Open source leads the way into the cloud

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter’s approach.

Virtualization is now a well-established technology in enterprise computing. And in virtualization, VMware is the established leader. But virtualization has begat cloud computing and now the field of play in cloud computing is far more open thanks to open source technologies.

Looking around the cloud computing landscape, it is impossible to not find an explicit example of open source technology in use. In every layer of the cloud, there is open source to be found, from Linux at the operating system level to a panoply of open source cloud management tools that are very much the forward edge of the cloud ecosystem.

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Looking at this level, we find technologies like CloudStack, Eucalyptus, and the hotter-than-the-sun OpenStack that are textbook examples of open source innovation in cloud computing; tools that enable sophisticated private and public cloud management for developers and system admins to have granular control over cloud-based apps and resources.

But why is open source the leader for innovation and success within cloud computing? How has it become the dominating form of technology in this exploding new field?

To understand the success of open source in cloud computing it is important to step back a bit and understand what we are describing when we refer to open source.

Open source has often been described as a business model, referring to companies that derive their revenue from software (and, lately, hardware) that is open source. This broad definition is rather off the mark. While a revenue model can be driven by open source products, the model itself is not open source.

For our purposes, we will use the most basic definition of open source: technology that is published under a true open source license, either the restrictive free software licenses such as those found in the GPL family of licenses, or the more permissive ones such as Apache Software or BSD licenses.

Using this definition enables us to discuss a variety of technologies, regardless of the specific business model. It avoids, for instance, the need to discuss the merits of so-called "open core" models that feature a community-based central core software component that's distributed freely, surrounded by extras and add-ons that can be purchased or subscribed to at an additional cost from the vendor.

With this definition in hand, it becomes clear that there are three main reasons why open source is so central to the success of cloud computing.

* Legitimacy. One of the very first, and perhaps more obvious reasons for the presence of open source in cloud computing is the fact that it is so highly pervasive already within the mindset of IT.

Even two years ago, a four-year survey conducted by cloud vendor Zenoss showed that open source was a significant presence in 98% of enterprise companies. It is highly unlikely that this number has dropped in the ensuing two years, which means open source is a part of essentially every enterprise operation out there today.

This legitimacy of open source is not something that was enjoyed during, say, the turn of the century when fear, uncertainty and doubt was heaped with scorn on new technologies like Linux and MySQL by proprietary competitors. It was not until mega-companies like IBM started seriously looking at Linux and investing in its development that enterprises started taking a closer look what was once viewed as a cancer by esteemed observers like Microsoft.

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Today, that problem is non-existent. Very few people doubt the power and flexibility of open source technology, and now open source tools are considered among the first options by any IT procurement staff, not the last.

Cloaked with this newfound legitimacy, open source cloud computing tools are very much accepted in today's IT shops.

* Chuff. As any new paradigm such as cloud computing evolves, there is always going to be chuff in the early days. As various vendors look around and see a new sector opening in front of them, there is that rush to jump in and be an entrant within that new frontier.

Cloud computing has a particular name for this phenomenon: cloudwashing. This is when every vendor under the sun will try to apply "cloud" to whatever technology they have, in the hopes of catching someone's eye with a shiny new wrapper around a technology that might not be the best fit.

IT managers and experts are usually quite aware of this kind of thing, and in the early days of adoption, there's a very understandable reluctance to start using a technology and get locked in to a particular vendor. Vendor lock-in is especially dangerous when a technology is nascent, like cloud computing is now.

In such an environment, open source technologies are a much safer fit for early adopters. If, for whatever reason, a particular tool doesn't do the job, it is much easier to migrate to another tool from an open source application than a proprietary one. IT users know this, and this fact has put wind in the sails of open source technology in cloud computing.

* Structure. The final reason open source is so central to cloud computing is not market-driven, as the first two conclusions were. But it is a decisive advantage related to very structure of the open source ecosystem.

Open source vendors are leading here because open source itself enables developers to bring together disparate tech elements freely. A proprietary vendor, on the other hand, is forced to pull together and build everything themselves, which puts them at a serious disadvantage in terms of resources and licensing.

In fact, cloud computing is itself derived from deeply mature open source technologies. Amazon Web Services, the Emerald City in the Oz of cloud computing, is built on Xen and Linux. Rackspace's cloud services are also composed of open source technology.

Here, at least, proprietary technologies are the ones playing catch up with open source, and not the other way around. It would be two years after the launch of AWS, for example that VMware would launch its Vcloud Director.

It is these three reasons, these pillars, that are holding up cloud computing as the next wave of open source innovation. Without major marketing dollars and high-pressure sales, open source has fulfilled its promise: delivering high-value technology with speed and sophistication... and a non-astronomical price-point.

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