the open and see what the community does with it. Arun and I both worked on an open federated learning project with universities, academics, and hospitals. It’s not an Intel product, but we were already working on concepts of how to securely transfer patient records across different bodies. If you can find a community of six or seven major groups that share similar interests, you can use open source development to solve hard problems together as a community and decide what that means for your products later.

Arun Gupta: That particular project, Open Federated Learning (OpenFL)*, was created as a response to a customer need, but when we realized we’d created a credible solution that people like, we ultimately contributed it to Linux Foundation AI & Data. Beyond projects, Intel is part of 700-plus standards bodies, such as LF and W3C*. We believe we need to be in driving positions, such as governing boards and technical oversight committees, to drive projects like OpenFL for our customers. This type of collaboration and non-code work is ingrained in Intel’s culture.

How Intel cultivates an open source culture

Brian Okken: What does it mean to have an open source culture? Does it make an impact beyond encouraging Intel employees to contribute to more projects?

Arun Gupta: No matter what your strategy is, it must align with your culture. We have a massive inner source movement inside the company to help bring open source best practices to Intel. We have a unified code base. We have one CI/CD that is unified across the company, allowing us to improve the security posture. We use tools like the OpenSSF Scorecard to help us integrate better security practices. We need to create software bills of material (SBOMs), which CI/CD helps us do. Intel enables teams through our OSPO, through open source advocates, and through BU-specific open source teams that guide how we incorporate open source effectively. We also generate a monthly report on the health of our inner source projects. All these tools add to the culture. You need mechanisms in place to ensure you’re making progress.

Brian Okken: Can you explain what inner source means? It sounds like it’s when an employee has a tool that helps them do their job and they decide to make it available to other people in the company. Is that right?

Arun Gupta: At a company the size of Intel, the challenge is how you scale tools. When employees from across the company want to contribute to a project, many questions arise—what does the governance model look like, who reviews pull requests, and who gets to be a maintainer? More importantly, if six employees in the company have a similar need, are they all creating a similar tool? Our inner source practice helps us manage these elements and create a developer productivity platform that reinforces our open source culture.  

Joe Curley: A few years ago, our CEO Pat Gelsinger reminded us that throughout our history, Intel has thrived in open ecosystems. Being an open source contributor and product manufacturer feed into each other: If you’re open and accessible, you’ll have more developers working on top of your platform who drive more consumption of your hardware. When strategy and culture align, your internal work starts to inform your external work, such as how you handle customers and what happens when you find a bug in a compiler.

A spirit of “competition” benefits everyone

Brian Okken: There’s going to be competition anytime money is involved, but open source companies do a good job focusing on collaboration rather than competition. For instance, in the Python ecosystem, you have FastAPI*, Flask*, and Django*. Instead of being angry with each other, the projects share ideas and build on each other’s work. I would love to see more of that anticompetitive philosophy seep into companies.

Joe Curley: Where we have common problems, we should embrace common solutions. Sure, companies should find a way to differentiate their products and services, but if we don’t work together to solve common problems, we’ll end up with six or seven walled gardens.

Arun Gupta: “Coopetition” is a common philosophy in open source. A rising tide lifts all boats. The key is making sure your open source work benefits your core business. If it doesn't, it’s going to stay on the fringe. Efforts like oneAPI bring together multiple partners because it benefits everyone.  

Joe Curley: At a recent conference, the head of one of Japan’s largest computing projects approached me to share that they’d broken the machine learning perf record, and they did it using our code. Using SYCL* on top of Intel® oneAPI Deep Neural Network Library (Intel® oneDNN), it only took them about six and a half weeks to get it up and running on an ARM*-based processor. He was surprised when I told him this was good news. That’s exactly why we’re building an open ecosystem—we want to help people innovate, build better development platforms, and attract more developers. People from the project started attending our technical advisory boards and continuing to contribute to the standards because they recognize that’s what we’re trying to do.

About the presenters

Arun Gupta, VP and GM of the Open Ecosystem, Intel

Arun Gupta is vice president and general manager of Open Ecosystem Initiatives at Intel Corporation. He has been an open source strategist, advocate, and practitioner for nearly two decades. He has taken companies such as Apple*, Amazon*, and Sun Microsystems* through systemic changes to embrace open source principles, contribute, and collaborate effectively.

Joe Curley, VP and GM of Software Products and Ecosystem, Intel

Joseph (Joe) Curley serves Intel Corporation as vice president and general manager of Software Products and Ecosystem in Intel’s Software and Advanced Technology Group. His primary responsibilities include the oneAPI industry initiative, product management of developer and foundational software, and support of the oneAPI developer ecosystem. He joined Intel Corporation in 2007 and has served in multiple other strategic planning, ecosystem development, and business leadership roles. Prior to joining Intel, Joe worked at Dell, Inc.*, leading the global workstation product line, the consumer and small business desktop product line, and in a series of engineering roles. He began his career as a computer graphics pioneer at Tseng Labs*.