Who Gets to Decide How the Cloud Works?

A battle to set the model for cloud infrastructure is raging, according to Jim Whitehurst, president and CEO of Red Hat.

“We’re at a fork in the road,” Whitehurst told a packed room of more than 200 people at the Open Source Business Conference Monday. “Now is the time that we’re going to choose the dominant model for this next paradigm of computing.”

The battle lines have been drawn between large users of open source systems and software such as Facebook and Google on the one hand, and huge legacy vendors with proprietary systems on the other, Whitehurst said.

“We see a lot of interest in both cloud computing and open source from today’s dominant vendors,” Max Schireson, president of 10gen, told TechNewsWorld.

Who Fights Whom, and Why

The cloud has so far been built on the principle of openness and collaboration “simply because users have been ahead of vendors,” Whitehurst stated. However, increasing numbers of vendors are investing in and building real products that can work in the cloud, he added.

“Are we going to let the same group of vendors who controlled the last generation of computing come in and define the layers of the stack?” Whitehurst continued. “Or are we going to change to an open model where users are involved, where the contract between vendors and users is fundamentally different and changed?”

Legacy players won’t be able to control the cloud infrastructure stack, Bill Roth, executive vice president at LogLogic and a pioneer in the open source movement, told TechNewsWorld.

“Vendors, being last-generation technology people, will never define the next platform because they’re too stuck in the old technology,” Roth explained. “They have the innovator’s dilemma — they have to make rational decisions, take care of their current platform and take care of their current customers, so innovating a new platform runs counter to what they have to do.”

Watch the Sparks Fly

The battle for dominance of the cloud infrastructure stack is likely to be long and hard.

“Given the billions of dollars that are at stake here I expect it to be a very lively debate,” Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

“I think we’re seeing legacy vendors such as IBM and HP trying to control the cloud stack right now in the way they deliver some cloud solutions based on their proprietary stacks,” King suggested.

“I see the traditional systems vendors working very hard to argue for the benefits of their proprietary systems in the cloud,” King elaborated. “You have, for example, IBM insisting that the mainframe is the cloud.”

These legacy vendors do have an audience for their products that consists of their dedicated customers, King pointed out.

The legacy vendors will fight, and fight hard.

For example, Microsoft on Monday announced at its annual TechEd conference Monday that the next release of Microsoft System Center will be key to a unified cloud strategy.

“New vendors can build what the market needs,” LogLogic’s Roth said. “Old-line vendors will never be able to define the platform, but at some point they’ll be able to market it.”

The New Face of Computing?

Nobody controls the cloud now because end users such as Google, Facebook and Amazon built it themselves, Whitehurst said.

“We’ve gone from users working at a layer to commoditize or open a layer within a software stack to an entire architecture being driven by users,” Whitehurst remarked.

That fact will change the relationship between vendors and their customers, Red Hat’s Whitehurst predicted.

“Vendors can no longer proscribe the roadmap for their customers,” Whitehurst elaborated. “They have to work collaboratively with customers.”

The winners going forward in cloud computing will be the ones who “build the best architectures of participation,” Whitehurst opined. “It’s about getting the large group of users together to help solve their own problems.”

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

However, infighting among cloud computing vendors may impact the adoption of open source, Whitehurst indicated.

Several players in the cloud space have developed their own infrastructure stacks, although OpenStack, which is backed by major players such as Dell, Rackspace, Citrix, Cisco, Canonical and NASA, seems to be gaining ground.

“I think there will be a couple of decision points soon where customers have to decide — are public clouds going to be the next vertical stack?” Whitehurst asked. “Will we have the Amazon stack and the Rackspace stack where, once you write code, you’re stuck in the code forever? Or are we going to have an open stack where you can write code and it runs on every stack?”

Chances are, a small number of stacks will dominate because users and vendors building on top of platforms want to bet on the leading platforms, 10gen’s Schireson said. He expects “one or two, or possibly three,” but not more.

How applications and clouds evolve over the next four to five years will determine the issue, Whitehurst stated.

“If we don’t get collaboration across these clouds, we’ll baffle innovation and the very things that make open source so powerful today will evaporate,” Whitehurst predicted.

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