Open source faces hurdles in the cloud

Summary:It may not be efficient to open-source some cloud functions, and large vendors will 'dominate' cloud computing in 2020, according to Mimecast's Nathaniel Borenstein

As companies gain ground in cloud computing, a debate is growing over the extent to which cloud companies should collaborate on open standards and open source to protect customers from vendor lock-in.

In July, a consortium of cloud companies launched the OpenStack scheme to spur the debate and give the cloud industry extra impetus. Companies are discussing the value of opening up: some are worried it could hurt their competitive advantage, while others see it as an opportunity.

ZDNet UK recently spoke to Nathaniel Borenstein, one of the co-creators of the integral internet communications protocol Mime and chief scientist at Mimecast, a cloud-based email management and security services provider. One of Borenstein's main jobs at Mimecast is looking at trends, patterns and movements to work out what the cloudspace could look like in 2020.

Q: At Mimecast, you're working on predicting the space — and the opportunities — for 2020. What do you see for the cloud?
A: I think that the market imperative that causes large vendors to dominate most tech areas is not going away for the cloud. In fact, it might even be stronger, because a cloud provider in the UK could serve the entire world.

I do expect it to be dominated by a number of large vendors, but I do think some of the large vendors will dominate very specific niches. I think that come 2020 there will be not that many cloud vendors, but I don't expect our competitors to be only doing what they're doing now.

I think there are some adjacent areas that, very naturally, connect. For example, what is a logical closure, in the mathematical sense, of what Mimecast does? No specific products, but things like doing for other forms of communication what we currently do for email. Or adding email services other than the ones we currently have.

Is it right to go for open standards across the cloud industry, as OpenStack has recently committed to?
I think it depends on the application, I really do. They're [OpenStack] providing a virtualised environment in the cloud for running applications more under your control — standards for that, I can see how they can work and they make sense.

But in our [Mimecast's] case, I can imagine some standards that might help a little bit, but the fact is email is pretty well established. In the Microsoft world, it's a PST file; in Linux world, it's a TAR file.

And what about open source within the cloud industry?
The open-source movement started in the 1980s after computing had had a couple of decades to figure out "this is an OS, this is a mail tool". We know now that cloud computing requires a lot of different programming skills. We've found a lot of the open-source would not fit in the cloud, because it wasn't efficient enough.

I was surprised at this when I came to Mimecast... I'm a big believer in open source, but I don't believe it's a panacea. I don't believe it cures everything. I try to avoid extremes here.

I do think that in the cloud world it is likely that a lot of vendors will have a lot of their intellectual property wrapped up in one place in the world — their own servers. That may not be that useful to other people. And [for the company], that's like open-sourcing your wallet.

Rackspace's head of cloud Fabio Torlini has said that open-sourcing some of Rackspace's core intellectual property — file servers and file storage — was "a win/win situation for our competitors". However, the company went ahead and did it because it believes it will have a competitive advantage when it comes to the development of the software, even if it's open source. What do you say to that?
I'm sure there are some things that this is true for, but to the extent that our system is all devoted to a single major purpose — email — it may be hard to extract bits of general utility. But if we open-sourced the whole thing...

Topics: Cloud


Jack Clark has spent the past three years writing about the technical and economic principles that are driving the shift to cloud computing. He's visited data centers on two continents, quizzed senior engineers from Google, Intel and Facebook on the technologies they work on and read more technical papers than you care to name on topics f... Full Bio

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