Cloud computing: A natural conclusion of open source?

Open source arguably provides the foundation and raison d'etre for cloud computing, but whether the cloud will keep to the open-source conscience remains to be seen.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Tim O'Reilly has been stating for years that open source qua licensing is dead, and that the real debate/interest has moved to open source's attributes of open, community-based collaboration. Despite Tim's consistent message, it has only been recently that it has started to sink in for me, with an "ah-ha" moment hitting me halfway through a podcast recording with Geva Perry and James Urquhart on the interplay between open source and cloud computing.

Some of us are just slow, I guess.

Over the past few years, the open-source community, in all its different colors and hues, has demanded that the technology world pay attention to software freedom and its tendency to lower cost, improve interoperability, and more. This freedom is accomplished through open-source licenses like the GNU General Public License.

Along the way, however, open-source businesses started making an adjacent argument that freedom of code ensured maximum choice in selecting a vendor to support that code. While not absolutely true, this argument served to separate the idea of services that complement software from the software itself.

While open-source entrepreneurs initially intended such services to mean "support" and "consulting," the industry has taken open source to one logical conclusion and has crowned "services" as the only important software outcome. In other words, no one cares about Google because it's running PHP or Java or whatever. No one cares about the underlying software at all; at least, its users don't.

Instead, the discussion has moved, as Tim predicted, to the services Google and other new-school "software companies" provide.

Open-source licenses, in this world of cloud computing services, are either irrelevant or obtrusive. Irrelevant, because most OSI-approved open-source licenses don't even apply to network-based software.

Obtrusive, because they focus on the wrong guarantor of freedom. The real questions going forward relate to open standards and open data, because developers don't necessarily need to interact with Google at the source-code level: open APIs, more than open-source code, matter more in networked software.

I believe that open source remains a critical way to backstop the best intentions of those signing up to provide open data. But this should be just one part of the conversation and, as Tim has been telling us, it's not the most important part. ("Architecture trumps licensing every time," he notes.)

What we need, really, is for open source to be married to open standards and open data. Some get this, like the city of Vancouver, which is now moving to an amalgamation of open source, open data, and open standards. Open source is the starting point, but it proves impotent on its own.

The cloud takes open source to its logical conclusion, crowning services (the output of software) as king, rather than fettering us to a discussion of software (the input). Each has a part to play, but open-source licensing is no longer the most important, or interesting, part.

As much as anything, cloud computing has borrowed from open source in terms of its governing principles, which could well be open source's lasting contribution to the cloud. It took a few decades of Microsoft dominance to really get the open-source movement in full swing, but it only took a few months for things like the Open Cloud Consortium to spring to life. Open source has taught us to expect openness by default. The cloud is no different.

Open source, then, has made an indelible imprint on cloud computing. It gave it life by providing the raw material upon which many private and public clouds are built. It gave it a conscience by setting the industry's default principle to openness.

Whether this conscience holds firm is up to us.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.