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The Open Source Implications of the CloudStack Announcement

Most of the commentary regarding the donation of the CloudStack assets to the Apache Software Foundation by Citrix yesterday has centered around the landscape implications. This is understandable, because CloudStack’s break from OpenStack has an impact on multiple communities.

Given the stakes involved with the cloud market, the growing number of market entrants is no surprise. Incumbents like Microsoft and VMware cannot afford to be locked out of the cloud; what’s more, each vendor’s leaership understands the financial opportunities associated with owning the platform. Amazon, which is for all practical purposes the Microsoft or VMware of the cloud, can and will leverage their position to simultaneously undermine competitors and preemptively defend lines of attack. If this means creating ancillary private cloud markets and leaving money on the table in the process – as they may with Eucalyptus and now CloudStack – so be it. Everyone who’s not Amazon or aligned with them, meanwhile, from Joyent to Rackspace, is intent on ensuring that Amazon’s tenure as the Microsoft of the cloud is as short as possible. If that means open sourcing what would have been considered core software in the process – as with Rackspace and OpenStack – so be it.

That landscape, as convoluted as it appears, is fairly well understood within the industry. While everyone wants to predict outcomes on project and API futures, the fact is that it’s too early in most cases to project accurately. The CloudStack transaction, however, does make obvious certain facts regarding the licensing mechanisms and governance models employed by the various projects.

Permissive Licensing Continues to Make Gains

Since 2009 we’ve been predicting (and observing) gains for permissive licensing at the expense of copyleft or reciprocal alternatives. Reciprocal licenses, which require that any changes to a licensed asset that are distributed be made available under the exact same terms, have in the past been employed to disincent forks and to create artificial purchase triggers (e.g. dual licensing). As forks have become something to encourage rather than fight, however, one justification for the usage of copyleft licenses has faded.

Faded to the point that permissive licenses are increasingly seen as a license of choice for maximizing participation and community size. It’s not true that copyleft licenses are unable to form large communities; Linux and MySQL are two of the largest open source communities in existence, and both assets are reciprocally licensed. But the case can be made that this will in future be perceived as anachronistic behavior.

Commerical entities in particular favor permissive licenses like the Apache Software Foundation’s , because they impose very little overhead. As Cloudera CEO Mike Olson – whose first business was built around reciprocal licensing, but whose Hadoop business is built around Apache – says of permissive licenses, “There’s very little legal complexity for people to deal with.” Permissively licensed assets can be repackaged and sold as closed source software, for example, per the terms of the license itself. For projects, then, that wish to encourage the participation and engagement of commerical vendors, the permissive license can be a good, differentiating, choice.

Citrix is being less than explicit about this, but it is probable that as they continue to build an ecosystem around CloudStack, one of the “features” they’ll cite is the permissive license which allows would be players to leverage the code however they see fit. Contrast this, for example, with Eucalyptus, which is at present governed by the reciprocal GPLv3 license.

The same license, in fact, that CloudStack left behind in favor of the ASF’s more permissive license.

The Asymmetry of Permissive vs Reciprocal

Permissive licensing isn’t an unequivocal win for the CloudStack project, however. Underreported is the licensing asymmetry created by Citrix’s relicensing of the CloudStack assets. Because of the licensing mechanisms involved, the Eucalyptus project will now be able to incorporate code from CloudStack – or OpenStack, for that matter – at will. Technical innovations within Eucalyptus, meanwhile, are protected from usage by permissively licensed cloud stacks. Code sharing, in this case, is unidirectional towards Eucalyptus. CloudStack also forfeits similar protections from the OpenStack project; anything that OpenStack wishes to consume from CloudStack, they will now be able to, per the terms of the new licensing scheme.

Historically, this has not been a particularly important dynamic. MySQL, for example, has no major history of incorporating code from the more permissively licensed PostgreSQL. But with the cloud stack projects’ broader scope and mandate, it is not out of the realm of possibility to believe that Eucalyptus may opportunistically incorporate features or components from CloudStack, OpenStack or both.

You Won’t Get Fired for Using Apache

In the wake of GitHub’s meteoric ascension, there have been many questions about the role of open source foundations like Apache or Eclipse today. There are those who argue, in fact, that they have outlived their original purpose; see, for example, Mikeal Rogers’ “Apache Considered Harmful.” But while it is certain that foundations will need to adapt to changing needs, there are many reasons yet to justify their existence [coverage]. One of which is branding.

Citrix was very careful to put the Apache Software Foundation front and center in their announcement. This does two things. First, it allows them to benefit from the halo effect of the Apache brand and the goodwill of becoming a sponsor. Second, it differentiates them from two of the more visible alternative open source cloud stacks. Eucalyptus is primarily a single vendor initiative, much as MySQL once was. OpenStack is developed by a broader community of participants, and is being transitioned to a foundation. But that process has not been without its growing pains, with one of the co-founders questioning the governance structure.

Contrast that with CloudStack and the ASF. The latter is a known quantity, and vendors like IBM have historically advantaged Apache at the expense of independent foundations (e.g. their OpenOffice.org participation). What the ultimate impact of the Apache brand will be on CloudStack’s visibility and traction remains to be seen, but it’s undeniable that the Apache brand is being positioned as a feature for the project.

Disclosure: The ASF, Citrix, Eclipse Foundation, Eucalyptus, GitHub, Joyent, Microsoft, and VMware are clients. Rackspace has been a client in the past. Amazon is not a RedMonk client.

Categories: Cloud, Open Source.