LinuxCon: All About Clouds

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Almost every single keynote at LinuxCon, and certainly every private conversation I had with folks here, involved “cloud” in some way. As Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst observed in his keynote, there’s no single definition of “cloud”. There’s no doubt that Amazon has really pioneered the default cloud offering, but there’s a lot of work going on to build better, more robust, and more open cloud solutions.

Red Hat has OpenShift, their Platform as a Service offering, and CloudForms, their Infrastructure as a Service offering. The long-term vision, according to Whitehurst, is that a company’s developers would begin building something on OpenShift, and not worry about any of the underlying infrastructure. When that product is ready to be deployed internally, it would go on the customer’s CloudForms installation inside the company’s firewall. Basically, developers will select the platform and operations can then own and manage that platform.

Canonical is pushing Ensemble, their “service orchestration” solution. Rather than think about applications, Canonical wants to see folks start thinking about services. Rather than deploy a web server application that talks to a database application to present information and receive input from Internet visitors, instead think of a “blog service” that you can deploy through a series of recipes. According to Canonical’s Allison Randal, Canonical feels that Amazon’s AWS sets a good standard, and the Amazon APIs should be adopted by everyone. This will allow users of cloud services to have some modicum of portability: if my cloud provider jacks up their prices, I should be able to transition smoothly to a different cloud provider — or onto my own private cloud — because the underlying mechanisms for interacting with it (the published APIs) should be the same between providers.

When Randal told me this, I was initially skeptical. If your cloud provider jacks up their prices, that’s a business problem. It’s not specific to the cloud, or to the technology sector in general. Is there real value in being able to switch from one cloud provider to another, or to bring a public cloud solution in-house? Then I listened to Marten Mickos’ keynote. Mickos, formerly CEO of MySQL AB, is now at Eucalyptus Systems pioneering private cloud solutions. His keynote touched on a couple of very interesting things.

First, he succinctly cleared up the confusion around public and private clouds and why you might want to use both. Consider the telephone. The public telephone infrastructure has been around for about a hundred years, and yet almost every company still runs their own internal PBX system. This is a pretty solid analogy with respect to clouds.

But the most interesting thing that Mickos brought up was the importance of the free software principles as applied to cloud solutions. With the old paradigm of Linux distributions, the four freedoms provided by the GPL are fundamentally essential to the long-term success of the platform, because it specifically allows derivative works. Moving to the cloud, though, we’re looking at images, rather than distributions, and the entire notion of a derivative work becomes fuzzy at best. How are the four freedoms of the GPL applied to cloud situations?

Suddenly Randal’s comments make a lot more sense. So, too, does OpenStack, a result of collaboration between RackSpace and NASA to build a common, open cloud framework.

Mickos wrapped up his keynote by reiterating that Linux has gone from a disruptive force to an innovation force. His closing remarks dovetailed very nicely with Whitehurst’s opening remarks: Linux is now the default choice for new technology deployments, and is the foundation upon which most future technical advances will be built. Both Whitehurst and Mickos observed that the transition we’re seeing now to the cloud is at least as fundamentally radical as the shift from mainframes to client/server.

As innovation continues atop Linux in the cloud, Mickos offered some very profound advice: we must strive to ensure that no one closes that which we have opened.

Photo credit: Clouds by karindalziel, on Flickr.