Cloud computing and open source face-off

Cloud computing and open source face-off

Summary: Cloud computing remains one of the big topics in software this year despite considerable and ongoing concerns over lock-in, lack of control, and security. The siren song of ease-of-development, reduced costs, highly elastic scalability, and next-generation architectures has many in IT and in the Web community carefully weighing the benefits and risks.


Cloud computing remains one of the big topics in software this year despite considerable and ongoing concerns over lock-in, lack of control, and security. The siren song of ease-of-development, reduced costs, highly elastic scalability, and next-generation architectures has many in IT and in the Web community carefully weighing the benefits and risks.

This puts open source on individual installations at a distinct disadvantage with the cloud. Along the way, open source has become a key enabler for cloud computing by providing both cheap inputs (as in free) as well as rich capabilities to providers of cloud services. The writing, however, is beginning to appear on the wall: the cloud computing industry will use open source as leverage for a new generation of proprietary platforms-as-a-service, very much like the established Web 2.0 services in the consumer space have used open source platforms to capture and create lock-in around data.

Dana Blankenhorn's coverage last week ("IBM expects Linux to make money") of that company's re-emphasized focus on the bottom line with open source puts cloud economics on the front line of major computing vendors:

IBM is tightly focused on server sales and the development of clouds, which can be sold, rented, or deliver profitable services.

For cloud computing, “why wouldn’t you run it on Linux?” [IBM's Bob Sutor] asked, because Linux can deliver all kinds of virtualization and those who want Windows desktops need never know they’re not.

Thanks to clouds IBM can profitably deliver thousands of desktops that look like Windows but have Linux on the back-end. It can also sell servers that are compatible with its clouds at the deepest level. [snip]

Sutor and Zemlin also discussed what might be called the “corporate-cloud boundary,” the point in the growth of an enterprise system where building a cloud starts to make economic sense. Clouds start to make sense when heavy virtualization takes place, Sutor said.

And Linux will make IBM money when used in cloud-based products which are metered to customers, often by the hour. One big reason that open source will help fuel the rise of cloud computing, while often becoming second fiddle to platforms in the cloud, is that software is only a component of a computing environment, albeit an expensive one and cloud economics almost always favor the incorporation of open source products. However, something that open source has only been partially successful at incorporating as a value creator (essentially, only the cost of development) is what IBM's Sutor clearly stated: economies of scale.

Cloud Computing Economics

It's not that cloud-enabled services such as Ubuntu with Eucalyptus can't provide cloud services; they can. However, they aren't part of a finished solution and don't create an ecosystem that provides intrinsic economic or technical benefits in a situated setting. This is because a significant part of building a robust and successful cloud computing environment is creating a complete and compelling finished solution that includes infrastructure, management, research & development, and support. All of these come together to create a service comprehensive enough that computing can take place, or significantly, can be an effective target environment for outsourcing. When a computing ecosystem consists of multiple stakeholders that depend upon it, costs and effort can then be distributed. The more customers a cloud provider has, the better the outcome for the cloud provider and its customers (eventually becoming "too big to fail", an additional cloud computing issue that's outside of this discussion, but an important one as well.)

At the end of the day, cloud providers generally have two major advantages they can offer to the marketplace: better ways of doing things or lower costs. By applying economies of scale to both areas (both infrastructure costs and R&D can be distributed across all customers, for example), clouds offer a more complete and compelling solution than open source alone can.

Read 8 reasons why cloud computing will change your business.

The confusion between the practical application of economies of scale and the theoretical ideal of returns from scale arises from the fact that major fixed costs, like an investment in a large cloud data center or from centralized, dedicated research and development, are an important source of real world economies of scale. In classical microeconomic theory there can be no increasing returns to scale when there are fixed costs, since aggregating investment won't help improve the economics. This puts open source on individual installations at a distinct disadvantage with the cloud.

Open source: A cloudy future

So what are the options for open source to stay competitive with cloud computing? How can it evolve in a world where the entire computing solution itself has becoming a commotidized product? It's clear that the open source model has led to one of the richest and more compelling outcomes in the history of technology, but it becomes just a cog in the machine again as we witness return of proprietary computing platforms, this time with serious economic machinery built-in.

Fortunately, there are at least several possibilities:

A cloud cooperative. One would be an effort to create an open source infrastructure for cloud computing, a sort of cloud cooperative model that allows economies of scale to accrue yet returns innovations and best practices to the community that built it. Theoretically, this would extend the benefits of open source into the full computing stack by build all elements of cloud computing using an open business model. Such an open cloud cooperative could actually end up being the largest single cloud ecosystem, except for the Web itself which itself is a simple model of what we're talking about.

Federated clouds created by open source. The second would be to take advantage of the emerging standards around cloud computing and dynamic provisioning to encourage easy interoperability and shared infrastructure between similar data centers. This would allow enterprises that wanted to combine and pool their own individual resources to achieve better scale and economies to join forces and create their own virtual private clouds. Where does open source come in? Real interoperability would have to be an intrinsic capability of the underlying OS platforms, such as Linux. By being a direct facilitator for groups of organizations that want to create economically efficient combined clouds out of the resources they already possess, open source can actually be not just the essential man-in-the-middle, but the genesis of truly federated clouds, something that will often make a lot more sense than centralized clouds.

There are probably many other ways to use open source to make sure cloud computing doesn't erode open source's advantages to the world of computing. Please contribute your comments in Talkback below.

Topics: Virtualization, Cloud, Hardware, Open Source

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  • Thanks for the shout out

    I think your piece adds a lot to the discussion as
  • Master Joe Says...

    Just two questions. The word proprietary is mentioned. Last time I checked, one of the biggest reasons that the open-source idiots, also known as OSI, complained CONSTANTLY about Microsoft was their use of proprietary software? Google SHOULD be in the same situation, but seems to get a free pass, for whatever reason, and the same goes for Apple. Open source has always claimed its pride on being just that, open source, which, by definition, cannot be proprietary. If you take something open source and make it a proprietary system, you have taken it off of the open source market, as you are nto going to be releasing your PROPRIETARY code to the public. Secondly, I just read anothe rpost here today, about Microsoft Money being discontinued, and Jason Perlow claiming it shoudl be open source, with the very first response being about Microsoft being a monopoly (which hasn't been true since...well..ever). If open source were to leverage itself in the cloud, in an attempt to gain market share, wouldn't that be the exact same thing that they themselves still complaina bout Microsoft doing two decades ago to this very day? Hypocricy is one thing, but this goes way beyond the double-standards paltform. It's probably best anyway, though, as the EC woudl just fine Microsoft, if they ever got ahead in the cloud, for some ridiculous reason. I hope that the cloud infrastructure is based off of AMD systems, or the EC will fien Intel as well. History has a way of repeating itself, and the EC is a broken record, in that category. Maybe focus on keeping your own house clean, before attempting to determine how someone else should keep theirs? Just a thought.

    --Master Joe
    • Master Joe says....

      ...he likes strawmen and have strewn them all over his post.
      • Master Joe Says...Again

        How do I know that you are either a Linux or Mac user? It is about 1 Windows user per 999 users of either Mac or Linux, who would write a post with the sole purpose of criticizing someone else's. Why? Because it takes no intelligence, or thought, kind of like using the Mac OS, and is spiteful and not accepting of anything other than itself, like the Linux community. See? Stereotypes really ARE a time saver.

        --Master Joe
    • One can use open source in commercial products...

      As long as it doesn't violate the license. Typically, as long as they don't modify the open source code itself, OSS can be used as a component of a commercial offering. Millions of commercial sites use Linux and Apache for example.

      So specifically, I'm thinking of a bigger picture: Linux and Apache are platforms that folks build upon, unlike most of the sites they power. However, when entirely new types of commercial computing platforms are built using the cloud model that create lock-in and are intended as alternatives to OSS platforms (again such as Linux/Apache), then you have a case where open source might not be keeping up with computing evolution.

      Specifically, I was exploring the options we might have so that there are open alternatives to the Google Cloud, Amazon Cloud, Microsoft Cloud, IBM Cloud, etc. which are more and more shaping up to be the new MS-DOS, OS/2, Windows, etc.

      I hope that helps!


      Dion Hinchcliffe
      • Master joe Says...Again

        I don't dispute that open source is used in commercial ways. What I am saying, however, is that you cannot really call it "open" source, and then use proprietary in the same sentence. I don't disagree at all with there being commercial platforms, built on open source technologies. RHEL is the first example, which came to mind. My only question, then, is this. If open source components are used to build proprietary applications in the cloud, what makes them any different from the Google, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft Clouds, other than that they are not developed by the same team?

        --Master Joe
  • RE: Cloud computing and open source face-off

    I don't believe that prices will come down and really don't believe that long term costs of moving to cloud will pay off.
    The cloud businesses are "For Profit" companies. They will charge the most amount of money for the lowest possible product. Basically you might get an initial low price for your IT but extras will cost premiums and eventually costs will creep up to the point where customers might get either a just a slight savings or if they aren't paying attention will be paying more. Basically once enough businesses are locked in to the cloud model, you will see a price inflation with excuses that range from "need to provide more bandwidth" to "need to install more infrastructure to support more customers". Companies that are already invested can't get out and so they just suck in the fact they are getting the lowest possible product for the maximum price. Like you do for your banking services and power supply services.

    Many people try to compare cloud computing with banking or power companies. However, both of these industries are heavily monitored by the government and each provides a niche service to the vendor corporation. Your companies bank doesn't provide the electricity to turn the lights on.Cloud Companies have the capacity to theoretically own your entire business.

    As someone who has tried to get support from the local power company, it is long, painful, and usually ends up escalated to some manager that might have a clue what is going on because the tech doesn't.
    • Excellent points, so here's what might happen...

      I think the picture you paint is likely to happen in fact, though it'll probably take a while to happen. And it'll probably take a few widely covered unfortunate incidents between customers and cloud suppliers.

      With cloud computing already bumping up against many a government and industry regulation today (particularly in the EU), the whole cloud computing model is really a recipe for government oversight, like it or not.

      If cloud computing takes off, and it looks like it will (especially if the economics continue to be borne out and are indeed passed along to the customer), it will likely lead to industry regulation -- including requiring the support of open standards to support easy switching between providers, which will hopefully be as straightforward as the phone number portability we got a few years ago, but unlikely.

      All of this leads to the reason I wrote this; if the open source world doesn't figure out a path to providing cloud computing's full set of advantages to its users, it will just become a 2nd tier source for computing and we may end up with exactly the scenario you describe: highly regulated cloud computing providers and captive customers who are unhappy with them.


      Dion Hinchcliffe
      • open standards

        You saw how far behind legislation was, just to give us the ability to keep our cell phone numbers. It will take them 10 years to figure out that they should require an open standard for any other data.

        Personally, I don't think regulators should be involved - we, the business owners, should require openness of cloud vendors in these early years, since we've been through this all before in various scenarios.

        As always, cloud users will have the choice with their purchasing power. If they don't require open standards of their provider up front, then they should be ready to deal with the eventuality that their data isn't necessarily portable to another provider.
        • The Education needs to Be there

          In order for a more capitalistic approach to cloud vendors that also includes standards it would require a massive grass routes information campaign.

          Many people think I am a cloud hater, actually I am not. I am someone who has tried to educate myself on what is new in technology. So far you hear a lot of marketing and advertising buzz but you don't hear so much actual data points.

          The biggest hurdle for the business consumer in cloud computing is that the everyday user isn't the one making the decisions. The latest economic down turn is a direct result of upper management's inability to balance long term growth with short term gains. Cloud Computing Marketing is play to these same decision makers. You hear a lot of talk about how much money you will save but nobody actually breaks it down into where the money is saved and how.

          Standards require either a huge consumer demand or government regulation. Many traditional outsourced service providers are heavily regulated. Municipal sewage systems are regulated, electrical power is regulated, banking is regulated, building construction is regulated, and etc.
  • open sauce

    Different plastic squeezy bottle, but still tomato ketchup/sauce inside.

    Let the cloud providers do a proprietry number on open source... not a problem. If I use it as intended, within the realms of the service I subscribe to, do I give a rats fig? No.

    If it blows the SLA then there's hell to pay... but thats a service management issue, and it should be well understood before standing the salesmans Mont Blanc pen on the dotted line.

    Would I throw my entire IT infrastructure to a 3rd-party cloud? No; never throw away your understanding of what IT your data is running on.
    I wonder if the NSA uses Amazon EC2?

  • Application of economies of scale - develope once, charge many.

    As technolgy becomes more complex and more companies are paying for development, it becomes easy for developers to charge different customers to develope the same thing and hide the fact from each of them. 'Somethng to watch out for.
  • Cloud is no-win in most cases...

    I'll ignore security issues for the moment and stick to the applications aspects of the cloud...

    First, if one considers 'proprietary' applications being hosted in the cloud -- the end-user suffers from lock-in. If the user invests significant time and effort to put their data INTO an app -- and there is no path out -- they're stuck -- almost held hostage to the whims of the provider.

    If one considers open source -- the ONLY way the cloud is going to overcome this risk is if they implement UNCUSTOMIZED version of the open source software -- this is the ONLY way the customer can be sure they'll have at least a CHANCE of migrating to either a locally hosted app or another cloud provider later. (Whether or not the host will even ALLOW the data to be transferred out is another question.)

    What is the likelyhood of this?

    Considering the big rally point about open source IS the fact that you CAN modify it -- then the moment a cloud applications company does that -- they effectively DO make the product proprietary (unless they ALSO release the same source).

    It would CERTAINLY be necessary to clean-up and professionalize most FOSS software to make worthy and fully functional in a hosted environment, so I'd suggest that the client would indeed be held hostage just as they would to ANY other proprietary application.

    So far, it seems that few of the major players in hosted applications are offering any 'export' capability, and none that I have found yet offer any access to the raw data -- so what options are there?
    Marty R. Milette
  • what!?.

    This story makes a nonsense.

    Question :If open source is not a good option, then what is a good option?.

    And if we decided to use a proprietary option then, what is the cost/risk to be charged for a extra parameter (such update, licenses and many other factors).
    • Cloud vendors will use OSS as a stepping stone for their own platforms

      Open source is not an complete option for a cloud computing effort right now; you can only use the software it provides, NOT use it directly as a service.

      In contrast, you can go to Google, Amazon, Salesforce, and many others today and sign-up for their largely proprietary cloud offerings now (which extensively use open source internally). You can't do that with open source itself. You have to lease a building, fill it with servers, hire staff, install software, configure it, scale test it, etc. Or use a hosting service, which is similar but generally misses the "platform" aspects of cloud computing where elasticity, ease of use, enterprise capabilities, and architectural capabilities are usually much more limited.

      Only after all that capex is done, can you start using it. In contrast, you can run your own software in one of the clouds above as fast as you can sign up and install it (especially Amazon's.)

      My point is that not being a Platform-as-a-live-service is almost certainly going be a growing disadvantage since by itself OSS doesn't package up the full economies of scale I listed, just developer contributions and some R&D. In the end, open source risks being "used" by cloud vendors to build their new computing platforms instead of moving into the new cloud era as a first class citizen itself. Unless something is done, a few ideas for which I enumerate at the end.

      I hope that helps.


  • Open source is not equal to Linux

    This seems like a strange, academic analysis
    that thinks of open source as Linux. Well,
    there's more to open source than Linux, and
    anyone who uses open source will understand

    Consider Google App Engine (GAE). When Google
    introduced GAE, they limited coding to Python.
    Suddenly, developers who wanted to use the GAE
    cloud began exploring Python just so they can
    use GAE - a big boost to Python.

    Or look at the new GAE (Java) version. A major
    aspect with GAE (Java) is that they
    offer development on the Eclipse platform.
    Again, suddenly Eclipse becomes the IDE of
    choice for coders who want to develop for the
    GAE cloud.

    Bottom line, there is a wide range of
    open source technologies that will benefit
    directly from the increased adoption of clouds.
    To consider only a tiny subset of them like
    Linux that could be hidden by clouds is IMO
    misjudging the situation.
  • RE: Cloud computing and open source face-off

    I don't get it. I'm sure I'll get flamed for it too. I thought the whole point was what open source was formed so "Anyone" could take the open source (free) software an build upon it to make a product as long as they used it within the confines of the user license agreement. It is very two faced of you to decide that "because" Microsoft used it they are breaking some legal or moral obligation to the OSS community.
  • RE: Cloud computing and open source face-off

    When the folks at Novell think about clouds, we really think of them as nothing more than the next generation of a data center. For the end customer, the data center is no longer be behind your firewall, and you may be sharing the computing resources with other customers. However, for the cloud provider, they are really just a data center provider, and as such, they will need the best combination of open source and proprietary tools to run their data center. On the open source side, the ability to mass customize Linux is very attractive, because it means you can deploy your applications in a physical and virtual environment with just the bits of the operating system you need ? something that you could never do with Windows. However, there will also be a home for proprietary software in the cloud, specifically around the areas of systems management and security. Cloud providers will pick the best software that enables them to deliver the most secure, agile computing environment for their customers.

    Justin Steinman
    VP Marketing/Novell
  • Wolf Platform-as-a-Service offers freedom from being locked as key USP

    While most Internet based platforms help economize creating, utilizing, delivering and maintaining software for customers, they enforce strict proprietary programming languages, fixed cloud based data storage, and lack interoperability ? bringing up portability, migration path issues, and locking fears for customers Intellectual Property and data. Do you want "Freedom from being locked inside a Platform-as-a-Service"?

  • RE: Cloud computing and open source face-off

    The cloud computing industry is ALREADY using open source as a leverage for proprietary frameworks. Our industry is under transition from a product to a service based economy, however your argument implies that we will never get beyond the "my product as a service" stage to true service competition based upon standard outputs and portability between providers.

    The problem with this idea is that the lack of second sourcing options will remain a major obstacle to adoption. We've not only seen the consequences of this with CogHead and Virtual Iron, anyone over 40 remembers how dependent business became upon vendors.

    These concerns will help drive us towards standards based upon open source reference models because in a service world the bits won't matter, the service will. We're already seeing this effect with Eucalyptus / Globus Nimbus and others creating open source implementations of EC2 and consolidation around EC2 as the defacto standard.

    Ubuntu Enterprise Clouds (UEC) is not a "cloud-enabled service" it's a system that enables a user to create their own private cloud with matches the emerging standard of the Amazon EC2 API. UEC is not about being a provider.

    "don?t create an ecosystem that create intrinsic economic or technical benefits in a situated setting" - by such logic neither should have Apache or HTTP. There is world of difference between service providers, reference models and standards.

    Good post Dion, not sure I'd agree with your logic but interesting.