The cloud could drive open source out of the enterprise

The cloud neutralizes open source’s “free” advantage, and community zealotry alone won’t overcome that shift

For a decade, there’s a question that just won’t go away: Is the cloud killing open source? It still strikes up some emotions.

Open source software has been the backbone of enterprise platforms for a long time—remember the LAMP stack of Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP/Perl? But consuming open source software via the cloud could change open source’s enterprise footprint.

‘Free’ open source is not cheaper

First of all, open source’s no-cost attribute means less in the cloud. Public cloud providers will charge you for the time you use their cloud to access open source software—or any software.

Thus, it doesn’t really matter if you AWS Linux, Red Hat Linux, or closed-source platforms from Microsoft, because they are all “free” yet cost the same in cloud time charges for access. The same is true with the databases; there’s not much different in your monthly cloud bill if you use open source databases versus closed source, or those that are native to a specific cloud such AWS Red Shift.

If there is not a dramatic cost advantage, most enterprises won’t care about the platforms that they use in the long run, and that takes away one of open source’s historic strengths.

Open source’s other strengths need strengthening

Of course, in some enterprises, the use of open source is a religion. I’ve had many clients that will use only open source solutions. One reason is belief that an open source community is the better locus for foundational technology: Not only is it not proprietary to a single company that could abuse that position, it gains from contributions of a wider set of talented people, stays more connected to the market’s actual needs (being free of a single entity’s commercial agenda), and can more quickly address any deficits (due to the wider community that can investigate its code).

Although I can see those advantages, at the end of the day, any technology has to succeed by its own intrinsic merits. Coming from a socially positive context is not enough merit; the technology itself needs to be best of breed to get and maintain broad usage, at any price. Now is the time for open source projects to double down on the functional advantages of their software, not rely so much on price and religiosity. 

It will be an interesting next few years for open source. Although open source zealots in enterprises will run open source platform analogs in the cloud, and not diverge from their open source path, I believe that the majority of enterprises will move toward closed source technologies when doing so becomes the path of least resistance, given that the costs are about the same. To fend off closed-source options, open source technologies will simply have to be better.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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