Within the virtualization world, VMware (NYSE: VMW) can hardly claim to be more friendly to open source than competing platforms such as KVM and Xen. Nonetheless, the company has signed on as a leading member of the Open Source Software Institute (OSSI), a trade organization dedicated to promoting open source solutions in government. Is this a sign of renewed commitment to open source by VMware, or a more mercenary move by the company to protect its slice of the open source market? Here are some thoughts.

VMware's relationship with the open source community is a complex one. Most core commercial VMware products are not open source, but the company does maintain some open source tools. In addition, most of its virtualization solutions support Linux as well as proprietary operating systems. Still, now that open source virtualization platforms have matured to become as feature-rich and robust as many of VMware's tools—and are also available for free—the company faces an increasingly difficult market within the open source space.

In one sense, then, the recent announcement of VMware's membership in the OSSI seems to signal an effort by the company to protect its influence within a channel where competition is heating up. As one of only a handful of "platinum"-level corporate OSSI members—a title VMware holds alongside such titans of the open source world as SUSE and Red Hat (NYSE: RHT)—the company is now in a stronger position to advance its interests among customers in the government sector.

From another angle, however, VMware's support for the OSSI also highlights the growing opportunities for virtualization vendors to partner with open source organizations, particularly in the cloud. That appears to be a major component of VMware's role from the perspective of the OSSI, which said in a statement, "VMware enables enterprises to adopt a cloud model that addresses their unique business challenges. VMware’s approach accelerates the transition to cloud computing while preserving existing investments and improving security and control."

In any case, observers should probably not kid themselves too much about the realities of virtualization, open source and the government channel in the United States, on which the OSSI focuses. It's no secret that most open source vendors are fighting uphill battles to sell their products to government organizations in North America, where proprietary platforms are more firmly established than in other markets. For that reason, many of the customers with whom the OSSI works are more likely to choose proprietary VMware technologies over lesser known open source hypervisors in the first place.

But for those organizations interested in building their clouds and other next-generation platforms purely with open source technology, VMware might seem like an odd duck alongside offerings from companies such as Red Hat and SUSE. Since open source is all about choice, though, no one can begrudge the OSSI its eclectic mix of members.