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5 Ways Cloud Computing Is Like Open Source

Marx referred specifically to Louis Napoleon's coup d'etat in 1851, which came nearly 52 years after his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, seized power in France in similar fashion. He might as well have been commenting on cloud computing, though.

The reaction of many in IT to cloud computing is eerily similar to initial responses by similarly placed people in regard to open-source software. One can view this latest set of reactions as a farcical repeat after the initial open-source struggle-and one can predict a repeat of the outcome, as cloud computing is undoubtedly going to emerge successful, just as open source did.

You may not remember the angst of the early- to mid-2000s, when the open source debate raged hot and heavy. Many times I witnessed IT professionals vociferously denigrate open source in favor of established proprietary vendors. I heard endless arguments about the quality disadvantages of open source, the lack of "professional ability" among open-source developers, the absolute requirement that a large company stand behind a software component used in a corporate system, the dangers of lack of indemnification, and on and on. According to large numbers of IT organization staff, open source was a toy, fine for unimportant hobby systems, but woefully inadequate for "real" corporate IT applications.

From the Vault: The Myths of Open Source

It was a field day for the IT industry-and in the end, all of that sturm and drang came to nothing. Open source triumphed. Corporate systems today routinely include a range of open-source components as a matter of course. One can argue that most of the new software components that corporations are using are, in fact, open source. I would even argue that, today, most of the innovation in infrastructure software is occurring in open-source projects, not proprietary products.

In Due Time, Cloud Computing Will Catch On, Too

Consequently, one does not need to be Carnac the Magnificent to predict that the enormous controversy surrounding cloud computing will, in the end, result in the same outcome. Cloud computing resembles open source in many ways and will succeed for much the same reasons-and in the face of much the same kind of dismissive disdain by mainstream IT.

Think I'm overstating the vehemence of IT professionals regarding cloud computing? Let me quote from a comment submitted to one of my recent blog postings:

Seems each and every article that comes off with this 'cloud' holy grail, yada yada stuff has a direct financial gain at stake with cloud adoption. You know, you haven't come up with anything at all that's new, and all this talk of moving control to third parties is laughable at best. I have had to deal with too many third party entities, and especially when it comes to email, that is a HUGE mistake. With that comment the author showed his lack of expertise with Enterprise IT, and I realized then for sure, the article was from one with $$ to gain, and they could care less about what IT has worked so hard for ober the years to gain contrrol of. (sic) Likewise the yo-yos who talk of toyblets and BYOT (T for toy, leave 'em at home kids)

Leaving aside the ad hominem aspects of the comment, this virulent aspersion to cloud computing is completely reminiscent of many, many that I heard from IT professionals regarding open source.

However, I can state with confidence that the end result of this controversy will be exactly the same-cloud computing will emerge triumphant, having been widely adopted despite the hostile reactions of many IT professionals.

Why the confidence? Because many of the reasons people embraced open source apply to cloud computing, and many of the benefits of open source are also associated with cloud computing. Let's look at the reasons and benefits more closely.

1. Cloud Computing Provides Ease of Access.

It's hard to remember, but before open source hit its stride, it was really hard to get access to software. Vendors didn't make products available for download; even "developer" copies required payment and couldn't be accessed without a discussion with a sales rep. Open source changed all that. You could download the software at any time and, critically, get started immediately. It seems obvious in retrospect, but this created a preference for open source among programmers. Immediate availability became the norm and the standard operating procedure.

Cloud computing delivers the same kind of easy access and provides the same kind of benefits vis-a-vis the existing modus operandi. In many organizations, it can take weeks to obtain compute resources; cloud providers offer resources in minutes. If you're a developer, don't you think the ease of cloud computing is going to become what you expect?

2. Cloud Computing Costs Less.

As noted above, in the bad old days software vendors used to charge-a lot-for developer copies. And when it came time to put an application into production, the price tags got even bigger.

Open source wasn't just cheaper. It was free. The outcome was predictable. The use of open source exploded as people embraced less expensive ways to develop applications-this in the face of aggressive and unrelenting denigration by established vendors and many senior IT executives. Even though established authority figures criticized open source, developers flocked to it, with the end result that it spread throughout IT applications and infrastructures.

The same phenomenon is happening with cloud computing-and in the face of the same denigration and FUD. Despite many, many examples of cloud-based applications costing far less than traditional hosting models, I have heard IT professionals confidently state that their organization can deliver services more cheaply than cloud providers. This usually takes the form of comparing the cost of a piece of on-premise hardware to the same capacity obtained from a cloud provider and concluding that internal IT can deliver with less cost.

Tellingly, when they are asked about what the loaded cost of associated services like ongoing system administration, not to mention IT support personnel such as HR and finance, one usually discovers that they have no idea what those costs are or how much should be applied to the on-premise option to enable a fully-loaded cost comparison.

One can predict that cloud computing will witness the same explosion of use as its lower costs start to be internalized in project budgeting assumptions and projects that couldn't have been justified in the past become economically viable as apps in the cloud.

3. The Cloud Fosters Experimentation and Innovation.

When something costs a lot, one treats it carefully. In software terms, expensive proprietary software reduces most organization's willingness take on projects that aren't absolutely necessary, for fear of making a mistake and wasting money. Obviously, this means organizations are less willing to try something new when outcomes, even if potentially highly successful, are unpredictable.

Analysis: Is Your Cloud Project Read to be Agile?

When open source became available, it meant that trying something new cost much less, so it was less important to approach new projects cautiously. Open source encouraged experimentation and fostered innovation. IT organizations could try something out-and quickly, due to ease of access-and determine if it held promise. If the experiment proved to be unrewarding, little was lost, and the project could be easily scrapped, making it possible to pursue other, more promising options.

The low cost of cloud computing has the same kind of effect. When IT personnel consider doing something-whether it's prototyping a new application, developing a new business offering or putting together a proof of concept to share with customers or users-the possibility that it can be done for just a few dollars means that they will give it a go. If it doesn't work, little is lost. I have seen many examples of organizations developing innovative applications in cloud environments because the cost of failure is so much lower than ever before.

4. The Cloud Lowers the Cost of Uncertainty.

Another reason IT organizations have traditionally been conservative about new software investments is because established applications have much less uncertainty associated with them. Since the investment is going into something that the organization is already familiar with, it has much more ability to predict how the application will be used and how its user base and load will grow.

The downside of doing something innovative is that it might take off-which, when expensive proprietary software is in the mix, could end up being highly expensive. Doing something just like everything done before means much less probability of getting an emergency request for a budget variance to buy more costly software.

How-to: 5 Best Practices for Test and Development Projects in the Cloud

Open source, of course, reduces the cost of uncertainty tremendously. If application load grows, no problem-more software can be installed to support the increased load without having to spend a lot of money. Likewise, cloud computing makes obtaining incremental resources to support application growth much less expensive than in the past. This means there is less cost associated with uncertainty, which means less downside potential.

In the future, we can expect IT organizations that embrace cloud computing to be much more willing to move forward with less fear that an application might experience huge adoption, since the resources necessary to respond to much larger loads are easily obtainable.

5. The Cloud Challenges IT the Same Way Open Source Did.

Of course, we should not overlook the fact that open-source adoption, while irresistible, was not painless. Many organizations needed to learn new skills to successfully use open source: interacting with communities rather than calling support; assessing the maturity of the product by means other than vendor employee count or revenue level, and, of course, using a funny license unlike the traditional software products. It all worked out in the end. However, organizations that resisted or delayed open source adoption suffered from excess IT spend, reduced agility and even lower employee satisfaction.

It's pretty obvious that cloud computing will follow the same track as open source. For all the emotional brouhaha, we can safely forecast that, despite BYOD protestations like the blog comment included earlier in this post, five years from now IT organizations will still be enormous. The question for CIOs, in Marxist terms, is this-if you lived through a tragedy over open-source adoption, will you now live through a farce as your organizations decides how to incorporate cloud computing?

Bernard Golden is CEO of consulting firm HyperStratus, which specializes in virtualization, cloud computing and related issues. He is also the author of "Virtualization for Dummies," the best-selling book on virtualization to date. Most recently Wired named him one of the Top 10 Cloud Influencers and Thought Leaders. Follow Bernard Golden on Twitter @bernardgolden.

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