Why We Love Open Source? Let Us Count the Ways

Written by Ike Syed

open source for cloud applicationsI am excited to write my first blog on the Connectloud website. My co-bloggers Habib and Zeeshan have written extensively on public vs. private clouds. As the vice-president of business development, I find a large piece of Connectloud’s innovation embedded in our use of open-source software.

At first blush, open-source technology seems to have no place in the world, much less the cloud. Who builds open source? Who tests it to see if it’s working? What about security?

But a closer look reveals that, especially in the world of cloud management platforms, open source makes a lot of sense.

For one thing, open source is free for anyone to use. Forget pricey licensing fees and going to the altar with proprietary vendors’ consultants. On the whole, open source provides substantial price savings, which in turn frees up capital for other projects within an IT organization.

Another advantage of using an open source cloud platform is flexibility. With proprietary systems, for instance, if you feel a given feature is missing, you must wait for the vendor to build it. In open source, you can use the underlying source code to create it yourself. Or you can modify open code to improve what somebody else has already created.

A Virtuous Cycle of Creativity

Working with other vendors and individuals from the open source movement can create a virtuous cycle where the creativity of one person spawns ideas and creativity in another. And there are no artificially enforced limitations by vendors on which technologies should be used. If you decide that some cutting-edge software is worth plugging into your open-source platform, you simply do it, rather than waiting for somebody else.

Open source benefits from continuous improvement from its users, with no attendant waits for new software releases from vendors. And if the company that created the original software fails, the code can live on through the open-source community.

A related benefit to open-source platforms is that no single vendor controls the system. This means users are free not only to create or modify elements of the platform to fit their own needs, but they are also liberated from vendors who want to lock them in to annual price hikes and other problematic behavior.

Users are free to mix and match a given open-source system with other open-source technical platforms, rather than, say, having to use a given vendor’s operating system because it only plays well with other software from that vendor. Users can expand their use of open-source platforms quickly and easily, without worrying about seat licenses and other compliance with contracts.

Cloud providers have historically built big server clusters by using open-source software on the hardware infrastructure. On the virtualization front, with the open- source licenses, the key principle is that licensees are free to use the open-source software for any purpose whatsoever.

In an intellectual property law course I took at Harvard a few years ago, I learned that this flexibility, unlike proprietary software, allows licensees to use the software on multiple machines, in multiple locations and without any conditions that would otherwise impede the licensees’ freedom. Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat’s president and CEO, said it best at the company’s annual summit “Without open source, clouds wouldn’t exist. Full stop.”

Addressing the Limitations of Open Source

Of course, no technological approach is perfect. Open source can present challenges, too. But on the whole, the upside is greater than the downside.

For instance, it is true that your company might need to bring aboard consultants or a full-time expert to help with learning the code. At the same time, your overall costs with open source will probably be substantially lower. In fact, the smartest enterprises can bring a $1 billion capital expenditure down to $11 million using open source.

In a similar vein, it is also true that users might not always know which other technologies your open source software plays well with and which it doesn’t, especially those on proprietary platforms. With open source, just as with proprietary technologies, there is sometimes a learning curve.

Some also might view open-source platforms as a security risk. Who makes sure that free code is also free of protective gaps? The answer: The open source community. People who evaluate the product fill holes in the security fabric.

An emerging class of Cloud Management Platform is rising to address the concerns of open source in a form that makes setting up virtual machines a simple process completed literally in minutes. Thanks to open source technology, that class of CMPs will provide all the security and robustness of proprietary technologies, only better, faster and cheaper.

It’s the difference between driving down to the video store to get a movie and simply spinning up the same film on Netflix whenever you want it. Oh, and speaking of Netflix, the firm has been releasing more components of its cloud platform and utilities as free and open-source software since 2011. Earlier this year, the company launched the Netflix Open Source Software Cloud Prize and announced the winners during AWS Re:Invent on November 2013.