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Beware the hidden costs of open source cloud computing

Many businesses assume open source cloud is cheaper than proprietary models. But that's not always the case, as many costs are often overlooked.

By now, we've all heard of open source cloud computing systems, such as OpenStack and CloudStack, and the value they bring to the enterprise. After all, it's a compelling concept. The code is free and, through modifications or working with the organization that cultivates the open source software, enterprises have complete control over the systems.

However, the true cost of open source cloud computing may be greater than expected. The cost of support, tools, skills and other expenses related to open source clouds are not readily apparent. Even though the software is open and free, there are still many costs to consider. In some cases, open source cloud technology may even be more expensive than proprietary clouds.

OpenStack vs. cloud's big three

For the most part, the cloud contest comes down to the well-defined open source infrastructure as a service -- OpenStack -- vs. the major providers -- Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft. Many IT vendors, such as HP, Red Hat, Cisco and IBM, offer their own OpenStack distributions. Users can also directly get a copy of the open source code.

OpenStack vendors provide the software for free, but charge for support services. More importantly, they also charge for the necessary related software.

So, when pricing out an open source cloud project, regardless of the open source cloud you're looking to use, factor in expenses for these four items or tasks:

  1. Localizing the code distribution for your problem domain
  2. A cloud management system
  3. Cloud security and governance
  4. Acceptance testing

These costs typically stem from labor, not technology. In the case of OpenStack, there's a lot of highly involved and technical work to do to prepare the stack for use. For example, OpenStack operators are responsible for tasks such as configuration management, patching, upgrades, monitoring, capacity forecasting and management, billing or chargeback, and integration with other internal infrastructure and tools. While distribution providers are making the installation and configuration more turnkey, there's still much more work involved than using a public cloud.

Public cloud vs. private cloud

In addition to OpenStack vs. the major cloud providers, choosing an open source cloud system comes down to private cloud vs. public cloud. While there are some open source public clouds, most open source clouds are private clouds. With private clouds, users must buy and maintain the hardware and software. Therefore, whether proprietary or open, private clouds almost always cost more than public clouds. Additionally, to correctly configure and install the open source software, many private cloud users need to hire an army of consultants.

When comparing costs, enterprises should consider the "all-in costs" associated with cloud operation over the years. Open source clouds are typically more expensive early on, but may provide cost advantages through ongoing operations. However, when considering costs over a five-year period, public proprietary clouds may still cost much less.

Most enterprises don't consider these open source costs and, as a result, quickly toss affordability out the window. Users are quick to note that open source software is free, but often overlook installation and deployment costs.

At the end of the day, enterprises should choose the cloud that best aligns to their beliefs. Some choose AWS, while others are Google or Microsoft shops. The rest are sold on open source -- no matter the cost.

About the author:
David "Dave" S. Linthicum is senior vice president of Cloud Technology Partners and an internationally recognized cloud industry expert and thought leader. He is the author or co-author of 13 books on computing, including the best-selling
Enterprise Application Integration. Linthicum keynotes at many leading technology conferences on cloud computing, SOA, enterprise application integration and enterprise architecture.

His latest book is Cloud Computing and SOA Convergence in Your Enterprise: A Step-by-Step Guide. His industry experience includes tenures as chief technology officer and CEO of several successful software companies and upper-level management positions in Fortune 100 companies. In addition, he was an associate professor of computer science for eight years and continues to lecture at major technical colleges and universities, including the University of Virginia, Arizona State University and the University of Wisconsin.

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