Worried your cloud service will die? Get open source insurance

By killing Reader, Google may have done us a favor, focusing attention on the power of open standards and open source in protecting us against the whims of service providers

A collective moan arose from users following Google's inexplicable announcement that it plans to shutter its popular and widely used Google Reader service in July. No suprise that when Google launched another service, a note-taking add-on to Google Drive called Keep, many were skeptical about using it. As Om Malik said, "What if I spend months using the app, and then Google decides it doesn't meet some arbitrary objective?"

This is a specific example of the general problem of service providers deciding to change direction and leaving customers high and dry. It's a problem open source and open standards address well, and while we're watching Google's internal politics mess with the online happiness of millions, it's good to be reminded we have alternatives.

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When it comes to complex business systems, open source offers us "community escrow" -- the ability to pick a different service provider to maintain the source code abandoned by your previous supplier. This was what the OpenSolaris community did when Oracle pulled out, and the resulting collaboratively maintained code continues to deliver differentiating value at the core of companies like Joyent and Nexenta under the name Illumos.

The Google Reader case is different. Reader is an endpoint for the stable, open standards RSS and ATOM; as such, there are many alternative systems that are standards-compatible and can be dropped into place. Indeed, Web-based alternatives like Feedly and NewsBlur have been overwhelmed with new subscribers switching to their service, and desktop clients are once again popular. One of the earliest on the Mac, NetNewsWire, came out of retirement in response to the news of Google Reader's demise.

While Google looked like a safe choice, the demise of Reader shows they can choose to deprecate just about anything in the secret halls of the Mountain View kings. What can we do to insulate businesses from the turbulence of Web-based solutions? There are two important principles that should be found at the heart of any strategy for online tools.

First, use open standards that have multiple implementations, of which at least one is open source. If your supplier uses file formats and data protocols under their sole, arbitrary control (even if they claim they're a "standard" or "standards-based"), chances are a change of strategy on their part would leave you hostage to their monetization strategy. Even if they claim their format is "open," check for the existence of a strong, maintained open source implementation. You don't have to use it; its existence is proof enough that the standard is open. Go with standards: ODF for documents, IMAP for email, XMPP for messaging, SIP for voice and video communications, and so on. Next Wednesday is Document Freedom Day, when we're reminded of the importance of open formats. Use it as an opportunity to put the topic of migrating to open standards back on the priority list.

Second, use federated services. Need instant messaging? Pick XMPP (Jabber) instead of a proprietary protocol, then implement it on your own domain using an open source service. Want microblogging? Use open source software like Status.Net or Pump.io and federate it into Twitter, rather than directly using Twitter. Want VoIP communications? Run your own SIP services with something like Asterisk, and configure them so that your staff email addresses can be used for direct calls from software like Ekiga. You'll also need to bridge out to services like Skype and the telephone network, but do it on your own terms. Need a blog? Install WordPress rather than using a proprietary service like Blogger. You get the picture.

Maybe that's too much work -- so pick the same standards and open source software, but have them hosted for you. For example, Automattic will host WordPress blogs for you using the same open source software you'd install yourself. If there is ever any reason for you to part company with Automattic as a supplier, you can simply export your data and run your own instance. To do this rehosting move smoothly, you'll need to make thoughtful choices -- especially about identity management -- but by picking open standards and open source, you can ensure your flexibility remains high and with it your ability to keep costs low and "supplier-induced strategic change" to a minimum.

Maybe we should be grateful to Google for killing Reader. It has provided us all with an opportunity to think about the services we're using on the Internet and to make sure we're able to "rehost and carry on" in the event of change. Happy Document Freedom Day!

This article, "Worried your cloud service will die? Get open source insurance," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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