Sizzling open vs. proprietary debate heats up the cloud

Vendor rhetoric hot and heavy; Amazon Web Services still could have last laugh

It's turning into a mud-slinging affair in the cloud computing industry.

The familiar debate of open source vs. proprietary IT offerings now seems in full swing in the cloud, and the rhetoric shooting back and forth between some of the major vendors is intensifying. The most recent round really picked up a few weeks ago when Citrix announced it would bring its CloudStack cloud building platform to the Apache Software Foundation, creating a competing model to OpenStack. Before that, OpenStack had been gaining momentum in the open source cloud worlds. While Citrix's move was initially seen as a competition to OpenStack, both companies have more recently taken aim at a common foe: VMware.

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A VMware executive, not to be outdone, wrote a fairy tale themed blog post calling competitors "ugly sisters" and comparing VMware to the Prince Charming and Cinderella that will run off with the customers. The same day as the blog post, a Citrix official wrote a rebuff blog post titled "vCloud or vPumpkin?" predicting VMware's demise at the hands of customers who choose open source cloud deployment models instead. "I'd suggest that the only thing [VMware has] in common with Cinderella is the fact that the fantasy image you've so carefully created is evaporating before your eyes," wrote Peder Ulander of Citrix.

Officials from Rackspace, which is one of the biggest backers of the OpenStack project, have also drawn a line in the sand, though this time aiming their ire at Amazon Web Services. "Amazon's proprietary system cultivates customer lock-in," Rackspace CEO Lanham Napier was quoted as saying in an interview. "We think OpenStack will be the technology standard and our fanatical support will be the service standard. We're trying to create a better service."

James Staten, an analyst with Forrester Research, says there is an age-old debate about open vs. proprietary offerings in IT that ebbs and flows. "Clearly we're in a flow point right now," he says. De factor standards in an industry "scare people" and push some to consider alternatives, which is part of the reason Staten says the debate seems to be flaring up. In the cloud world, AWS's application program interfaces (APIs) are becoming a de facto standard, creating this hubbub of commotion between vendors, Staten says.

But what does it really mean for customers?

Open source vs. proprietary has never been a black-and-white issue for either side, Staten says. Open vendors claim their customers have much greater agility, and they let users advance the open source code in any way they want. Proprietary vendors sell customers on the stability and ease of management in the offering.

Marc Brien, a cloud analyst with Domicity, says propriety cloud offerings are more advanced right now. "In the immediate term, an enterprise or a service provider that has to stand up a full-functioning cloud, today, may decide a proprietary solution is more technologically mature and safer," he says. "In these early days of cloud computing, the VMwares and the Amazons enjoy significant elbow room, but will find their market space narrowing as open source quickly gathers momentum."

In a sense, competition is good for the customer, says Floyd Strimling, a cloud technical evangelist and blogger at Zenoss. Competition pushes vendors to continue to innovate and reduce prices, which is good for end users. VMware, for example, has expanded its vCloud network to more than 100 providers now.

Strimling equates the back and forth among the cloud providers as being like the day-by-day attacks in the U.S. presidential race that will surely intensify in the coming weeks: "While most of us don't pay attention to the day-to-day mudslinging, we are all going to be living with the consequences," Strimling says. If open source cloud vendors can significantly cut into VMware and AWS's market share, that will create new opportunities for cloud service providers to offer services around the open source products, similar to what Red Hat did with the Linux kernel. But, VMware and AWS have market-leading positions right now that will be difficult to topple.

In the end, Strimling says customers generally have two priorities: for the product or service to work, and to be able to opt out if it doesn't. That portability desire by customers is partly why he believes open source clouds are a legitimate alternative to proprietary offerings. Just matching hypervisors between the local site and the public cloud provider isn't enough to transfer data among cloud providers. Strimling says being able to have true interoperability of workloads and storage is what he thinks many customers will demand. Open source providers claim they have the features to allow for portability, while VMware says it has an ecosystem of providers that give customers choice.

How will it play out? Strimling says the big company to watch is still AWS, the market leader. AWS recently signed an agreement that will allow open source private cloud vendor Eucalyptus to advance its APIs to be compatible with AWS. Strimling says he'll be interested to see how AWS continues to acknowledge private cloud compatibility moving forward.

In the meantime, though, the mudslinging is likely to continue.

Network World staff writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social media. He can be reached at and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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