Walmart, the retail giant, has become an Internet powerhouse, employing more than 2,200 engineers today in Silicon Valley alone. They are working mainly on the cloud-based commerce technology behind the big Walmart and Sam’s Club shopping sites.
The scale of Walmart’s growing online presence has made it a test bed for advanced technology development, particularly after the company made the strategic decision four years ago to rely less on outside suppliers. “We took back control of the technology and largely built it ourselves,” explained Jeremy King, chief technology officer for global e-commerce at Walmart.
Walmart built its own cloud data centers, and developed — and bought — advanced software, typically building on a foundation of open-source tools like OpenStack. But it has also tapped the basic cloud services of others, mainly Microsoft and Rackspace, in part to handle seasonal surges in demand without having to construct still more of its own data centers. Walmart’s web traffic in the fourth-quarter, holiday shopping season can be 10 times that of the rest of the year, Mr. King noted. “No single cloud provider can handle all that traffic,” he said.
Being able to let its large corps of developers move from one flavor of cloud to another, quickly and relatively effortlessly, is a priority for Walmart. In 2013, it bought a start-up, OneOps, which made management software for cloud development that helps automate the programming tweaks necessary to migrate from cloud to cloud. Walmart has added people and investment to improve OneOps.
Walmart announced on Wednesday that it will make much of the OneOps code free and open source to, it says, overcome the problem of “cloud lock-in” and stimulate competition among cloud vendors. “This allows you to cloud-shop,” Mr. King said.
Having benefited from free software, Walmart, he said, also “really wanted to give something back to the open source community.”
The announcement, made at Walmart’s annual meeting with analysts, is also meant to burnish the big retailer’s credibility as a software company, which helps recruit talent.
The move, of course, has a competitive edge as well. Can you say Amazon? The Seattle powerhouse is not only Walmart’s most threatening rival in retailing, but also the No. 1 cloud supplier.
The cloud technology of the big providers like Amazon, Microsoft and Google, said Lydia Leong, an analyst at Gartner, each differs somewhat in its networking, encryption and management tools. Lock-in is an issue, according to Ms. Leong, but it remains to be seen if OneOps proves to be a widely used solution.
“It’s commendable that Walmart is doing this,” she said. “But it’s hard to say how significant it will be.”
Even if it isn’t, the technology, suggests Kire Filipovski, a co-founder of OneOps and now a principal architect at Walmart, should help cloud developers.
The main design goal for OneOps, he said, was always to make it easier for developers to write applications without having to grapple with the underlying computing machinery of cloud networks. Cloud portability, Mr. Filipovski said, is a byproduct. “Speed and agility is what we’re really after,” he said.
By Steve Lohr