Open-source cloud frameworks: A work in progress

Nimble and fast, open-source frameworks can simplify application deployment in the cloud. But they're not for everyone.

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Questionable Benefits?

Some observers question whether open-source frameworks really deliver the benefits they're said to offer -- such as portability among clouds providers. "Eucalyptus replicates some of the Amazon APIs, but if you're using something on Amazon [that] Eucalyptus doesn't support, you're out of luck," says Roby. "Similarly, if you're trying to run Java apps and using the Spring [application development] framework, you've got a fair amount of support." But as soon as a customer begins using features, such as data storage, that can't be accessed via Spring, those features may not run correctly with a different provider. Without the ability to move underlying services as well as the application code, he says, "you don't have any portability."

With open source, users (or a group of users) theoretically could take the source code and tweak it to meet their own needs if a vendor can't or won't. However, few users would want to do that, says Roby. "If you're a big telco, maybe you are interested in being able to change the code... but most organizations wouldn't do that. The last thing they want is to have their own specific variant of the product" that they would have to support, while losing the ability to take advantage of upgrades from others in the community, he says.

Creating a unique open-source "fork" is usually not something you want to do "unless you absolutely have to," agrees Conway, noting that the fork could stagnate without contributions from others.

Much buzz surrounds open source, but proprietary frameworks such as Microsoft Azure or Salesforce.com's Force.com can be better choices "if you have specific needs and that platform already has built-in [elements] to make the job easier," says Shriram Nataraj, senior director in the cloud technology practice at Persistent Systems, a global software development firm. "If you're already a Salesforce customer and want to migrate part of your workload onto a different platform, Force.com can be a very good option for you. If you're already an Office 365 customer and have workloads on [Microsoft's .Net framework]... it makes sense to go towards Microsoft Azure."

Good fits for open-source frameworks tend to include experimental cloud applications built by developers who are comfortable with newer, open-source tools. Other likely candidates include applications deployed by organizations such as universities or research labs, which have the technical skills to learn and work with these new technologies, and/or the need for specialized capabilities such as massive databases or advanced analytics, says Roby.

Typical apps deployed using open-source frameworks include Web and social applications, as well as mobile or customer-facing websites, says Jerry Chen, vice president of cloud and application services at VMware. Such frameworks are also useful when organizations need to deploy applications quickly and scale them up and down as needed.

Legacy applications requiring hardware or software that may not be supported on the Web tend to be less attractive candidates. "While it is very possible to migrate many data center applications from local servers onto [virtual] cloud-based ones, the ROI is not always clear," says Bill Weinberg, senior director of Olliance Group at software and services provider Black Duck Software. "The downside can lie in potential security issues, divergent response to loading, throughput bottlenecks and availability."

OpenStack and Cloudscale are better choices for complex applications than Eucalyptus, says Nataraj, because they do a better job of hiding the complexity of networking. For an application that, for example, requires a user "to connect from a different IP range," a customer would "have to write custom code to make that happen with Eucalyptus," he says. With OpenStack, the "switches" required to make those new network connections are already present.

The number and quality of developers involved in an open-source project can also be a good indication of the project's quality, many observers say. If developers from several companies are involved, vendor lock-in is less likely to be a problem, says Nataraj.

Roby, however, suggests focusing on a commercial vendor's level of commitment, rather than that of the community. "It's largely a myth that there's a lot of new code being developed by a large group of people," he says. "Any of these successful products are developed by a small group of people," with the community at large "providing feedback and maybe doing testing or providing documentation."

Miles also warns of "token" open-source efforts by partnerships among major vendors. "If both those companies don't really rely on the product for revenue, at any point in time either or both will just walk away, and the product will die," he warns.

The unconventional licensing terms that some open-source developers impose on their software, such as one requiring that "the Software shall be used for Good, not Evil," raise eyebrows in corporate legal departments. Posing a more serious problem are licenses that require a company to share any enhancements with other members of the community -- which creates the possibility that the company may have to reveal "best practices" to competitors.

Most experts interviewed say mainstream licenses such as Apache's don't impose such troublesome requirements. In any case, says Conway, his staff's processes and skills are just as important as any code he shares with others. And, he points out, open source also lets him use improvements made by others.

Open-source cloud frameworks have the potential to make it far easier for organizations to meet changing business needs by quickly deploying Web applications across public and private clouds. But to get those benefits, IT architects must sift through the various meanings that different vendors have for their "frameworks" and whether each framework can deliver the level of ease of use they need to meet their specific requirements.

Scheier is a veteran technology writer. He can be reached at bob@scheierassociates.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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