Is the Cloud Stupid?

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It’s stupidity. It’s worse than stupidity: it’s a marketing hype campaign. Somebody is saying this is inevitable – and whenever you hear somebody saying that, it’s very likely to be a set of businesses campaigning to make it true.” – Richard Stallman, speaking to the Guardian about cloud computing

I don’t consider ours a business campaigning to make cloud computing anything at all: cloud computing is, after all, just one among many technology subjects that we cover. But count me among those less than intelligent by Stallman’s reckoning individuals that considers cloud computing inevitable. And actually, if one conflates – as Stallman appears to – SaaS applications like Google’s Gmail with cloud computing, I’ll go further and argue that’s it’s not inevitable, it’s done. Already.

Even communities, after all, that are staunch advocates of free software, are avid users of Gmail: just look at any project’s email list that you might care to. Given that, is it any surprise that your average user is less concerned about the threats Stallman perceives than wasting time running things they don’t have to? Or couldn’t? The history of this industry demonstrates quite adequately to me that users effectively don’t care much for the freedoms that Stallman and others nobly fight on their behalf for. We can argue about whether that’s good or bad, but I can’t see how you’d build the case that they do. Windows and Office have many virtues, but providing software freedom isn’t one of them – and yet they sell. And sell. And sell.

To be clear, I don’t mean that cloud computing or SaaS are inevitable in the sense that they replace all local or on premise infrastructure. There are far too many obstacles – be they network latency, compliance/regulatory issues or something as basic as customer trust – to project that. But the cloud is here to stay, in my view, because, well, it works.

Let’s consider an example. It makes little sense, I’d argue, for your average user, or small business, or – in many cases – medium business, to run their own email infrastructure. Outsourcing this capacity is merely sound practice; not least because a substantial portion of those audiences are simply incapable of running their own infrastructure. Stallman disagrees, arguing that you “do your own computing on your own computer with your copy of a freedom-respecting program.” But something tells me I’m not likely to interest, say, my parents in the configuration, setup and maintenance of their own MTA instances. Or sendmail. Or whatever. Let alone the freedoms associated with the codebase.

Thus their email is cloud based.

What of the loss of control that Stallman fears? Well, standards can effectively mitigate that risk in certain cases. We decided to move from Zimbra to Google Apps, and thanks to IMAP the process was simple. I don’t control the Google environment any more than I did our hosted Zimbra, but I control the data (to the extent that I can retrieve it, anyway). Which is my primary concern.

It’s not that Stallman’s necessarily wrong, please note. There are legitimate concerns here, and I’ve obviously been careful to select, as my example, one of the more standardized technologies on the planet. There are much smarter people than I thinking seriously about the implications of less standardized web applications and the control they exert. And Nick Carr has long believed – as he told Stephen Colbert – that Google is poised to exert scary control over our lives, down to the way we think.

But still, in the face of end user ignorance and the impracticality of his alternative, Stallman’s quest seems – at best – quixotic. Again. Only this time, I expect him to have rather less success than in years past.

Frankly, the interview struck me more as an attempt to enlist users of SaaS applications or cloud environments as unwitting allies in his admirable crusade to secure in perpetuity the rights to the software in question. An attempt, I believe, that is doomed to fail simply not because he is really wrong, but because the economics of cloud computing are materially different than that of the deployment approaches that preceded it. As I expect we’ll see in some detail following the implosion of our economy: I’m with Tim on that one. Who can’t afford boxes rented by the minute? The fact is that Google, or Amazon, or Yahoo, or IBM, or Sun, can build and run datacenters better than I can. And better than you can. It’s simple economies of scale at work, and self-hosted free software will find that difficult to compete with over time.

In traditional computing – be it a desktop or a datacenter – in which the end user is responsible for the infrastructure, the benefits of free software are many. But in the cloud, these benefits may be trumped – easily – by the ability to outsource the cost of building, maintaining and supporting the infrastructure the free (or proprietary) software might run on top of.

Users – plenty of them – will prefer to remain unbeholden to the cloud platform providers, whoever they might be.

But many, many more will – already have – chosen the cloud. Because they’d prefer that infrastructure be someone else’s problem. And while I could argue with this in certain instances, I certainly don’t believe that it is stupidity or worse than stupidity: it’s pragmatism.

All of which begs the question of whether or not cloud computing is a clear and present danger to either or both of the free software or open source movements. From his comments, it seems reasonable to deduce that Stallman does so regard it. As does one of the smarter journalists you’ll meet: one David Berlind.

Personally, I disagree. To quote Austin Milbarge, for once I am in complete agreement with my partner: far from marginalizing F/OSS, the cloud may well prove to be its most significant benefactor.

Consider, for a moment, that the F/OSS’s impact on the PC has been, desktop marketshare-wise, negligible. And that while successful in the server market, it is hardly dominant. Yet in the cloud, F/OSS is at present the rule, rather than the exception.

Amazon? Built on Xen, hosting only (to date) open source operating systems (Linux and, in alpha, OpenSolaris). Google App Engine? Only the folks in Mountain View what, precisely, it’s composed of, but there’s little question that the foundation is open source. The language (Python) and the primary framework (Django), meanwhile, are as well. And so on. Some of the success of F/OSS within the cloud is doubtless attributable to the specific players. By Ray Ozzie’s own admission, Amazon – a shop with deep experience in open source technologies – simply took the cloud market far more seriously than did Microsoft. If the roles were to be reversed, the makeup of the cloud might look radically different.

But the foundational role that F/OSS plays within the cloud ecosystem cannot be entirely attributed to the players. Licensing – or the lack thereof – played its part, as did the technology itself. For many would-be cloud providers, F/OSS is simply the best tool for the job.

Which is why I’m far more sanguine about the role that it will play within the cloud. Are there quite legitimate questions to be asked about the business models that fund these projects, and how the cloud may impact them? Indeed.

But a successful cloud, to me, cements the success of the open source that powers it. Play the next few years out, as an exercise. The cloud is ascendant, business models are being radically impacted, and the economics of software and software licensing – have been overturned. The same economics that fund today’s commercial open source development – in other words, the majority of the development done on large projects.

Unless you can foresee a role in which these large cloud providers – the majority of whom today are based off F/OSS platforms – can seamlessly migrate to closed source, proprietary alternatives, I wouldn’t worry. The money might come from different areas than it does today, but it will be there. And given the challenge that scaling large environments presents, I’m guessing the developers will be too.


  1. After recently skimming Galloway’s Protocol I feel inclined to note that the Stallman dichotomy of ‘freedom-respecting’ vs propriety is somewhat outmoded and superficial.

  2. Frankly, I think Ren Reynolds has hit the nail on the head there.

  3. Good post, Stephen. As you rightly emphasize, a key issue that seems to trouble Stallman’s view is that values that are vital to *him* aren’t vital to everyone. Now, I’m sure he *knows* this, but — at least from his comments — it’s not clear that he’s aware that it’s perfectly legitimate (even non-stupid) for people to hold such different views.

    I’m grateful for your thinking-through of this in the case of Amazon, since I’m basically non-technical and am familiar with their cloud endeavors only from the perspective of the business pages.

  4. Stallman’s argument falls to a basis of trust. He suggests that a Cloud operator will attempt to lock you in in the same fashion that software vendors did, (at least that’s the only interpretation of his argument that makes any sense) but really anyone running on a cloud is doing so with the assumption that they can move their code (and probably their data) with only a bit of trouble. As long as switching cost remains low, the Cloud isn’t a stupid place to be.

    Now, there’s another argument he could be making about the Cloud being fundamentally insecure, to which I would counter that relying on any hardware that you have not fabbed yourself is simply asking for some malicious network card vendor to design a backdoor. And surely you can’t trust anyone operating switches between you and whoever you’re communicating with; better start using TCP/IP over carrier pigeon.

    But, then again, this is a man who browses the web by having a mail server send him a wget dump of a page.

  5. […] it to the folks from Amazon to make a liar out of me. Tuesday night around 9:00 PM I wrote the following: In the cloud, F/OSS is at present the rule, rather than the exception…Amazon? […]

  6. Software as a commodity that is ownable implies different rights and constraints than software as a service. I think of the analogy of water. You can dig you own well and have to maintain it, and suffer if the aquifer runs dry (software as ownable). You can have a town well that everyone is entitled to and responsible for (Open Source) and you can have a water utility (cloud) that is incredibly easy to tap into and you pay as you go.

    What the current argument is not yet addressing are issues such as: with a majority participation and significant mass reliance on utility, what are the new market models emerge? And what happens if a significant portion of utilities begins to fail? Does regulation occur? Do governments step in?

  7. […] Eric have all helped to advance my thinking on the cloud subject, as have Hugh, Nick, Tim, Tim and Stephen. Its time (if I can find some) for a significant […]

  8. […] source? A: Not at all. One of the godfathers of the free software movement, Richard Stallman, has called cloud computing “stupidity.” Others have argued that software deployed to the cloud […]

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