Interoperability and Openness: Why an Open Cloud Is the Only Cloud for the Future

Published on October 10, 2013
by Mark Baker


Image copyright Ivo Pregelj

Enterprise attitudes toward the cloud are changing; there is no doubt about that. Taking a look at Gartner’s recent cloud projections for the current $130bn industry, the largest growth areas in enterprise cloud spending are for Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and cloud management and security, all critical business operations. Larger organizations are now prepared to utilize the cloud for far more than simply hosting email or non-critical applications, and it’s a sign that the cloud is coming of age.

Despite the trend toward cloud adoption, there is still debate around exactly what form it will take. One of the key reasons for moving to cloud infrastructure is the promise of agility that clouds are known to provide. Agility requires flexibility and so smart organizations are looking for cloud technologies that are going to give the greatest range of options. This is partly in response to the early days of cloud being dominated by largely closed, proprietary systems which could restrict the users both at a technical and a commercial level. Now, with more critical workloads moving to the cloud, organizations can’t feel comfortable entrusting their operations to a single vendor that potentially won’t meet all their needs for scalability, cost and other key factors. In fact, data and application portability are arguably more important to today’s enterprise than any specific technology, and, if organizations can’t move workloads in and out of clouds at will, they won’t want to use them.

Further, as organizations of all stripes juggle more and more data volumes and rely on increasingly complex applications, the rate at which they must adopt new IT infrastructure components is becoming exponential. Enterprises with diverse and rapidly evolving technology needs can’t settle for a closed cloud deployment characterized by excessive vendor lock-in. Rather, they need a flexible model where cloud components from various vendors are highly interoperable, meaning they can work together seamlessly, so that best-of-breed solutions can be combined in a way that builds a cloud tailored to the organization’s unique business model. Open source technologies are particularly valuable here because of their customizability and relatively high compatibility with other solutions.

An uptick in interoperability and openness among cloud vendors will ensure that vendor lock-in and closed ecosystems don’t strangle all the best business benefits out of the cloud: Cost efficiency, scalability, accessibility, reliability, etc. Additionally, interoperability supports the growing momentum of hybrid cloud strategies, which utilize any number of private and public cloud components that must be efficiently connected. These are all reasons why highly interoperable “open cloud” models, epitomized by the open source cloud platform OpenStack, are rapidly gaining ground among the myriad of startups, enterprises, telcos and service providers entering the cloud market today.

It’s Not Public vs. Private Anymore

In many ways, the shift to open clouds is intertwined with the shift to hybrid clouds. There has been much debate over whether private or public clouds will gain mainstream enterprise adoption, but it’s becoming clear that hybrid strategies utilizing both public and private clouds are, basically, the future. Canonical’s 2013 Server and Cloud Survey found that the number of organizations that had deployed a private cloud (41 percent) was significantly higher than those using a public cloud (27 percent). However, it’s not a simple matter of private trumping public cloud, with a further 15 percent already pursuing a hybrid cloud strategy. This number will only increase going forward; for example, North Bridge’s 2013 Future of Cloud Computing survey shows hybrid clouds overtaking both private and public clouds within five years.

The hybrid-cloud preference shows that organizations aren’t thinking in terms of public vs. private anymore, they just want to use what works best. And, if hybrid is the future of cloud in the enterprise, then organizations need easy and cost-effective ways to move data and applications from local environments to hosted clouds and back again, using technology from whatever vendor suits their needs best, without noticing the difference. Highly efficient cloud environments demand that all the cloud components are highly interoperable, and, therefore, preferably open.

What Makes an Open Cloud?

It’s worth defining “open” when it comes to the cloud, because the word is used by many vendors and service providers almost as freely as “cloud” is. The definition of open begins with the definition of freedom: “exemption from external control, interference or regulation.” This sounds idealistic, but it is an underpinning of the sort of open-source technology that has supported profitable organizations for decades, in the form of enterprise Linux for example.

However, a truly open cloud is not just open in terms of its technology (for example exposing the underlying code of software), but also in terms of the business practices underpinning it. In fact, both technology and cloud services marketed as being open can be just as binding in terms of contracts and subscriptions as proprietary technology. So the solution to true cloud interoperability and openness can’t rest on open source solutions alone, but rather in building both flexible cloud environments and open business practices.

In fact, every vendor with a play in the cloud market has a vested interest in adopting open business practices, which include allowing users to freely move data and workloads from one cloud platform to another without penalty, and minimizing the degree to which users are restricted by contracts and other commitments. If they don’t loosen their grip over users, vendors will find customers leaving them for cloud technologies and services that provide more flexibility, and therefore efficiency.

An open cloud world embraces hardware and software interoperability, is relatively free from binding contracts and allows for the free movement of data, applications and workloads from one cloud platform to another. For organizations that can’t afford downtime or the loss of their critical workloads — which is nearly everyone — there is no alternative to this flexible approach to cloud. In short, many principles of an open cloud mimic those of an ideal free market economy, creating something of a “free cloud economy”: Embracing these fundamental principles, open cloud providers will compete to deliver better services because customers can easily take their workloads elsewhere.

Proof Points for the Open Cloud

In the not so distant past, the open source cloud was a sort of science project or idealistic endeavor that attracted a lot of skepticism about whether it could work for the enterprise (or work at all). Yet, a mere three years after its founding, OpenStack has become a major force to be reckoned with and the cloud platform of choice for a large number of leading enterprises, telcos and more. These include no small number of household names: AT&T, Bloomberg, Best Buy, Deutsche Telekom and HP, for example, are all OpenStack users. Chances are, you’ve “interacted” with an OpenStack cloud and not even known it.

The ongoing open cloud revolution is coinciding with skyrocketing demands for application scale-out and innovation. Today’s business-critical applications must be able to grow and cope with rising data volumes and technical complexity, and open and interoperable clouds are the best way to address this need. This is because they can be deployed on existing infrastructure without huge new capital expenditures for hardware and software, and they can “grow” more easily due to their across-the-board compatibility. This versatility allows open clouds to be quickly patched into other clouds when additional scale is needed; so, even startups that have resource demands that change monthly, if not daily, can rely on an open cloud to grow alongside their business.

Open clouds are highly versatile, scalable and cost-effective, all fundamental promises of the cloud to begin with, and that’s why the shift to the open model is occurring so rapidly. However, there’s still a long way to go before we can call the open cloud case “settled.” Looking forward, every player in the free cloud economy must work to ensure user expectations are satisfied. The sooner vendors and service providers acknowledge the importance of becoming more open in terms of their technology, as well as their business practices, the sooner everyone can get more from the cloud.

While it’s nice for some to imagine a world free from proprietary ecosystems, open source and proprietary players can easily work together to make open clouds work. It’s already happening, with large legacy vendors supporting a diverse array of hardware, operating systems and applications. This mindset of openness and interoperability is a surefire way to increase cloud adoption, as well as smooth the transition to increasingly popular hybrid cloud models. The result is an approach to the cloud that is profitable and beneficial for everyone — something even the most traditional software company can’t argue with.

Mark Baker is currently working at Canonical in Product Strategy for Ubuntu Server and Cloud. He has more than 20 years of experience managing business development and marketing at leading software companies including MySQL, Red Hat and Oracle.

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