Small Pieces Tightly Joined: Open Source in the Cloud

It’s not a shock to state that cloud computing will disrupt the business model of commercial software. But how it will affect the open source movement?

The rise of open source is clearly linked to the rise of the web. Buy a commodity piece of hardware, download source code of any of the thousands of open source projects and start to “scratch your own itch”. My Linux box will communicate with your Linux box as long as we stick to some minimal set of protocols. The web is loosely coupled and software can be developed independently in a bazaar style.

It’s not quite as straightforward in the cloud. Clouds are also composed of thousands of commodity PCs, but the cloud operator manages the overall architecture and deployment – power supply, cooling, hypervisors, security, networks and so on. We don’t rely on minimal set of protocols in the cloud. On the contrary the cloud is defined by fairly complex, high level APIs. Even though the actual cloud OS may come from the open source domain, the tightly coupled nature of the cloud prevents users from modifying the cloud software.

There’s a lot of talk today about setting up private clouds with an Open Source Cloud OS, but the idea of private clouds is simply a delusion. Since the owner of private cloud has to purchase all required HW upfront, private clouds don’t provide the main benefit of cloud computing: elasticity. Other people will claim that clouds are not compatible with the open source movement or call it outright ‘stupidity’.

I see two possible solutions to this problem:

Benevolent dictator: Leading cloud providers (Amazon, Google, MSFT) will open-source their complete stack. This means that they would let the community to inspect the code, fix bugs, suggest improvements and define a clear roadmap similar to the Linux roadmap. This will also require a role of benevolent dictator to manage the evolution of the cloud. Given the level of investment required to build and operate the cloud I don’t believe that this is likely scenario.
The new PC: The open source community accepts the cloud as the new HW/OS platform. Instead of building apps on top of x86 platforms (Wintel, Mac…), open source applications would be built on top of Amazon Web Services or Google AppEngine APIs. And these apps would handle the portability of data so that data doesn’t get locked in the cloud.

At the end of the day, cloud computing equals utility and utility creates stability. And a stable set of APIs, protocols and standards is a great place for open source to flourish. The best open source projects grew on top of stable standards: MySQL/SQL, Linux/x86, Firefox/http/HTML. I wonder what will be the most important OSS that will grow on top of the cloud…

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