When I left HP for Oracle, in the summer of 2007, a friend made the argument that Cloud Computing (I think we were still saying “Utility Computing” at the time) would be the death of proprietary software.
There was a lot to support this view. EC2 was one year old and its usage was overwhelmingly based on open source software (OSS). For proprietary software, there was no clear understanding of how licensing terms applied to Cloud deployments. Not only would most sales reps not know the answer, back then they probably wouldn’t have comprehended the question.
Two and a half years later… well it doesn’t look all that different at first blush. EC2 seems to still be a largely OSS-dominated playground. Especially since the most obvious (though not necessarily the most accurate) measure is to peruse the description/content of public AMIs. They are (predictably since you can’t generally redistribute proprietary software) almost entirely OSS-based, with the exception of the public AMIs provided by software vendors themselves (Oracle, IBM…).
And yet the situation has improved for usage of proprietary software in the Cloud. Most software vendors have embraced Cloud deployments and clarified licensing issues (taking the example of Oracle, here is its Cloud Computing Center page, an overview of the licensing policy for Cloud deployments and the AWS/Oracle partnership page to encourage the use of Oracle software on EC2; none of this existed in 2007).
But these can be called reactive adaptations. At best (depending on the variability of your load and whether you use an Unlimited License Agreement), these moves have brought the “proprietary vs. OSS” debate in the Cloud back to the same parameters as for on-premise deployments. They have simply corrected the initial challenge of not even knowing how to license proprietary software for Cloud deployments.
But it’s not stopping here. What we are seeing is some of the parameters for the “proprietary vs. OSS” debate become more friendly towards proprietary software in the Cloud than on-premise. I am referring to the emergence of EC2 instances for which the software licenses are included in the per-hour rate for server instances. This pretty much removes license management as a concern altogether. The main example is Windows EC2 instances. As a user, you don’t have to deal with any Windows license consideration. You just request a machine and use it. Which of course doesn’t mean you are not paying for Windows. These Windows instances are more expensive than comparable Linux instances (e.g. $0.34 versus $0.48 per hour in the case of a “standard/large” instance) and Amazon takes care of paying Microsoft.
The removal of license management as a concern may not make a big difference to large corporations that have an Unlimited License Agreement, but for smaller companies it may take a chunk out of the reasons to use open source software. Not only do you not have to track license usage (and renewal), you never have to spend time with a sales rep. You don’t have to ask yourself at what point in your beta program you’ve moved from a legitimate use of the (often free) development license to a situation in which you need a production license. Including the software license directly in the cost of the base Cloud resource (e.g. the virtual machine instance) makes planning (and auto-scaling) easier: you use the same algorithm as in the “free license” situation, just with a different per hour cost. The trade-off becomes quantitative rather than qualitative. You can trade a given software stack against a faster CPU or more memory or more storage, depending on which combination serves your needs better. It doesn’t matter if the value you get from the instance comes from the software in the image or the hardware. This moves IaaS closer to PaaS (force.com doesn’t itemize your bill between hardware cost and software cost). Anything that makes IaaS more like PaaS is good for IaaS.
From an earlier post, about virtual appliances:
As with all things computer-related, the issue is going to get blurrier and then irrelevant . The great thing about software is that there is no solid line. In this case, we will eventually get more customized appliances (via appliance builders or model-driven appliance generation) blurring the line between installed software and appliance-based software.
I was referring to a blurring line in terms of how software is managed, but it’s also true in terms of how it is licensed.
There are of course many other reasons (than license management) why people use open source software rather than proprietary. The most obvious being the cost of the license (which, as we have seen, doesn’t go away but just gets incorporated in the base Cloud instance rate). Or they may simply prefer a given open source product independently of any licensing aspect. Some need access to the underlying code, to customize/improve it for their purpose. Or they may be leery of depending on one entity for the long-term viability of their platform. There may even be some who suspect any software that they don’t examine/compile themselves to contain backdoors (though these people are presumably not candidates for Cloud deployments in he first place). Etc. These reasons remain pretty much unchanged in the Cloud. But, anecdotally at least, removing license management concerns from both manual and automated tasks is a big improvement.
If Cloud providers get it right (which would require being smarter than wireless service providers, a low bar) and software vendors play ball, the “proprietary vs. OSS” debate may become more favorable to proprietary software in the Cloud than it is on-premise. For the benefit of customers, software vendors and Cloud providers. Hopefully Amazon will succeed where telcos mostly failed, in providing a convenient application metering/billing service for 3rd-party software offered on top of their infrastructural services (without otherwise getting in the way). Anybody remembers the Minitel? Today we’d call that a “Terminal as a Service” offering and if it did one thing well (beyond displaying green characters) it was billing. Which reminds me, I probably still have one in my parent’s basement.
[Note: every page of this blog mentions, at the bottom, that "the statements and opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent those of Oracle Corporation" but in this case I will repeat it here, in the body of the post.]