: The Economist, May 28th 2009. Direct link
Unlocking the cloud
Open-source software has won the argument. Now a new threat to openness looms
“FIRST they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Mahatma Gandhi probably never said these words, despite claims to the contrary, but they perfectly describe the progress of open-source software over the past 15 years or so. Such software, the underlying recipe for which is created by volunteers and distributed free online, was initially dismissed as the plaything of nerdy hobbyists. Big software firms derided the idea that anyone would put their trust in free software written by mysterious online collectives. Was it really secure? Whom would you call if it went wrong?
At the time, selling software to large companies was sometimes likened to drug dealing, because once a firm installed a piece of software, it had to pay a stream of licence fees for upgrades, security patches and technical support. Switching to a rival product was difficult and expensive. But with open-source software there was much less of a lock-in. There are no licence fees, and the file formats and data structures are open. Open-source software gained ground during the dotcom boom and even more so afterwards, as a way to cut costs.
Microsoft, the world’s biggest software company, went from laughing at the idea to fighting it, giving warning that there might be legal risks associated with using open-source software and even calling it a “cancer” that threatened to harm the industry. Yet the popularity of open-source programs such as the Linux operating system continued to grow. The fact that Google, the industry’s new giant, sits on a foundation of open-source code buried the idea that it was not powerful or reliable enough for heavy-duty use. One by one the industry’s giants embraced open source. Even Microsoft admits that drawing on the expertise of internet users to scrutinise and improve software has its merits, at least in some cases.
The argument has been won. It is now generally accepted that the future will involve a blend of both proprietary and open-source software. Traditional software companies have opened up some of their products, and many open-source companies have adopted a hybrid model in which they give away a basic version of their product and make money by selling proprietary add-ons (see article). The rise of software based on open, internet-based standards means worries about lock-in have become much less of a problem.
Clouding the picture
But now there is the danger of a new form of lock-in. “Cloud computing”—the delivery of computer services from vast warehouses of shared machines—enables companies and individuals to cut costs by handing over the running of their e-mail, customer databases or accounting software to someone else, and then accessing it over the internet. There are many advantages to this approach for both customers (lower cost, less complexity) and service providers (economies of scale). But customers risk losing control once again, in particular over their data, as they migrate into the cloud. Moving from one service provider to another could be even more difficult than switching between software packages in the old days. For a foretaste of this problem, try moving your MySpace profile to Facebook without manually retyping everything.
The obvious answer is to establish agreed standards for moving data between clouds. An industry effort to this effect kicked off in March. But cloud computing is still in its infancy, and setting standards too early could hamper innovation. So buyers of cloud-computing services must take account of the dangers of lock-in, and favour service providers who allow them to move data in and out of their systems without too much hassle. This will push providers to compete on openness from the outset—and ensure that the lessons from the success of open-source software are not lost in the clouds.