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Jan 23 2011   9:00AM GMT

Is Open Source Essential for Cloud Adoption?

Beth Cohen Beth Cohen Profile: Beth Cohen

Question:  Is Open Source essential for widespread Cloud adoption?

Andy Oram’s recent article on Open Source software and cloud architectures, Reaching the pinnacle: truly open web services and clouds, sparked my thinking on how the enterprise view of cloud architectures might be somewhat different.  While much of the public cloud infrastructure is built using Open Source platforms, recent trends show enterprises are embracing a private cloud model built on proprietary systems, such as VMWare, Azure and IBM Cloud.  Certainly the private cloud vendors are encouraging this trend, but is this a temporary aberration on the road to cloud Nirvana or a different animal entirely?

Cloud computing represents a paradigm shift that has been going on for a few years.  IT systems are no longer represent a competitive advantage for a company — that is something to be horded, treasured and developed – but are seen more like something that resembles a toaster, or a better analogy, a phone system.  It is expected it to work flawlessly for a reasonable cost, and everybody needs to have it to function as a business.  At the consumer end — which is where cloud computing started, see my previous blog post, Looking for Business Innovation in all the Right Places, for a better perspective on my thoughts, people don’t care how it works, they want it to be cheap and always available. If you look at Cloud Computing from that perspective, using Open Source has a clear advantage over a proprietary system.

Gmail and Facebook, as Andy notes, are perfect examples of this phenomenon.  These systems are built on Open Source, not because it is better, but because it is cheaper.  One thing that people often overlook, is that Open Source is not free, far from it, just cheaper if you can live with its idiosyncrasies and lack of a company to blame if something goes wrong.  Clearly larger companies with the technical resources can use that to their advantage to build software on the cloud more cheaply.  I would argue that unlike the expected effect of democratizing software availability, Open Source actual has the opposite effect.  Amazon and Google and other large Cloud vendors can take advantage of the Open Source community and resources, while smaller companies are stuck with using more expensive and less flexible commercial products, or they are purchasing downstream services from Amazon and Google.  To drive home my point, ask yourself, who is supporting the Open Source projects and how are they actually getting paid for?

Where does that leave Open Source?  To my mind, it is an enabling technology, pure and simple.  It serves the cloud providers purposes.  If it were cheaper and more useful to build something proprietary they would do it in a minute.  In fact, Google Chrome and the iPhone OS is the latest in the long history of proprietary software that gets turned into de facto standards over time.  As a business strategy it carries higher risk, but far greater payoff.  That is why both Apple and Microsoft have stuck with their proprietary software strategy for so long.  The cloud providers are using Open Source simply because it is not what keeps potential competitors out of the business.  The high cost of building and maintaining data centers is their real strategic advantage.  Why do you think IBM, HP and other old-line high end service providers are jumping on the private cloud bandwagon?  They already have the infrastructure in place, so they are able to take advantage of their relations with the large corporations to build private clouds for their customers.

About the Author

Beth Cohen, Cloud Technology Partners, Inc. Moving companies’ IT services into the cloud the right way, the first time!

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