Open Cloud Initiative launch fights cloud lock in

New initiative applies four freedoms to cloud data management

The Open Cloud Initiative was announced at OSCON Tuesday--a new advocacy organization that seeks to deliver the Four Freedoms to a new frontier: cloud services. 

Recent history has strongly suggested that cloud service providers are very eager to use customer data for their own purposes (and bottom lines), and decidedly less eager to give that data up.

Tech headlines have been pointing this out for some time, but lately general news outlets, such as CBS News, are posting commentaries and news items about the data practices of Facebook, Google, and Apple--practices where data is assumed to belong to the service, not the user.

Data on these and other Web and cloud services is often locked into the service itself. If Gmail were to go off the air tomorrow, how many millions of users would completely lose not only the ability to communicate presently, but also lose any archived messages? Are messages regularly backed up? In fact, how does one back up Gmail? Sure, you can use a standalone POP or IMAP client and pull down the messages to your local machine--and hope you have enough storage capacity--but you don't get all of your content in this way.

And that's just Gmail: what about all the other Google services? Google's Data Libration Front was a good step in the right direction, and the new Google Takeout product launched in June 2011 is evidence of that.

But then there is the issue of control, another hallmark of ownership. Who sees the data on Gmail? What processes are looking at those messages in the Inbox, seeing a few occurrences of the word "habit," and concluding an ad for a twelve-step program would be appropriate to display?

For all the emphasis the open source community has on the freedom surrounding software used, that same community is often willing to sacrifice the same measure of freedom for their data--a far more personal aspect of their online lives.

Open data is a solution to the problem that many users may not recognize they have: how to keep their data accessible and controlled in an environment where that data is increasing online and typically out of control and (at times) inaccessible.

It's not just individual consumer-users: businesses have a vested interest in open data, as well. Cloud-based services are hugely popular, and vow to protect customer data. But terms-of-use policies must be closely examined to determine exactly what happens to customer data if the terms of service are violated. What recourse does the customer have? Are their appeal processes in place for dispute? And--most critically--what happens to the customer's data if the service is cut off? Entire businesses could collapse within days to get data access sorted out during a terms of service dispute.

These are just some of the issues that the Open Cloud Initiative was created to address. The driving event behind the OCI was the introduction of the Open Cloud Principles by Google's Sam Johnston in 2009

Johnston's principles would be the start of a two-year conversation amongst key individuals in the open source community who passionately felt that the Open Cloud Principles (OCP) were not just good on paper, but were something that had to be implemented for the sake of data consumers and cloud service providers.

After Tuesday's announcement, I had a chance to talk to three members of the OCI's board, Sam Ramji, John Mark Walker, and Simon Wardley. Walker, who is VP on the board, explained that Johnston's ideas led to a lot of innovation and conversations about how to properly apply the OCP to the cloud services industry, in much the same way the Open Source Initiative applied the four freedoms to the software development sector.

The principles are pretty straightforward. Cloud services, the three board members explained, should have:

  • Interoperability with other services
  • Lowered barriers to entry or exit
  • Technological neutrality
  • No discrimination
  • Open standards for formats and interfaces 

Note, Walker emphasized that the service's license is not a key factor in the OCP. "It's not good enough to be open source. The services should be open, not necessarily the licences," Walker said.

Ramji elaborated that the neutrality principle was very key, and the OCI would not look at a participant's business model, technology, or license for their software. All that matters is keeping the data open.

There is some open source that will be in the mix; in order to ensure interoperability of data, Wardley explained, there will need to be an open source reference model for accessing the data. Think of it as a Rosetta Stone that, when accompanying the open data, prevents the need to have participants in the OCI adhere to any one set of data standards.

The interesting thing about the OCI, if it works, is that consumer pressure for open data should give the OCI "badge" real value, making providers more willing to jump in. All three OCI board members emphasized that consumers--think developers and enterprise-level customers--will be more willing to jump into the cloud with OCI in place because it reduces the one big obstacle holding potential cloud customers back: lock in.

With the problem of lock in reduced or eliminated, cloud customers would be more willing to jump on board, thus creating what could be a positive feedback loop between cloud providers and customers.

Right now, the OCI, which is set up as a non-profit, is enteraining requests for comments on the principles for the next 30 days. Meanwhile, they will continue to lay the groundwork for certification and implementation of those principles once they are finalized. 

The OCI seems to be a natural evolution on how to manage the cloud and assert freedom on the business of the cloud. As the membership expands, it should be a great asset to the cloud and broader IT community.

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