Open source vs. proprietary cloud provider platforms

Gina Narcisi

Open source cloud platforms like OpenStack, CloudStack and Eucalyptus offer providers access to a large pool of development resources, quicker updates and no vendor lock-in. While some cloud providers like the idea of building their cloud services on open source software, others prefer the full feature set and integration that a proprietary platform delivers, as well as the comfort of a service-level agreement, or SLA.

The industry remains split on open source vs. proprietary cloud platforms. A recent TechTarget survey found that 22% of 260 cloud providers have adopted OpenStack, while 29% of respondents who aren't using the platform have adopted a proprietary solution.

"Cloud providers are very familiar with commercial cloud platforms like VMware," said Agatha Poon, research manager for global cloud computing at the London-based consultancy 451 Research. "It's a big shift for providers to consider an open source platform that is newer and still evolving."

Open source vs. proprietary platforms: A cloud provider's dilemma

Proprietary cloud platforms appeal to providers that want to rely on their vendors for testing, development and integration, said James Staten, vice president and principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

Since having the right IT expertise in-house is a challenge for many cloud providers -- especially smaller ones, many choose a commercial vendor with a proprietary platform. "The amount of handholding a provider needs will depend on the amount of technical staff they have on board," he said.

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Open source platforms, however, are now mature enough to be deployed by cloud providers, Staten said. Providers that want a highly customizable platform with contributions from a broad range of developers are embracing open source, which translates to faster updates and upgrades. The ever-evolving nature of open source technology, on the other hand, can become a challenge for a cloud provider that might not have the expertise needed to manage complex technology, 451 Research's Poon said.

"OpenStack-based offerings need a lot of care and feeding after they are initially designed, and oftentimes, there are very old-school IT teams trying to wrap their heads around [open source technologies]," said Sean Lynch, CEO of Metacloud Inc., a Pasadena, Calif.-based cloud provider that built its Software as a Service, or SaaS, offerings on OpenStack.

While OpenStack can include complex technology, the open source platform was a good fit for Metacloud, which has in-house engineers handling the upgrades for clients, Lynch said. Metacloud didn't want to be tied to a vendor by choosing a proprietary platform, and didn't want its customers to feel locked in, either. "The self-service dashboard that OpenStack offers – Horizon, as well as Metacloud's extension of OpenStack's dashboard, are incredibly rich and feature-full, and allows customers to manage and provision their cloud," he said.

Open source or proprietary: Don't pick sides

A best-of-both-worlds or hybrid approach will emerge as open source platforms become more mature and cloud providers gain expertise, 451 Research's Poon said.

While not all providers are ready to support an open-source approach to cloud computing now, a proprietary cloud platform can lead to higher operational costs, thanks to reoccurring licensing fees. Providers won't want to be locked in with proprietary software for the long haul, Poon said. They will start to adopt a hybrid approach, depending on the needs and requirements of their end users.

"There will be a much more diverse type of users with certain requirements as the cloud market matures," Poon said. "[Providers] will need to have multiple technologies and platforms to support them, and the most suitable technologies for their target customers."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

View the next item in this Essential Guide: CloudStack vs. OpenStack: Competitors or allies? or view the full guide: OpenStack tutorial: A guide for cloud providers

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