Into The Great Wide Open: The Open-Source Cloud Revolution Takes Shape

The cloud is opening up as more open-source alternatives to proprietary players emerge.

While open source itself is nothing new -- and doesn't need grand promotion -- open source in the cloud is taking a fresh approach to the cloud model, and it's a space that has potential to shape the future of the cloud.

Currently, there are a handful of big-name, open-source cloud players out there: Eucalyptus,, and Open Nebula among them. Perhaps the most attention-getting open-source cloud is OpenStack, a joint open-source project between cloud player Rackspace and NASA that provides a full-cloud stack. And just last month, VMware pulled the curtain off of its Cloud Foundry open source platform-as-a-service project.

"Open source just seemed to be the logical step," said Rackspace Cloud President and Chief Strategy Officer Lew Moorman, calling OpenStack a "big change moment for the cloud space."

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According to Moorman, most service providers deliver value through services, support and other add-ons, so the underlying technology like the cloud stack, or data center operating system, are not key differentiators. Leveraging an open-source model in the cloud brings the industry closer to cloud standards, while also dropping costs and opening the door for innovation.

"It just seemed like an absolutely natural way to do it," he said. "There was a need for an open-source option that was built on the Linux model."

So far, OpenStack has had a trio of code releases, the most recent being the April launch of Cactus. And since OpenStack launched in July 2010 the project has welcomed 60 partners to the fold, including major players like Cisco and Dell, and has seen between 150 and 170 developers contributing code.

OpenStack has also taken on the persona of being "the anti-Amazon," meaning that it opens up what Amazon holds proprietary. "People view us and Amazon as rivals in our approach," Moorman said, adding that Amazon's proprietary nature isn't bad, but it's different than how OpenStack does things. "It's proprietary versus a standards-based model," he said.

And for solution providers, VARs and integrators, open-source cloud plays like OpenStack open up the door for complimentary offerings, plug ins and integrations, Moorman said.

"If you're going to deploy OpenStack as your core private cloud in-house, there's a lot of integration work that has to happen," he said, adding there are configuration choices that partners can also help their clients navigate.

Marten Mickos, CEO of Eucalyptus Systems, an open-source private cloud infrastructure software player, has long been a proponent of open-source models, dating back to his time with at the helm of MySQL. Eucalyptus has built itself into one of the marquee open-source clouds, and already has tens of thousands clouds in use.

"I always thought that open source was a superior way to do code," he said. "It's easy for others to integrate with the platform and build on top of it. Open source fits everywhere in the industry."

Next: Cloud Computing Might Not Exist Without Open Source

Open-source software has facilitated the development of cloud computing by providing developers and IT managers with an alternative to proprietary software, said Paul Cormier, executive vice president and president of products and technologies at Linux vendor Red Hat.

Cormier's comments on the parallels between cloud computing and open-source software came in a keynote speech this week at the company's annual Red Hat Summit conference in Boston.

"Cloud computing might not have been possible without open-source software," Cormier said, arguing that proprietary software locks customers into single-vendor software "stacks" that lack the flexibility cloud computing requires. "Cloud computing is built on open-source software."

An open-source approach to the cloud creates a host of benefits, Eucalyptus' Mickos said. Because it is a community environment, the code is examined by a group, making it easier to find bugs. Open source also has a swift development cycle and can get into users' hands more quickly.

There are some drawbacks, however. For instance, for open-source clouds to be successful, the project requires a specific governance model, Mickos said.

"At the end of the day, somebody's still calling the shots of which features should be developed," he said. A governance model is necessary, and finding the right governance model is key. If the model is too loose or too strict, it could hinder progress.

Monetizing an open-source project is also tricky. Many never have a business opportunity. But the cloud computing model is changing that, Mickos said.

According to Mickos, open-source cloud computing gives solution providers and partners the ability to add value with support and services.

"Open source has been a difficult thing for the channel," he said. "But the demand for the channel is higher for cloud. Customers now are saying 'We'd like cloud. We'd like it to be open source. And we would like help building and deploying it.'"

The channel's main role in open-source cloud computing, Mickos said, will be adding management and other mechanisms on top of the cloud. Through its partnership with MomentumSI, an Austin, Texas-based systems integrator, Eucalyptus is in the channel. MomentumSI builds open-source Eucalyptus clouds for customers with value added additions.

Jeff Schneider, CEO of MomentumSI said cloud computing was a strong fit for open source.

"We're entering into a new paradigm where you're allowed to break the rules," he said, adding that open source is about trying new things, innovating and experimenting to see what works. And from an integrator perspective, a lot of the work with open-source cloud computing is helping people understand what they want to do in the cloud, rolling out that strategy, integrating the components and guiding the cultural shift required to adapt.

Next: Open-Source Cloud: 'The Proof Will Be In The Pudding'

" But there is some caution and questioning necessary before taking the open-source cloud plunge", Schneider said.

"Any time you're dealing with open source, you have to determine whether it's a winner or a loser," Schneider said, noting that examining the project's momentum and story are critical. Equally critical is determining whether there are enough features and advantages to outweigh incumbent solutions.

Oftentimes, open-source projects can quickly churn out new services and offerings, making it a solid choice. And while open source isn't a hard sell, Schneider said most customers aren’t specifically concerned that their environments are built on open source technologies, but that they work and that their needs are met from a feature and function perspective.

"I don't think my customers care if it's open source," he said, but later added, "If they're not latching on to some of the open source solutions, they feel they're going to miss something."

Open source is also infiltrating how developers build and write cloud computing applications. According to Jerry Chen, VMware senior director of cloud applications and services, VMware's open source Cloud Foundry platform-as-a-service play goes was built on the premise that development and open source go hand-in-hand.

"In our view, developer tools and developer frameworks and open source are a really nice fit," he said. An open-source platform like Cloud Foundry makes it easier to write apps and Chen said that data shows developer-facing areas have the most adoption when they're open source.

Cloud Foundry specifically, he said, supports multiple languages, multiple services and multiple clouds.

Another feather in the cap of open source in the cloud is the lack of vendor lock-in. Cloud Foundry enables portable applications that aren't restricted to certain cloud providers.

Chen said partnerships with ISVs and SaaS vendors and with hosting providers are just two areas where the channel can play a role in Cloud Foundry, which is in beta for 2011 and will see a commercial release in 2012.

Rackspace's Moorman said that OpenStack and other open source cloud projects, like Cloud Foundry, are creating new and innovative ways to put applications into the cloud, with an agility that proprietary offerings can't compare to. In Amazon's case, "in order to really use that cloud well, you have to change the way you write apps."

Overall, however, Moorman said the open-source cloud revolution is just starting to take hold and there's a great deal of room for growth. Still, he said, there are enough users and partners interested in the cloud and making the leap to cloud environments that open source will have a strong place in the market moving forward.

"It's definitely new. It's definitely emerging, but the community responds pretty darn quickly," Moorman said. "But it's yearly days and the project is pretty young. The proof is going to be in the pudding."

Rick Whiting contributed to this article.