Open Source Cloud Computing: Could It Be Part of Your Next Cloud Project?

May 18, 2012

Apache. Ubuntu. WordPress. Name your favorite open source platform or application and it probably conjures up an image of agility, robustness, and most of all, freedom from proprietary technologies and single sources. All good, right? But can open source cloud computing be just as good?

IT managers at midsize businesses are evaluating open source solutions as part of their cloud strategies because of the flexibility and cost-effectiveness that open source platforms promise. But is this new idea ready for prime time? According to a recent article in ComputerWorld, the answer is "not quite, not yet, not for everyone."

Staking Out Territory

There are many projects out there, each hoping to stake out territory in what could be a very promising space, as business accelerates its quest to reap the benefits of the cloud.

And there's a reason the move to the cloud is picking up speed: Cloud computing has proven to cut IT labor costs for midsize businesses by as much as 50 percent, improve capital utilization by as much as 75 percent, cut software defects by as much as 30 percent, and cut IT support costs by up to 40 percent. Cloud computing promises rapid deployment, fast payback, and greater flexibility and scalability than hardware-intensive IT strategies.

With such incentives, it's not surprising that midsize businesses are looking at cloud solutions of all types, including open source. Early adopters are scoping out the terrain.

From IaaS to PaaS

Open source cloud computing includes server-level Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) frameworks such as OpenStack, Eucalyptus, and the Ubuntu Cloud Infrastructure. Popular application-supporting Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) frameworks include Heroku, Cloud Foundry, and Red Hat's OpenShift, which uses Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Customers often use multiple frameworks and associated tools to create a solution that supports applications such as online storage, commerce, and virtualization.

Early Successes

Early adopters with internal IT skills have used the open source tools to meet real needs in unique ways. IT consultancy OpenCredo was able to launch three new applications within seven months for a major insurance underwriter using the Cloud Foundry open source framework along with other open source software. Online backup provider Backupify wrote their own open source framework for managing multiple Ruby on Rails applications to Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2).

Work in Progress

But open source frameworks are admittedly not equivalent to dedicated cloud solutions--at least, not yet. Computer World describes them as "a work in progress." Many manage only physical servers or stand-alone applications, leading customers who need more advanced capabilities to create their own frameworks. And then there's the extra security and licensing concerns of software that can be downloaded directly from the Web. Most users are not yet moving critical applications to the cloud because they don't have the tools to maintain proper IT oversight and security, although products like RedHat's OpenShift promise to help meet these needs.

And there are questions whether open source frameworks really deliver the benefits they promise, such as portability among cloud providers and support. The dependency of open source applications on their developer communities for support can leave midsize business users (with limited development resources) few good options if their application doesn't fit out of the box.

Good fits for open source frameworks tend to include experimental applications built by developers who are comfortable with newer open-source tools and applications deployed by organizations with their own technical skills (e.g., universities). Typical applications include Web and social applications and mobile or customer-facing websites. The farther an application gets from the Web, the less likely a candidate it is for open source cloud support.

An Open Future

The good news for IT managers at midsize businesses is that the pace of development and sophistication is accelerating. Whether it comes from an open source platform, a comprehensive source like IBM or Microsoft, or more likely, from a combination thereof, the future of cloud computing is one of strong options expanding in all directions.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

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