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Weighing the perks, drawbacks of open source model

Open source cloud computing eliminates vendor restrictions and lock-in -- but those perks come at the cost of provider support.

With its mixed bag of drawbacks and perks, open source software can pose a dilemma for businesses.

On one hand, the open source model is appealing because there are no software payments and collaborators continually advance the software. The open source model also eliminates vendor lock-in, which is important, as cloud computing creates a mixture of threat and opportunity that often freezes vendors in place.

Yet, there are clear drawbacks to the open source model. There's no vendor to support the tool, no one to ensure high quality code, and no guarantee that an open source project isn't the messy outcome of a classic designed-by-committee process.

Some of the early progress in the cloud, particularly by OpenStack, grew out of work sponsored by public cloud vendor RackSpace and government agency NASA. Other popular cloud software platforms, including CloudStack, Eucalyptus, Nimbus and OpenNebula, also emerged from open source efforts. And all the major server vendors now support at least one open source cloud software platform.

For users, this means it is possible to select a cloud software platform and run it on virtually any x86 server or other server platforms. 

Open source support

Server independence preserves purchasing power for buyers, as it allows a company to play vendors against each other for the best price and terms. Vendor independence, however, always creates a collateral risk: lack of support.

While everyone supports open source cloud in the sense that they offer it, the technical support users expect from critical software may be difficult to obtain without committing to a specific vendor. Where do you go for an open source cloud problem when there are multiple different servers involved?

As cloud applications become more mainstream, the issue of support for open source cloud tools will become more important. Initial cloud use focused on simple applications of server consolidation, where the goal was to migrate apps to the public cloud.

Hybrid cloud applications that mingle public cloud hosting with a data center cloud deployment are increasingly common. An application component taking advantage of cloud's elasticity to move freely among servers is hard to pin down to a single vendor when a problem occurs. While unrealistic for most organizations, some larger ones can try to build open source teams to support their own cloud software.

To solve the open source cloud support problem, users identify three paths, and all involve paying for support rather than the software itself. One approach is to get the software from a company that sells support -- Red Hat being the most common.

A second way is to get a commercial software provider that offers open source cloud tools without bundling them with its own hardware. Oracle, for example, takes this tack in the cloud market.

The third choice is to hire a vendor or integrator to harmonize open source cloud software across a range of hardware platforms.

There are benefits and risks to each of these approaches, and users should examine all three options before firmly committing to a cloud strategy.

About the author:
Tom Nolle is president of
CIMI Corp., a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982.

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