An Open-Source Food Fight in the Cloud

Citrix open-sources its do-it-yourself cloud computing kit
Photograph by Steve Bronstein/The Image Bank/Getty Images

To date, the four horsemen of the cloud appear to be, Microsoft, Google, and VMware. The first three companies have built their own cloud computing services that consumers and businesses can tap into. Instead of doing its own service, VMware, the maker of virtualization software, is selling a new suite of cloud software so that service providers and businesses can build their own new-age, cloud computing systems.

The collective muscle and proprietary leanings of those four companies has triggered something of a cloud panic. At its core, cloud computing promises lower costs and greater flexibility than traditional data centers. It’s a way to avoid lock-in, that mainframe-era problem where a company buys its own big, expensive systems—and is stuck with them. But those advantages could be undermined if, say, Amazon decides to play the heavy and makes it difficult for companies to move their software and data onto a competing cloud service. That would be lock-in, cloud edition.

To counter the big cloud players, the software maker Citrix has decided to open-source its CloudStack software. Citrix acquired CloudStack when it bought the startup last year. On Tuesday, Citrix vowed to turn CloudStack over to the Apache Software Foundation, a nonprofit that oversees a number of the most popular open-source projects and is viewed as a neutral player in the software world. It’s all extremely geeky—and extremely important to the future of enterprise tech customers.

With CloudStack, any service provider or business can create its own cloud computing system and have it interact with Amazon’s cloud service as well. Zynga, for example, started out using Amazon to keep up with the demand for its online games. Then, Zynga got so big that it made more sense for the game maker to build its own data centers and manage them almost as a single computer that can free up extra computing and storage power for certain games as needed. To do so, Zynga used technology, and it can still farm out extra work to Amazon if needed.

There’s another major open-source project out there called OpenStack, which came to life via a partnership between NASA and Rackspace. On the pro side, OpenStack has big-name backers like Hewlett-Packard and Dell. On the con side, the software has taken two years to develop and still isn’t quite ready for prime time.

Peder Ulander, vice president of cloud platforms at Citrix, contends that OpenStack lacked the requisite oversight to advance the software at a quick clip. Citrix offered to contribute its own technology to OpenStack to speed it along, but those offers were rebuffed, Ulander says. “There are a lot of rumblings that OpenStack is not maturing fast enough,” he says.

What’s more, OpenStack very much remains a Rackspace affair. The company plans to create a foundation later this year to let numerous parties guide the development of the software, but it opted against letting the Apache Software Foundation oversee this effort.

Some erstwhile OpenStack supporters have already defected. NTT DoCoMo, the huge Japanese telco, was a marquee OpenStack name but is now in the process of building clouds based on CloudStack.

Open-source software tends to follow what I’ll call the Highlander Principle—“There can be only one.” In essence, you see one open-source champion per market (e.g., Red Hat in operating systems, MySQL in databases) emerge as a true competitor to the proprietary software makers. And now the race is on between OpenStack and CloudStack to be the open cloud king.

For Citrix, this gamble is huge. It paid $500 million for XenSource in 2007, hoping to undercut VMware’s rise. Even though plenty of companies use the open-source Xen software, Citrix has never come close to seeing VMware-style revenues or profits. It’s rumored that Citrix paid about $250 million for Once again it’s going up against VMware and other open-source players in a nasty battle for the future of computing.

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