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By | Timothy Prickett Morgan 23rd July 2009 05:36

Open source and the cloud: An unbalanced marriage

One does all the work

There's no question that open source software is helping vendors build utility-style infrastructure - or as the world insists on calling it: cloud computing.

But will cloud computing help the companies behind open source software, who pay their bills by collecting cash for commercial support? Or better still, will it help them stay in business at all?

Good questions. And the Red Hat-sponsored Open Source Cloud Computing Forum held Tuesday aimed to answer this and other questions from the business and technology sides. Technology dominated, but for now, let's just talk about business.

Brian Stevens, Red Hat's vice president of engineering and chief technology officer, kicked off the event with a keynote where he discussed the themes that are over familiar to us all by now:

  • That IT is no longer seen as a cost center but as a means of delivering business value, etc.
  • That cloud computing - which embodies virtualization and other things that make crusty IT infrastructure more resilient and flexible - would make it so that IT departments could charge back departments for the resources that they use and see a day when they no longer have to schedule downtime as they change hardware or software on their infrastructure.
  • That independent software vendors see the inevitability of cloud computing and "are less defensive and are increasingly supporting" the deployment of their applications on clouds.
  • That while the service level agreements on public clouds like Amazon's EC2 are good enough for application development and testing and offer substantial speed advantages when it comes to getting a test server up and running for putting code through the paces, the SLAs and the guarantees of security for applications and data deployed on clouds are currently not good enough for the deployment of production enterprise applications. Yet.

The way commercial Linux distributor Red Hat sees it, the move to cloud infrastructure is no worse and perhaps better than the old way of trying to sell into end user accounts directly. It's a lot easier, so the argument goes, to sell future cloud infrastructure makers commercial licenses to its Enterprise Linux stack and cover hundreds, thousands, or even millions of users than it is to sell directly or though a channel into those same accounts.

<p.You make one deal, and in theory, you have sold a buttload of licenses support contracts worth ga-gillions ka-millions. And then companies who have deployed applications on public clouds decide that they want to build similar infrastructure internally on their own private clouds, and you get to sell some more licenses there too.

There are only a few problems with this theory. First, the companies actually selling cloud infrastructure - Amazon, Google, and a handful of others - are not actually using commercial Linux distros (as far as we know) to build out their clouds. That's bad news for all of the server operating system makers (including those who don't sell open source software but rather support contracts), and it's bad news for all the commercial hypervisor makers we've noticed how they never get callbacks when they pitch their wares. In the case of Google, it's even bad news for the server makers. They're left standing at the door because Google makes its own servers.

Both Google and Amazon have essentially created their own Linux distros. And Amazon has its own version of the Xen hypervisor too. As industry analyst Matthew Aslett pointed out after Stevens' keynote, Amazon and Google provide a service based on open source software, so the modifications they make to GPL v2 programs do not have to be given back to the open source community. They would only have to contribute back if they distributed the software.

So while open source has benefited cloud providers, and this loophole in the GPL v2 license (at least from the point of view of people who would like to see Google, Amazon, and others contribute their genius to the community that they have benefited from) has allowed them to keep their intellectual property, it is not so clear that cloud computing is going to help the open source community.

Selling Jeff Bezos

People are hoping that it does, this is for sure. And the ability to grab some source code, tweak it to do something clever, and keep that cleverness all to themselves. Unless the Affero GPL v3 (a variant that compels contribution of code even for services, according to Aslett) or maybe the Open Software License (which already apparently does so already) take off, it seems that cloud providers with the most IT technical muscle will benefit more than those who rely on the open source variants of cloud extensions.

Here's the second problem with open source software providers thinking they are going to necessarily make money off cloud computing. What are companies like Red Hat, Novell, and Oracle (which has Linux and soon Solaris) going to do when when Amazon and Google simply tell IT shops they will build and maintain an internal cloud using all their own secret sauce, right there in the corporate data center? The internal cloud will be the same as the external one, and the compatibility issues just go away.

The big fear at system makers these days must be that it may be far easier to just let Google or Amazon build you a cloudy data center than have IBM, Hewlett-Packard, or Oracle and a bunch of software partners do it with some modicum of compatibility with a public cloud like EC2. Neither Amazon nor Google have said they are planning to build and sell internal clouds for companies, but Google was perfectly happy to sell search appliances for an outrageous amount of money and Amazon would probably sell Jeff Bezos himself in the Office Products & Supplies section if the retailer was convinced it could get a good price.

As far as IT is concerned, a commercially supported, internal cloud infrastructure with the Google or Amazon label on it might be a lot easier to sell than creating the kinds of cloud computing standards and security and compliance measures that Red Hat knows have to be established to make it not only easy to move applications onto clouds. But to allow them to move from one cloud to another. I am not sure how the GPL v2 license would affect such a box, but all Amazon or Google would have to do is say they are co-locating their iron inside corporate data centers for their services customers to deal with latency or other issues and then continue to sell that setup as a service. The lawyers got nothing.

Red Hat and its partners and competitors in the infrastructure space need standards, and they need as much of this code open source as possible. That's for sure. (El Reg will be taking a look at the cloud-related projects Red Hat has cooking in separate coverage).

So what is actually happening out there in data centers when it comes to clouds? And how much money are we talking about when it comes to cloudy infrastructure?

William Fellows, the principle analyst at the 451 Group, spoke a bit at the Open Source Cloud Computing Forum about it, saying that IT shops "love the model and they want to imitate, emulate, and replicate" what the cloud providers like Amazon and Google are doing. According to surveys done by the 451 Group, setting up private clouds has saved some companies as much as 30 per cent on their infrastructure costs, and companies that are mulling cloud infrastructure are willing to dedicate as much as 25 per cent of their total capacity to clouds.

IT shops like the fact that clouds offer a self-service deployment model with built-in charge back mechanisms, and Fellows says that application test and development and disaster recovery are the two killer applications for clouds today.

"Our guess is that there will be a relatively small number of public clouds, but a lot more private clouds out there," says Fellows. Unless, as I have suggested, the public cloud providers go private and basically push the incumbent system providers out of the market.

How much money is at stake right now? Not much. Fellows says that sales estimates for infrastructure as a service (selling raw capacity on virtualized servers, not applications like sells) are all over the map.

"Pick a number," says Fellows. "One analyst will tell you it is tens of billions [of dollars] and another will tell you it is hundreds of billions." Fellows has picked some numbers of his own and estimates that global IaaS sales in 2008 were around $137m and will rise to around $300m this year and to $1.25bn in 2011.

That is hardly a dent in the overall IT market. But that can change, and if the global economy continues to be challenging and cloud providers can demonstrate security and cost savings, the numbers could change a lot faster than perhaps many expect. ®

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