True Open Source Cloud Software Crucial for Market Growth

By | Apr 18, 2012

Twenty-five years ago, programmer Richard Stallman created the GNU public licence and helped introduce the concept of "free" software. Now, free and open source (FOSS) options are found everywhere in the industry, from Apache to MySQL and, of course, Linux. The cloud is following this trend with 70 percent of users running open source platforms, compared with only 30 percent in local data centers. But why this push for an open source cloud? Why are businesses (and experts) so convinced open source will provide the best value for their IT dollar?

Come on Down!

The price is right. That's the first major benefit to any open source system, since it allows a business to skip the licensing fees, and that is why big players like Amazon and Google use open source tech for their clouds. Trying to pay the massive licensing fees required for such massive cloud deployments would bankrupt even major players in the industry, not to mention giving the owners of that proprietary software a huge advantage.

Open source options also help to drive rapid innovation because development is driven by users instead of companies. Needed features are created on demand and can be tailored to a specific company's requirements, so long as they have access to the source code.

Now, the war over which provider gets to be the big fish in the open source sea is starting to heat up, according to a recent Internet News article. Virtualization frontrunner VMware claims that their Cloud Foundry is "the Linux of the cloud," but they don't support a truly open source vision. OpenStack, meanwhile, has garnered the loyalty of players like Canonical, SUSE, and Red Hat, making it appear as the open source option of choice.

What does it all mean to IT midsize businesses? That open source is now big business. But according to Richard Stallman and despite the hype, virtually any cloud deployment violates the notion of open source at a fundamental level.

Not So Open Source Cloud?

An article at InfoWorld discusses Stallman's take on the notion of open source in the cloud, a topic the GNU creator is passionate about. He's also not shy about saying that cloud computing, by its very definition, cannot be free. "SaaS [software-as-a-service] and proprietary software lead to similar harmful results, but the causal mechanisms are different," says Stallman. "With proprietary software, the cause is that you have and use a copy which is difficult or illegal to change. With SaaS, the cause is that you use a copy you don't have."

The problem for Stallman is that cloud solutions of any kind don't meet his four-point test of what defines "free" in the software world. In order to be free, a piece of software must give companies the ability to use it however they wish, change and study the source code, redistribute exact copies, and redistribute modified copies. The cloud, by definition, can't let that happen no matter what kind of open source platform SaaS solutions are built upon. At the end of the day, the software isn't in the hands of the companies using it but rather a provider, meaning the only way to enjoy truly "free" software would be for a company to set up their own local server.

Open source is a driving factor in cloud development and often comes with notions of easily modified solutions and lower costs, but the end result has experts like Stallman wondering. While midsized businesses might be sold on the idea of a free and open cloud, are there still walls that simply can't be seen?

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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