Sam Ramji: Cloud makes open source 'inevitable' for Microsoft, others

While some pundits predict cloud computing could kill open source movement, Microsoft's former free software advocate sees it differently

While many free software advocates warn that the cloud could kill open source, because users won't have access to the source code, Sam Ramji disagrees. He says that work is going on now to eliminate the legal liabilities of contributing to open source.

It could be that Sam Ramji is just an eternal optimist. While many free software advocates warn that the cloud could kill open source, because users won't have access to the source code, Ramji disagrees. He says that work is going on now to eliminate the legal liabilities of contributing to open source. Once that's done, Microsoft and other proprietary software vendors (Apple, Oracle, etc.) who exhibit a love-hate relationship with free software will be forced to use open source to build their own clouds. This will lead them to eventually adopt it for other wares, contributing and sharing like good community members.

MORE: Linux Foundation chief: 'You are an idiot' if you don't give back to open source

"You can't compete with all the developers who are writing new technologies for the cloud, for the infrastructure level and for the platforms and framework level," says Ramji, best known as Microsoft's first in-house open source advocate, a position he left two years ago. Ramji is now vice president of strategy at startup Apigee, a maker of API products for developers. Many of the products are free, such as the new OAuth tool released last month.

The cloud will lead to an eventual open source love fest because the software business will no longer be "about shipping a software license, but about providing a service," which makes the reasons for fighting open source vanish, Ramji says. Open source usage by proprietary vendors will "be inevitable over the next couple of years" because open source is a faster, more productive method of software development, he says.

"Being able to take it, use it and contribute back and to clearly see how this contracts their R&D life cycle" will offer clear advantages over a built-it-here mentality, Ramji says. "At a legal and business level, it just won't matter. They'll be able to contribute back without concern about damage to the business," he says.

Ramji remains on the board of the Outercurve Foundation (formerly Codeplex), an open source advocacy group founded, and still largely funded by, Microsoft, although its board includes members from Red Hat, SugarCRM, SAP and others. Plus he is one of 10 founding members of a new cloud consortium called the Open Cloud Initiative, launched in July.

He already sees the change happening at Microsoft. "If you look at who's working at Azure these days, it's a bunch of people who are very close to open source, from Satya Nadella as president (who came over the from the search division and has obviously worked with a lot of open technology) to people like Bill Hilf, responsible for product management for Azure. He was the leader for Linux emerging markets at IBM and then open source at Microsoft."

Still, Microsoft as well as Oracle, Apple and others aren't fully behaving like they've seen the open source light, particularly in regard to Android. Microsoft is busy signing up as many Android device makers into patent protection licensing schemes as it can. The latest count on that is eight, and Microsoft is suing Barnes & Noble over its Android Nook. Apple is trying to keep Samsung from shipping its Galaxy Tab in Europe and elsewhere. Oracle is suing Google over its alleged use of Java in Android.

Ramji admits that open source progress at his alma mater, Microsoft, isn't complete. "In markets that are really challenging like embedded devices, where the company is not seeing the kind of success it would like to, it's falling on behaviors that we're seeing from Apple and others and using patents to salt the earth," he says.

BACKGROUND: Microsoft: 'We love open source'

Ramji, however, is putting his efforts where his optimism is. He hopes that the Open Cloud Initiative will be to open cloud computing what the OSI is to open source software. He says a new group was needed because the OCI is technology agnostic.

Even if the likes of Microsoft and Apple were to become avid users and contributors of open source for their clouds, they could still leave out the user -- the constituent that open source wants to protect, at least as envisioned by Free Software Foundation Founder Richard Stallman. This is what the OCI hopes to correct.

"If you are looking for freedoms in software, the way that we defined it in the source code era was the open source definition [by] the Open Source Initiative," Ramji says. But in the cloud era there is no definition of what makes an "open cloud," he says. While most of the other consortiums are concerned with getting others to adopt their technology (Rackspace's CloudStack, Red Hat's DeltaCloud, etc.), the OCI is concerned with validating that a cloud is "open" for its users. A cloud may be deemed "open" even if it doesn't use open source software.

So far the OCI has come up with two basic principles: "There is no barrier to entry or exit and there's no discrimination for who can use the service," Ramji says. He likens it to a consumer safety organization that will issue a rating or stamp of approval to help users "be aware of what their rights are" when choosing a cloud provider.

"If you put in 5 terabytes of data into a service, and you can get it out, but only at 5 gigabytes a day, do you realize that it's going to take 1,005 days -- five years using your maximum rate limit every single day -- to get your data back? These are some of the things that people don't understand yet," Ramji says.

Another area must be addressed before open source nirvana can begin. People and enterprises who use the code have to contribute, and only a small percentage of them do. The reason they don't is that they've been taught to be afraid, Ramji believes. Although it's been a decade since Steve Ballmer called Linux a "cancer" thanks to the "copyleft" provisions of the GPL, even when IT staff wants to contribute, corporate lawyers often won't let them, Ramji says. Lawyers worry that intellectual property may inadvertently be made free or that a downstream user could later sue the company for liability.

The typical process is that someone in IT wants to contribute to a project and is told to check with the legal department. "The lawyers at the mainstream company are going to say no [because they] see risk but no value. We've had people say, 'The lawyers say they can't even look at this for six months and the internal bill is going to be $50,000. We're just trying to give a patch back to Apache,'" Ramji says.

Outercurve is working to clear the FUD, Ramji says, by offering examples of how developers can work on projects with both proprietary and open source code. Outercurve accepts any projects covered by any OSI-approved license (including the various GPL licenses).

There are other efforts working on the legal fear issue such as the Canonical-led Project Harmony, an attempt to come up with a standard set of contribution agreements. Note that Red Hat's lead council dissed the 1.0 documents of Harmony, saying they were needlessly complicated.

Meanwhile, the Linux Foundation and FOSSBazaar are tackling a different part of the issue. In August, they released the 1.0 version of the Software Package Data Exchange (SPDX). It tracks license information in a standardized way and allows it to travel across the software supply chain, so users and contributors can know they are in compliance.

"We think there's a higher-level conversation that needs to be had by users, developers and providers to say, what does the industry want? What are we worried about?" Ramji describes. "Fundamentally, we are worried about interoperability and our ability to get on and get off the software without suffering too much."

Julie Bort is the editor of Network World's Microsoft Subnet and Open Source Subnet communities. She writes the Microsoft Update and Source Seeker blogs. Follow Bort on Twitter @Julie188.

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