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Open source to shape cloud computing, but not dominate it

Open source has a role to play in cloud computing, but it's likely not to be the vanquisher of old, proprietary dominance.

Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady writes a bleak, but likely accurate, eulogy for open source's relevance to cloud computing. In a world where horsepower matters more than the software feeding those "horses," in terms of the entry cost to compete, and where big vendors like Amazon and Google are already divvying up the market, the odds of a small-fry, open-source start-up challenging "Goliath" are slim.

Peter Paul Rubens: David beats Goliath

It's not a new argument: Nick Carr has been suggesting for some time that only a few, big companies can afford relevance in this hardware-intensive business.

Given this fact, O'Grady thinks the best we can hope for (and he thinks it's pretty important) is "a loose coalition or confederation of [open-source] projects and vendors that will together comprise an increasingly viable top to bottom alternative to some of the cloud providers today." He includes projects like Puppet (Reductive Labs) and Hadoop in this mix, but is careful to point out that he doesn't see a full-fledged, open-source alternative seriously challenging the closed platforms of Google, Amazon, Salesforce, and the other mega-clouds.

This 'David' alternative to the 'Goliath' big vendors doesn't beat them, but instead helps to keep Goliath honest. Really, when you think about it for more than a few seconds, that's what open source has done for traditional computing, too.

Look around. The big vendors controlling IT and the Web are...the same vendors that controlled it yesterday, and are likely the same vendors that will control it 10 years from now. Sure, they'll swap places for a few years, but does anyone really believe that IBM and Microsoft won't still be cat-fighting a decade from now?

But now consider what open source has been doing, mostly behind the scenes. Open source is changing the way these big vendors operate, because it's altering customer expectations.

Open source has permeated Microsoft to the point that it is now considering throwing its weight behind the Spring Framework and other open-source projects.

Google, for its part, went from a happy consumer of open source to an active contributor to open source on a very big scale. Not because Google is "not evil," but because it realizes that open source can give it a competitive advantage in the market.

We'll see more of this as open source challenges otherwise proprietary vendors to compete through openness. We're already seeing some of this as vendors like Red Hat seek to claim parts of the cloud for open source.

In so doing, open source will continue to challenge and change the buying conversation, resetting expectations to transparency, something we desperately need: if the allegation that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is pressuring governments to buy Microsoft technologies is even remotely true, the best antidote may be open-source procurement policies.

In sum, don't expect open source to "win" in the cloud; at least, not in the form of an open-source vendor doing the winning. Rather, look to open source to influence, to shape the cloud.

Just like it has to traditional, proprietary software.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.