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Open source tools are behind some of the biggest trends in cloud computing, and more vendors are releasing their code to attract developers.
This month, Microsoft open sourced its server-side .NET stack and expanded it to Linux and Mac OS, while Joyent, Inc., made its code public for its cloud and storage systems -- SmartDataCenter and Manta, respectively.
These moves follow the wave of interest behind OpenStack, Docker and other open source cloud computing tools flooding the market.
Open source is popular in cloud because it offers a low barrier to entry, said Dave Bartoletti, an analyst with Forrester Research, Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass. And because the major cloud vendors already use open source software to run at scale, there's a good chance that if you're interested in an open source tool, a cloud provider is already using it to operate thousands of instances, he added.
"Open source doesn't mean kludge-y stuff with no support any more," Bartoletti said. "It's in many cases the engine behind most new cloud platforms."
Investors and CEOs have a hard time seeing the value in open source, but that is changing as people learn that software is different from other manufactured and sold goods, said Bryan Cantrill, Joyent CTO. He pointed to the commercial success of Red Hat, Inc., and later waves of vendors such as Elasticsearch, Cloudera and Basho and Pivotal Software, Inc., as proof of the change in perspective.
"For too long, people felt open source meant 'I'm giving it away,'" Cantrill said. "That's not exactly the case. For most software companies, the value you provide to a customer who is paying you far exceeds the actual software artifact itself."
Dave Bartolettianalyst, Forrester Research, Inc.
Open source will continue to play a role in cloud, but it's important to look at the motives behind these decisions and remember that it's not just about adding value and creating community, said David Linthicum, senior vice president of Cloud Technology Partners, a cloud consultancy in Boston.
"It's a long-understood tactic when you're building products and cloud services," Linthicum said. "It creates additional marketing spin and a great way to exit [maintenance of] a product."
That same culture has now moved to cloud computing, so it's important for IT pros and developers to be diligent when they select their open source tools.
Cantrill readily admits his company's move isn't purely altruistic, saying it serves as differentiator from market leader Amazon Web Services (AWS) and others. Joyent, which recently rebranded itself around its own container technology, made a big bet on virtualized operating systems and is trying to take advantage of the Docker's popularity.
Cantrill also sees open source as a way to lure in talent by acquainting universities -- fertile grounds for highly skilled, cheap labor -- with the technology because they experiment and deploy almost exclusively with open source software.
"For us, open source is our farm system," Cantrill said. "In an environment where precious skills are hard to come by, that's not a small concern."
Open source everywhere
Docker and its promise of portability across platforms have become some of the most talked about ideas in cloud computing, despite being around for just 18 months. Google is leading one of the most prominent open source efforts around the container technology with its Kubernetes project, while seemingly every other cloud vendor, from AWS to VMware, supports Docker.
The original open source efforts such as MySQL and Linux centered on commoditization, not innovation, said Boris Renski, co-founder and CMO of OpenStack vendor Mirantis, Inc., based in Mountain View, Calif. Proprietary software makes sense when there is a limited set of people who know the industry and those players use their understanding to create value, but application infrastructure is not niche or vertical, he added.
"When it's horizontal and there are different people from slightly different areas tackling basically the same problem, you ultimately get to the point where it's not about their opinion," Renski said. "It's about a lot of people giving lots of points of view, and about velocity."
And while he's bullish on the future of open source in cloud computing, Renski acknowledged it's still moving slowly in an industry where vendors such as AWS dominate.
"Maybe in five years it's clearly going to tip," Renski said. "We already see a lot of open source in application today, but right now it's still primarily dominated by closed [source] vendors."
Trevor Jones is the news writer for SearchCloudComputing. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.