Friday, October 30, 2009

The Cloud vs. Open Source

Let’s get ready to rumble! Providing cloud services (a la Amazon AWS) is a business of slim margins. Because of this, cloud vendors are more than happy to exploit open source to keep their costs low. However, what happens when they siphon off support business from the open source vendors themselves? The cloud vendor becomes the single point of contact/support for the entire collection of tools, so who needs a support contract with the individual open source vendors? What revenue crumbs does this leave for the FOSS companies to live on? Not much.

The latest example of this trend is Amazon’s Relational Database Services (RDS). It is essentially a packaging and automation of vanilla MySQL. They automate set-up and administration. They also restrict things like slaves and replication, because they are a pain to manage. But they provide a failover solution (basically attaching your data to a fresh machine), which will address some use cases. The out-of-the-box integration with EBS makes it a breeze to work with. RDS makes it quick and painless to get MySQL running, so why roll your own on premise solution?

As competition in the cloud accelerates, I suspect that this trend will accelerate. Cloud vendors will integrate various tools, provide automation and become the single point of contact for support. This approach lowers the ultimate cost to consumers, simplifies their support process, and creates barriers to exit by customers, while maintaining the cloud vendors’ margins. In short, if you think the cloud is cannibalizing FOSS revenues now, you ain’t seen nuthin yet.

Soon we will see round two in this battle of the titans. Cloud vendors, in an effort to differentiate from one another will offer proprietary extensions/modifications to open source. It’s just a matter of time. These extensions may be developed in-house, or they may be acquired from third parties. What is the motivation to provide these extensions back to the open source community? Legally, the cloud vendors are fine, since they don’t redistribute the code. So why provide them back just to have your competitors integrate them into their own cloud services?

How could the FOSS community fight back? The only approach I see is the legal approach. If the FOSS license agreements redefine cloud/SaaS as being a form of distribution that requires open sourcing any extensions or modifications, they might have a chance. Maybe this comes in the form of a “hosting for third-parties use” clause or something. Otherwise, just like the classic Buggles song “Video Killed the Radio Star”, Cloud just might kill FOSS.


  1. Hi Mike

    The FOSS license that is to the cloud what GPL was to traditional software is Affero GPL:

    It is currently used very little. Like you say, probably if the cloud vendors are too aggressive, the FOSS movement will have to push back at some point. Remains to be seen. (Cloud vendors could - and should - also take a collaborative approach.)

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