High stakes for open source in the commercial cloud

Push for open source in public clouds is less about users' flexibility and freedom, more to do with competitive power

Cloud computing has been described by some of the more radical thinkers as a profound challenge to the heart of software freedom. There's some justification to this accusation.

First, you need more than your software's source code to take your cloud activity into your own hands. Although open source gives you the freedom to use, study, modify, and distribute the software, it doesn't necessarily allow the use of the place it runs or the APIs needed to access that place. As such, considering your software-freedom-derived business flexibility in the area of cloud computing is more complex than for in-house desktop or server solutions.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Simon Phipps makes the case for software freedom. | Editor in Chief Eric Knorr offers his take on the OpenStack drama and the future of the cloud. | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Open Sources blog and Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

The opportunity for lock-in with cloud solutions is huge, and the usual suspects have tried to exploit it. As you might expect, there's heavy competition, with every big-brand vendor inventing a clever and unique spin to lure you to its cloud offering. But the behavior of most of them may surprise you. All the most interesting competitive plays are actually open source. That may sound odd if you think open source is a matter of mass philanthropy, but as Simon Wardley pointed out in Forbes recently, altruism is at best a secondary motivation for the open source cloud computing activity that's evolving.

Open source games

The cloud computing project landscape is rapidly changing, and there's not a hobbyist in sight. Just this week, we've seen OpenStack form a commercially backed foundation, with player after player folding their hands, joining the project, and putting up big bucks for influential positions in its leadership. Under these circumstances, it will be hard for a private contributor to hold sway with OpenStack.

Meanwhile Eucalyptus, the startup whose handling of the governance of the eponymous open source project triggered the creation of OpenStack, has partnered with Amazon.com as a preferred open source supplier of its proprietary-but-published APIs. In a third strand, Citrix Systems has chosen to continue its CloudStack project at Apache, harnessing the competitive merits of that dogmatically open community as a way to fast-track competition with OpenStack and Amazon/Eucalyptus.

None of this open source frenzy is motivated by a desire to see humanity bettered. Each team is playing a high-stakes, high-return commercial game. If you decide to back any of them, you could find yourself on the losing team, with your applications tied to an API that's no longer supported. To counter that outcome, some industry voices are calling for standardization around Amazon's EC2/S3 APIs, already widely adopted because of the first-to-market ubiquity of Amazon Web Services (AWS). Indeed, both OpenStack and CloudStack support them.

All the same, the corporate sponsors of these projects will feel uneasy despite their license-guaranteed freedoms. That unease will likely persist until at least the conclusion of the Google-Oracle lawsuit. As I explained last week, that case may open a hornets' nest of uncertainty around the copyrightability of APIs. If Oracle wins, Amazon could be given a new set of potential rights to tax everyone using the APIs the company publishes -- and no suppliers want to stake their future on them until there's more legal certainty.

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