What Does Open Source Have to Say about Cloud Computing?

"I've looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it's cloud illusions I recall, I really don't know clouds at all" (Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now).

I spent yesterday at a session on cloud computing. The main event was a presentation by a senior technical staff member of a research lab operated by one of the world's largest technology companies, and Joni Mitchell's legendary lyrics from Both Sides Now kept running through my mind. The speaker took us through the evolution of computers: (i) starting from centralized computing, where there was first a single machine supporting multiple users and tasks (think IBM 360); (ii) the 1980s shift to inexpensive personal computers, first a single machine for a single task and later for multi-tasks, and then back to separate machines per workload, for separate tasks; (iii) the rise of virtualization, where physical devices and resources became distinguished from logical entities operating on virtual machines; (iv) culminating in the jettisoning of the on-site data centre in favour of large off-site facilities that can be accessed for applications and storage as needed.

So far so good--that is what I came to hear. What followed, however, took me aback. In parallel with some edifying comments about the grey area of how cloud licensing fees are calculated, where paying per use is not quite so, the speaker began to elegize more generally about the cloud computing enterprise. It turns out that already, in 1961, a "visionary" from MIT (John McCarthy) spoke about organizing computers "as a public utility". The development of cloud computing centres is now ushering in a new area, where collaboration of shared online resources on a hitherto unimagined scale can now occur. Furthering this collaboration is the dream of "federation of cooperating computing clouds" (sort of a digital Star Trek) that will then provide infinite infrastructure that will be able to meet the ends of an endless number of users anywhere and any time. This Federation will be made up of private clouds, partner clouds, and public clouds.

Thomas Watson of IBM famously mis-said in 1943 that there was room for only about five computers (hah,hah, hah). Well, in the world of clouds "there are only five computers on earth ... that can turn electricity into computing power", quoting Stephen Baker of Businesweekcom. So Watson was right after all. Not really, in fact, as Clay Shirky likes to say, having regard to the internet as one large progammable machine, "Watson was off by four" (Wired Magazine Q&A with Nicholas Carr). The cloud computing world will bring us all together, where collaboration and unlimited scalability will reign.

Listening to these observations, tinged with the hue of "true believer" status, the thought occured to me that cloud computing should have a natural partner in the open source community, where collaboration is central. So I did a bit of checking and in particular, tried to find out what the high priest of open source, Richard Stallman, had to say on the topic. A Google search quickly brought me to a September 30, 2008 item that appeared on CNET News entitled "Stallman: Cloud Computing is 'Stupidity' ". Stallman stated bluntly: "[C]loud computing is 'stupidity' that will ultimately will result in vendor lock-in and escalating costs." He then went on to observe:
(i) " 'The interesting thing about cloud computing is that we've redefined cloud computing to include everything that we already do' " (as quoted in the Guardian).

(ii) "[C]loud computing forces people to hand over control of their information to a third party. ... One reason you should not use Web applications to do your computing is that you lose control", he said. "It's just as bad as using a proprietary program."

(iii) "Do your own computing on your own computer with a copy of a freedom-respecting program. If you use a proprietary program or somebody else's Web server, you're defenseless. You're putty in the hands of whoever developed that software."

(iv) "It's stupidity. It's worse than stupidity: it's a marketing hype campaign," he said. "Somebody is saying this is inevitable--and whenever you hear somebody saying that, it's very likely to be a set of business campaigns to make it true."
Despite all of the talk about the ability of cloud computing to enhance collaboration, from Stallman's perspective, cloud computing is cursed with the original sin of proprietary software and systems. Open source and cloud computing can never be ideological soulmates. Perhaps the lesson for cloud computing taken from Stallman's biting comments is simply to eschew grand visions for the technology. Cloud computing is not about digitial metaphysics, much less about teleology. It is (or maybe it is not) another material stage in the development of computation, connectivity, communication and productivity. Those are daunting enough goals, even without the unnecessary overlay of rhetorical flourish.

More on Joni Mitchell here
More on appreciation of clouds here
More on true believers here
What Does Open Source Have to Say about Cloud Computing? What Does Open Source Have to Say about Cloud Computing? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, April 23, 2010 Rating: 5


  1. If Richard Stallman is the high priest of anything it is Free Software. His opinion of the term Open Source is as clear as his opinion of Cloud Computing.

    Open Source is, at best, contained within Free Software.

    In an information society/knowledge economy there is an equivalence between information and money, except of course if money is converted, there is the possibility of rescission or restitution.

    Once you know my information there is nothing this side of the Human Rights Act that can cause you to unknow it.

    Further, Hayek (my shoddy precis) once said there are three kinds of money: my money, our money and your money, which kind do you think I take most care of?

    Financial institutions, in general, seem to have safeguards in place to stop employees removing from the workplace and dropping bundles of fifty pound notes in a car park or carelessly transferring money to the wrong accounts.

    Those "in charge" of your data, whether voluntarily given or not, continually fail to show the same level of regard, most recently, the Gwent Police emailing a spreadsheet of CRB checked individuals to an IT journalist:


    Laptops containing sensitive databases get stolen, (it is irrelevant that it was burglary rather than mugging) USB sticks containing everything carelessly lost, then there is unauthorised use of this data


    I could have gone on to the consequences of the mistakes arising from from bad or wrongly accessed data but restrict myself to one of many


    All in all I think I'd rather listen to the high priest of Free Software than the high priests of software patents.

    BTW I have no relationship with the source other than that of reader.

  2. I just note that professor Chris Reed´s meteorological piece at
    about clouds, shows no signe of volcano-ashes...

  3. Gentoo,

    I find your comment confusing.

    You seem to indicate that a guiding rule in the knowledge economy is that money and information are equivalent, but then follow that with a rather large exception. To that exception, you then provide contractual remedies. But economies are not limited to contractual law - you have civil (tort) and criminal aspects that can come into play.

    You seem to denigrate Stallman's understanding of Cloud Computing, yet follow with a view that Cloud Computing is indeed "bad" - leading one to think that "no" remedies would be available (your ommission of civil and criminal law).

    You end in an endorsement of Stallman. Now granted, that is based on your either/or presentation, but the choices are of course more plentiful than that.

    For example, a choice of full law (including patent law) is obviously better than either listed option (Open Source is hardly a high priest of software patents).


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