Why the cloud can't be separated from open source

Cloud services depend on open source software. Can open source protect us from the risks of cloud lock-in?

Open source wouldn't exist without the Internet -- so perhaps it was inevitable that open source would get mashed up with cloud computing.

It's been that way from the start. Since the very beginning of cloud computing, SaaS providers have tended to prefer the LAMP stack (or some variation) to deliver Web applications. But over the past few years, there has also been a precipitous rise in the number of open source cloud projects.

[ Read Eric Knorr's interview with Rackspace chief strategy officer Lew Moorman for more on OpenStack. | Check out InfoWorld's iGuide on cloud computing. ]

According to Black Duck, which maintains a huge open source knowledge base, the number of open source cloud projects rose from a handful in 2005 to 470 by the end of 2010. That's a tiny percentage of the half-million projects out there, but their influence vastly outweighs their number.

Consider, for example, two of the best-known open source applications. Last year Acquia -- founded by Dries Buytaert, the inventor of Drupal -- launched a beta of Drupal Gardens, a hosted version of the open source content management system. And SugarCRM, one of the most successful commercial open source companies ever, has offered a SaaS version almost from the beginning.

More interesting is that open source is proving to be an engine of innovation in meeting cloud challenges. According to Michael Skok of North Bridge Venture Partners, a firm specializing in open source funding, one of the chief customer objections to the cloud is the high potential for vendor lock-in. Two of the most prominent projects to mitigate that risk are OpenStack and Deltacloud.

The aim of OpenStack is to provide a standardized IaaS (infrastructure as a service) compute and storage platform, so if enough public cloud providers adopt it, customers can move workloads among providers easily. At the same time, enterprises can use OpenStack to build and run private clouds, creating a similar level of compatibility between customer and provider and potentially making bursting to the cloud much simpler. Backed by more than 50 organizations -- including Rackspace, NASA, Dell, Cisco Systems, and Canonical -- OpenStack is currently enjoying a huge level of interest among enterprise customers.

Developed by Red Hat and managed by Apache, Deltacloud is an open REST API that actually has drivers for individual cloud providers, including Azure, EC2, GoGrid, and Rackspace. Customers can develop internal clouds and use Deltacloud to manage instances across providers, while being protected from changes in provider APIs.

The list goes on. Memcached, the distributed caching system, was offered under a BSD license years ago and is now used by the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Ehcache, developed by Terracota and now available under Apache 2, is the leading Java-based solution for virtualizing databases, with hundreds of thousands of production deployments.

Finally, there's Apache Hadoop, a software framework for data-intensive distributed applications inspired by Google MapReduce. Hadoop is ushering in a revolution in mining gobs of unstructured data, from Web clickstreams to security event logs. Although Hadoop is not restricted to the cloud, it's certainly the perfect bursty application. Amazon EC2, for example, offers a hosted Hadoop framework dubbed Amazon Elastic MapReduce; upload the data, use scores of EC2 servers, and walk away with the results without having to pay a dime for infrastructure.

Open source vendors have endured trials and tribulations over the past few years, with many companies that thought they could sustain a business selling support and giving away software fading away or getting acquired. For some, the cloud has provided a new way to monetize and survive through subscription revenue. More importantly, the cloud takes the open source tradition of collaboration to the next level, as open source contributors meet the new technical and business challenges presented by the cloud.

This article, "Why the cloud can't be separated from open source," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog, and for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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