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16 February 2011, 15:03

Is the open source cloud computing dream evaporating?

by Glyn Moody

It's hard to avoid cloud computing these days, with vendors lining up to support this latest incarnation of an idea that goes all the way back to terminals hanging off a mainframe. In many ways, that's unfortunate, since the idea of computing 'in the cloud' poses particular problems for free software.

Not surprisingly, Richard Stallman was one of the first and most vocal critics of this approach and its growing bandwagon:

"It's stupidity. It's worse than stupidity: it's a marketing hype campaign," he told The Guardian. "Somebody is saying this is inevitable – and whenever you hear somebody saying that, it's very likely to be a set of businesses campaigning to make it true." The 55-year-old New Yorker said that computer users should be keen to keep their information in their own hands, rather than hand it over to a third party.

Well, maybe they should, but the convenience of cloud computing is undeniable. Simply saying people shouldn't use Facebook or Gmail is hardly a viable strategy: doing so just makes free software look out of touch. Eben Moglen admitted as much when I interviewed him for The H Open Source last year:

GM: Do you think free software has been a little slow to address the problems [of cloud computing] you describe?

EM: Yes, I think that's correct. I think it is conceptually difficult, and it is to a large degree difficult because we are having generational change. After a talk [I gave recently], a young woman came up to me and she said: I'm 23 years old, and none of my friends care about privacy. And that's another important thing, right?, because we make software now using the brains and hands and energies of people who are growing up in a world which has been already affected by all of this. Richard or I can sound rather old-fashioned.

At least Moglen had a partial plan when I spoke to him at that time:

What I am proposing is that we build a social networking stack based around the existing free software we have, which is pretty much the same existing free software the server-side social networking stacks are built on; and we provide ourselves with an appliance which contains a free distribution everybody can make as much of as they want, and cheap hardware of a type which is going to take over the world whether we do it or we don't, because it's so attractive a form factor and function, at the price.

That grand vision hasn't really materialised yet, although we do have pieces of it – things like the much-ballyhooed Diaspora, which is progressing, albeit rather slowly.

The trouble is, while open projects like Diaspora gradually get going, the proprietary incumbents are storming away, adding millions of users each day. In addition, more and more companies are turning to cloud computing as a way of running their businesses – and that means even more people locked into relatively closed architectures (even if they may be running GNU/Linux apps on them.)

What is needed is an open cloud computing platform – something like this:

Rackspace Hosting (NYSE:RAX) today announced the launch of OpenStack, an open-source cloud platform designed to foster the emergence of technology standards and cloud interoperability. Rackspace, the leading specialist in the hosting and cloud computing industry, is donating the code that powers its Cloud Files and Cloud Servers public-cloud offerings to the OpenStack project. The project will also incorporate technology that powers the NASA Nebula Cloud Platform. Rackspace and NASA plan to actively collaborate on joint technology development and leverage the efforts of open-source software developers worldwide.


OpenStack will feature several cloud infrastructure components including a fully distributed object store based on Rackspace Cloud Files, available today at The next component planned for release is a scalable compute-provisioning engine based on the NASA Nebula cloud technology and Rackspace Cloud Servers technology. It is expected to be available later this year. Using these components, organizations would be able to turn physical hardware into scalable and extensible cloud environments using the same code currently in production serving tens of thousands of customers and large government projects.

That was back in July of last year, and it signalled a conscious move to create a truly open, er, stack for cloud computing. But could they keep to that open goal?

Next: The OpenStack Promise

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