It has been interesting to watch the rapid growth of Google, and especially the Google Cloud Platform, this past year. One of the reasons for this success has been Google's investment in open source. Despite being a services-oriented company (software, platforms, APIs, infrastructure as-a-service), Google has participated in open source since its early days -- initially out of necessity: customizing Linux, its tool chains, and core technologies like cgroups so that they could scale as Google grew.
What is unique to Google, is that they contributed their modifications and fixes back to the code bases so that the global community could benefit. Something similar happened with Git -- as Google grew and required Git to scale with it, Google not only contributed to the code base but also hired most of Git's core contributors so that they could continue to advance the platform for the next-generation of Internet companies. Google then started to develop and release its own implementations of major products as open source (e.g. Chromium, Android, Kubernetes, etc.) and even encourages its own developers to contribute similarly as part of their 20% creative time.
Google has recently invested in open source in other unique ways: By dedicating engineering resources for the development and evolution of AppScale (and open source implementation of Google App Engine). AppScale with Google's help gives App Engine users flexibility in terms of where they execute their code and store their data. Google then followed this investment in a similar way to bring their container advances to the OpenStack community.
Google’s push for open source technologies has also been a strategic part of their plan to capture more and more enterprise customers. Craig McLuckie, Google’s product manager in charge of its Kubernetes and Google Container Engine projects, stated last month that, while Google has not historically been an enterprise company, they are “trying to become cognizant of what the enterprise needs.” Part of this effort is acknowledging the importance of open source. McLuckie adds, “If you are not building open source, then you are at a competitive disadvantage to those who are.” 1
Google has reaped the benefits from these seemingly altruistic activities in terms of wide spread use of their technologies as well as with developer engagement (inside and outside of Google). Such loyalty is vital for hiring and retaining the best and brightest -- which is becoming increasingly difficult to do. As a result, I believe that in the long run, Google's investment in "free" software will play a key role in its future growth and financial success more than anyone would have imagined.