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FAQ: The lowdown on open source cloud computing

Major vendors and IT shops hype open source cloud products as the key to building a cloud environment. Before making the jump, you need all the facts.

Open source cloud vendors are gaining steam in IT departments of enterprises and small and medium-sized businesses...

alike. Experts agree that they’re set to make major waves in the cloud computing market as a whole, pointing to open source’s free model and the tools and benefits it can bring to your cloud environment. But, as with all cloud innovations, it’s met with a measure of precaution.

Could open source cloud be a boon to your business? These frequently asked questions offer information and tips on the benefits and drawbacks of using open source, what’s going on in the provider market and how to use open source to build your cloud.

Why should I consider building a cloud infrastructure with open source?

Let’s start with the most compelling reason for budget-conscious companies: Open source software is a lower-cost option than commercial cloud products that require user licenses. With open source, there are no expensive contracts and less of a chance to get locked in to one cloud vendor.  

Using open source means the source code is freely available for users to modify according to their business needs. Open source cloud software also gives users freedom from vendor lock-in and proprietary barriers. While proprietary vendors are holding tight to expensive licensing models, open source looks to the future, many experts say, giving companies the flexibility to use free tools to build and manage their clouds. And flexibility feeds innovation. Without a commercial owner, businesses regain control of their data. Expert buzz claims open source software can contribute to interoperability and improved return on investment (ROI), among many other positives.

Who are the big vendors in the open source market?

There are loads of open source vendors and projects from which to choose. OpenStack is currently causing the most hubbub, and some even consider it the biggest development in cloud computing to date. A project developed by NASA and Rackspace, OpenStack boasts big name customers like MercadoLibre, Disney, CERN and Wikimedia. But who says you have to use what NASA uses?

After HP, IBM and Intel threw support behind OpenStack, Eucalyptus, an open source option that had broad appeal, seemed to fade into the background. But don’t dismiss Eucalyptus so fast. Don’t forget cloud industry titan Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) EC2 platform is tied in with Eucalyptus.

OpenStack and Eucalyptus may be the major open source players, but plenty of other vendors offer niche open source products. Abiquo hopes to attract enterprise customers with the promise of managing clouds in a single interface, and Red Hat is growing quickly with support from many Fortune 1000 companies.

How are open source licensing models different than those of proprietary cloud vendors?

For a good example of differences between open source cloud models, it's helpful to compare Eucalyptus and OpenStack. Eucalyptus Systems’ Eucalyptus project is an example of commercial open source, while OpenStack is community open source. Commercial and community licensing models differ in terms of flexibility and support.

Commercial open source providers offer some fully open source software, but they offer bonus features and vendor support for those who are willing to shell out the cash. It’s also known as a partially closed open source offering. Community open source providers can be licensed to an unlimited number of users, unbound by the number of processors. Users have full, free access to the code and are able to make changes to fit their needs -- but are limited by their in-house abilities, or what they can derive from the user community, because they receive no vendor support.

There must be a downside to open source cloud. What are some red flags?

There’s a reason why large IT shops are interested in open source cloud but still hesitant to use big chunks of open source software. Even free, flexible models have restrictions. Consider using community open source tools, such as with OpenStack. If something goes wrong, who do you have to rely on? It’s easy to shake your finger at a community full of users who have assisted you, but it won’t garner any results. With open source cloud software, enterprise customers lose the ability to hold a vendor accountable for its problems.

It’s also important to consider the additional costs of open source: You may save some cash on licensing, but you’ll need to pay salaries of experienced in-house developers dedicated to the open source project or shell out money to hire an outside consultant to help stitch together your cloud.

Can I use open source tools to build my private cloud, too?

The public cloud market is abuzz with open source frenzy, but open source has gained popularity for constructing private clouds as well. Realizing the benefits open source’s flexible model has for public clouds, companies are toying with the idea of using its technology to create private clouds.

It should come as no surprise that companies have cited using, or at least considering, Eucalyptus and OpenStack to build internal private clouds. It’s important to remember, as with all cloud computing projects, security remains a concern. Appreciating its growing popularity, experts have stepped in with their advice on how to build a secure private cloud using OpenStack.

Caitlin White is the Associate Site Editor for SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact her at cwhite@techtarget.com.

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