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Open data is the antidote to closed clouds

Keeping data open is critical to maintaining customer freedom in the shift to cloud computing, argues Sun CTO Greg Papadopoulos.

Open source is particularly well-suited to create cloud-computing systems, but such open-source ingredients won't necessarily result in open clouds. Indeed, cloud computing has the potential to lock users in as much as or more than desktop computing.

In a bitter irony, then, the more the cloud releases us from the crowded confines of our desktops, the more we risk allowing it to fetter our freedom, as Greg Papadopoulos, CTO and EVP of research and development at Sun Microsystems, suggested in a recent email exchange with me:

Greg Papadopoulos
Greg Papadopoulos Sun Microsystems

The growth of cloud computing threatens to have the unintended consequence of being a giant step backward for software freedom.

Because it's easy to use and architecturally progressive, we could find ourselves in a position where we're all using cloud services. But while there are open source technologies at its base, there are forces conspiring to make it proprietary. Companies building cloud services have spent millions, if not billions, to scale their grids, and ultimately they will have to prioritize either recouping that capital expense for their shareholders, or offering developers truly open access to infrastructure.

But it's not really the hardware or software at issue here. It's the data. Free software doesnt necessarily translate into free data, which is arguably the technology industry's next big battleground. "Data is the new Intel-inside," proclaims Tim O'Reilly, the source of lock-in and hence profit for technology companies like Google, Yahoo, Digg, and more.

So what are we to do? Cloud computing has too much momentum at this stage to take a Luddite's view and try to take a hammer to the data centers. The trick, suggests Papadopoulos, is to enter cloud offerings with eyes and options wide open:

The antidote is simple: demand open services. If you can't move your data to another service, easily and cost effectively, don't put it in. Take an activist position. Encourage your cloud operators to use open source software, with no gratuitous incompatibilities. Ask them to pledge their standards and intellectual property to OASIS or other open standards group.

Ultimately, if you demand open services, it will force cloud operators to compete on the basis of bringing innovation to market, rather than competing by lock-in. And with a free and open market ensured, the wave of creativity and innovation we saw unlocked during the open source era will repeat itself in the network.

It's a good point, but again, I don't think " operators to use open source software" does much to prevent lock-in, unless they actually make that software transparent and usable to end-users. Regardless, most, if not all of them, already use open source in abundance due to the quality of open-source components like MySQL.

No, the real emphasis must be on open data. Perhaps we need to invent open-data licenses, similar to open-source licenses. Perhaps the Open Source Initiative should get involved.

For me, guaranteeing open data is the most critical component of ensuring that cloud computing doesn't replace our desktop chains with cloud chains.

Follow me on Twitter at mjasay.