Monday, April 09, 2012

Of open source licenses and open cloud APIs

Last week was active in the cloud world with Citrix sending CloudStack to the Apache Software Foundation and pulling out of the OpenStack project. Of course, there's been much fevered commentary, some smart--and some not so much.

[To be even more explicit than usual, I work as a Cloud Evangelist at Red Hat, which has partnerships, competes with, and/or has other relationships with various companies and projects mentioned. The opinions I express here are mine alone, should not be taken as official Red Hat positions, and are in no way based on non-public information.]

The basic facts about Citrix' April 3 announcement are as follows. As stated in their press release, "Citrix CloudStack 3 will be released today under Apache License 2.0, and the community will become part of the highly successful Apache Incubator program." CloudStack is an Infrastructure-as-a-Service cloud management product that came into Citrix by way of its acquisition of in 2011. Not stated in the press release, but widely reported, was that Citrix was pulling out of OpenStack, the open source project on which it had previously planned to focus under the codename Project Olympus.

Those are the basics. Now for some observations.

Without overly downplaying this announcement, it highlighted the unfortunate rush in the press, blogs, and twitter to crown winners even in the early stages of a technology trend. Suddenly, OpenStack--which lots of folks had widely promoted as having "won" the cloud race--was being talked about as yesterday's news. Lest we forget, a different platform had been being talked up as the inevitable winner the year before that. Analyst Steven O'Grady at RedMonk has a typically more nuanced view: "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."

I have my own views and am obviously a big believer in Red Hat's cloud projects and position. I'm not going to get into those here but just point out that we're in the very early stages of a long and complicated game. I'd also point out that cloud management isn't one size fits all; different products/projects such as Red Hat's CloudForms and OpenStack address different use cases.
Steven among others also observes that the shift of CloudStack into Apache, and the corresponding shift of the code from the GPL license to the more permissive Apache license represents an overall trend:
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.
I agree with Steven. I wrote about the topic in more detail in a CNET Blog Network post last year. In addition to encouraging participation, as Steven notes, I also speculate that the success of open source as a development and innovation model has made open source projects less leery of protecting their code from freeloaders as the terms of a copyleft license attempts to do. (A copyleft license basically means that if you make changes to the code and distribute those changes in the form of a binary, you need to distribute the source code with the changes also.)

Red Hat also uses Apache licensing for projects such as the Deltacloud API (which is also governed by the Apache Software Foundation and which recently graduated from Incubator status--where CloudStack is today--to a top level project) and Project Aeolus (one of the main upstream projects for Red Hat CloudForms hybrid cloud management).

Another point about last week's happenings worth a mention is the API discussion. Application Programming Interfaces are the mechanism that lets you communicate with virtualization platforms and cloud providers. Arguably, they don't get enough attention. For example, what incantations do you need to make in order to spin up a machine image on Amazon?

By way of background, the Amazon APIs--at least those for doing relatively lowest-common-denominator tasks that pretty much any IaaS cloud needs to do--have come to be regarded by some as de facto standards. Which is to say, not really standards but things that are omnipresent enough that they can effectively be regarded as such. Formats, such as the specifics of images that run on Amazon are separate but related issue; I won't touch on those further here even though they're at least equally important.

Well, maybe.

One of the key points in the Citrix announcement was that the "proposed Apache CloudStack project will make it easier for customers of all types to deliver cloud services on a platform that is open, powerful, flexible and 'Proven Amazon Compatible.'" In other words, build an AWS-compatible private cloud. We've seen this before with Eucalyptus, which had its own announcement about a supposedly expanded relationship with Amazon a couple of weeks back.

It turns out there's a bit of a wrinkle though. I first got a hint of it from a twitter post by Netflix cloud architect Adrian Cockcroft. Which led me to this post by Gartner's Lydia Leong in which she writes: "With this partnership, Eucalyptus has formally licensed the Amazon API. There’s been a lot of speculation on what this means." As far as anybody knows, Citrix does not have a corresponding license from Amazon.

Why does this matter?

It matters because open APIs are one of the key characteristics of an open cloud. And this should serve as something of a wakeup call. Perhaps, as Lydia suggests in another post:
I think it comes down to the following: If Amazon believes that they can innovate faster, drive lower costs, and deliver better service than all of their competitors that are using the same APIs (or, for that matter, enterprises who are using those same APIs), then it is to their advantage to encourage as many ways to “on-ramp” onto those APIs as possible, with the expectation that they will switch onto the superior Amazon platform over time.
However, the fact that these APIs can be licensed and that one or more vendors believes there to be business advantage to licensing those APIs should set off at least gentle alarms. At the least, it raises questions about what behaviors Amazon could at least potentially restrict in the absence of an explicit license.

Over at Forbes, Dan Woods asks:
Are there limits to the use of Amazon’s APIs?
How will community experience inform the evolution of Amazon’s APIs?
What is the process that will govern the evolution of the Amazon APIs?
These and others are good questions to ask. For history has shown time and time again that de facto open is not open. Times change and companies change.
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