'Free' may do more for cloud than VMware, Microsoft or Amazon ever did

Open source cloud code makes it possible to get foggy without big costs.

For technology that's supposed to make all other types of technology merge invisibly into one big mass of techno-mash, cloud computing has a lot of interoperability problems.

PAAS services like Azure are easy to use to launch single apps, but you can't change anything later; IAAS lets you change everything, but there's a data-center-sized learning curve before you can do much.

You can't move apps from one to another even if the systems you're using share the same acronym. Once you get into a cloud, you, or at least your applications, are stuck.

Maybe not for long, though, depending on how quickly the market crumbles before the power of free.

Last month the open-source development organization set up by managed-hoster Rackspace released the first open-source version of the APACHE software stack and formerly proprietary code Rackspace uses to run its own PAAS and IAAS cloud services.

Rather than poof out into open space and be ignored, as not nearly enough me-too cloud-technology announcements are, OpenStack started attracting attention, and not just from open-source geeks looking for free software.

"We're seeing a lot of service providers, telcos, smaller hosters who don't want to pay what it costs to run [a cloud service] on VMware, and a lot of large enterprises," according to Lew Moorman, president of the cloud service and chief strategy officer at Rackspace. "Development has also accelerated just unbelievably. Microsoft ponied up the money to add support for Hyper-V; we didn't have to do that. So customers have that much more choice in what components they want in their own cloud."

Free is famous for not being a sustainable business model, which is one reason Larry Ellison is clashing with open-source Java developers.

But Oracle sells software for a living; Rackspace runs software for a living.

"Even people running it internally are going to want to federate their cloud infrastructures, so we're likely to see more business there," Moorman said.

"The most important thing is open source helps to commoditize the whole space, which makes the plane of competition more round and lets us compete on how you take some commoditized core services and operationalize them and what services you add around them, not just the platform," Moorman said.

Rackspace is still small potatoes compared to Amazon's EC2 and Microsoft's Azure, but may not stay that way for long. Cloud computing in all its various forms -- SAAS, PAAS, IAAS -- are all becoming more similar as PAAS vendors add more flexibility to become more IAAS-like and IAAS vendors make install-and-implementation simpler to emulate PAAS services.

Eventually both public and private cloud platforms will have to meet basic requirements of internal corporate computing, like the ability to reliably track data and who is using it, track user access, monitor and manage performance across platforms provided by several vendors, all from a console in IT, according to Chris Wolf, VP of research and infrastructure analyst at Burton Group.

To reach that point cloud platforms have to reach some level of standardization so that -- even if commoditization accomplishes nothing else -- end users can either know the difference between IAAS or PAAS, or not care because they can just pick the functions they want from a single menu no matter which acronym the provider displays.

Open-sourcing cloud software at so immature a stage in the development of a big and complex technology is a surprise, especially from a company known for good servcies but not for revolutionizing markets.

According to Moorman, it's not Rackspace doing the revolutionizing, though. It's the people picking up the free software and starting to use it for things they couldn't afford before.

"It's only two weeks since we released the latest version, so there are a lot of proof of concepts going on, but it's been really surprising how many people have picked up on it," he said.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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