Why web services should be released as free software

Part 4 of the series, "What are the chances for a free software cloud?"

Previous section:

Why clouds and web services will continue to take over computing

Let’s put together a pitch for cloud and web service
providers. We have two hurdles to leap: one persuading them how
they’ll benefit by releasing the source code to their software,
and one addressing their fear of releasing the source code.
I’ll handle both tasks in this section, which will then give us
the foundation to look at a world of free clouds and web services.

Cloud and web service providers already love free software

Reasons for developing software as open source have been told and
retold many times; popular treatments include Eric S. Raymond’s
essays in the collection

The Cathedral and the Bazaar
(which O’Reilly puts out
in print),
and Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks
(available online as a
as well as the basis for a
and published by Yale University Press). But cloud and web service
companies don’t have to be sold on free software–they use it all the

The cornucopia of tools and libraries produced by projects such as the
open source Ruby on Rails make it the first stop on many
services’ search for software. Lots of them still code pages in
other open source tools and languages such as PHP and jQuery. Cloud
providers universally base their offerings on Linux, and many use open
source tools to create their customers’ virtual systems.
(Amazon.com currently bases its cloud offerings on Xen, and
KVM, heavily backed
by Red Hat, is also a contender.) The best monitoring tools are also
free software. In general, free software is sweeping through the
cloud. (See also

Open Source Projects for Cloud on Rise, According to Black Duck Software Analysis

So cloud and web service providers live the benefits of free software
every day. They know the value of communities who collaborate to
improve and add new layers to software. They groove on the convenience
of loading as much software they want on any systems without
struggling with a license server. They take advantage of frequent
releases with sparkling new features. And they know that there are
thousands of programmers out in the field familiar with the software,
so hiring is easier.

And they give back to open source communities too: they contribute
money, developer time, and valuable information about performance
issues and other real-life data about the operation of the software.

But what if we ask them to open their own code? We can suggest that
they can have better software by letting their own clients–the
best experts in how their software is used–try it out and look
over the source for problems. Web service developers also realize that
mash-ups and extensions are crucial in bringing them more traffic, so
one can argue that opening their source code will make it easier for
third-party developers to understand it and write to it.

Web and cloud services are always trying to hire top-notch programmers
too, and it’s a well-established phenomenon that releasing the
source code to a popular product produces a cadre of experts out in
the field. Many volunteers submit bug fixes and enhancements in order
to prove their fitness for employment–and the vendors can pick
up the best coders.

These arguments might not suffice to assail the ramparts of vendors’
resistance. We really need to present a vision of open cloud computing
and persuade vendors that their clients will be happier with services
based on free software. But first we can dismantle some of the fear
around making source code open.

No reason to fear opening the source code

Some cloud and web providers, even though they make heavy use of free
software internally, may never have considered releasing their own
code because they saw no advantages to it (there are certainly
administrative and maintenance tasks associated with opening source
code). Others are embarrassed about the poor structure and coding
style of their fast-changing source code.

Popular methodologies for creating Web software can also raise a
barrier to change. Companies have chosen over the past decade to
feature small, tight-knit teams who communicate with each other and
stakeholders informally and issue frequent software releases to try
out in the field and then refine. Companies find this process more
“agile” than the distributed, open-source practice of putting
everything in writing online, drawing in as broad a range of
contributors as possible, and encouraging experiments on the side. The
agile process can produce impressive results quickly, but it places an
enormous burden on a small group of people to understand what clients
want and massage it into a working product.

We can’t move cloud and SaaS sites to free software, in any case, till
we address the fundamental fear some of these sites share with
traditional proprietary software developers: that someone will take
their code, improve it, and launch a competing service. Let’s turn to
that concern.

If a service releases its code under the GNU Affero General Public
License, as mentioned in the
previous section,
anyone who improves it and runs a web site with the improved code is
legally required to release their improvements. So we can chip away at
the resistance with several arguments.

First, web services win over visitors through traits that are
unrelated to the code they run. Traits that win repeat visits include:

  • Staying up (sounds so simple, but needs saying)
  • The network effects that come from people inviting their friends or
    going where the action is–effects that give the innovative
    vendor a first-mover advantage
  • A site’s appearance and visual guides to navigation, which
    includes aspects that can be trademarked
  • Well-designed APIs that facilitate the third-party applications
    mentioned earlier

So the source code to SaaS software isn’t as precious a secret
as vendors might think. Anyway, software is more and more a commodity
nowadays. That’s why a mind-boggling variety of JavaScript
frameworks, MVC platforms, and even whole new programming languages
are being developed for the vendors’ enjoyment. Scripting
languages, powerful libraries, and other advances speed up the pace of
development. Anyone who likes the look of a web service and wants to
create a competitor can spin it up in record time for low cost.

Maybe we’ve softened up the vendors some. Now, on to the
pinnacle of cloud computing–and the high point on which this
article will end–a vision of the benefits a free cloud could
offer to vendors, customers, and developers alike.

Next section:
Reaching the pinnacle: truly open web services and clouds.

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  • Derek Balling

    I think comparing web services “use of open source tools and seeing the benefits” to “releasing their own web-service-platform source code” is comparing apples and oranges.

    The Apache project doesn’t compete directly with your typical web-services application. PHP developers aren’t actively trying to steal users and mindshare from a given web site.

    Contrarily, the people who would care about the source code to a given web-services platform are *very* interested in stealing market-share from the organization/company/etc. who released the source code.

    It’s a completely different set of questions, and while you mention a lot of differentiators, another huge differentiator in the web services industry is speed and efficiency. Google will be the first to tell you that how fast you can display a given page affects user-retention in a huge way. And speed, if your organization is smart, comes down to coding efficiencies. You need your pages to better written than your competitor’s, so you can have that couple tenths of a second advantage over your competitor and retain marketshare. The last thing you want is to show your competitor the cool super-efficient thing you’re doing under the hood so that they can start doing it to. It’s just counterproductive to success.

  • Thanks, Derek, especially for your point that quality of service is a major aspect of winning the SaaS race.

    As for the difference between using free software to develop a service and making your service free software: I haven’t confused these personally, but my rhetoric might have left some confusion. I didn’t have to say anything in the article about how cloud and SaaS companies use a lot of free software. But I’ve made a big deal about it (in two separate segments!). The reason is that I think it helps those of us who want to do what I recommend in this segment: persuade services to free their own software.

    We don’t have to tell the IT departments at these services what free and open source software is. (Isn’t it amazing how many people in computing still misunderstand the basic concepts?) We don’t have to tell the staff that free software can be high quality and can be respected by others as high quality. We don’t have to tell them how free software communities operate and how to release software as open source. It’s a big relief to pass these hurdles so quickly on this mission.

  • I think an important business reason to build a cloud on free software is to be able to have exactly the same software on an internal cloud, to handle the everyday load.

    It’s just a practicality argument: I want to use an internal cloud (a puff of smoke?) to run the everyday load, and then grow the service into a public cloud when I get hit by an increase in load.

    If I use something proprietary or idiosyncratic, I probably can’t grow into and out of outside vendors’ clouds. I also have trouble finding developers and peers to bounce ideas and diagnostics off (;-))


  • Derek Balling

    David: I think that’s a matter of “which proprietary cloud you choose”. If you choose, say, VMware as your cloud-architecture of choice, you’re going to find little to no problem finding developers and peers to bounce ideas and diagnostics off of. :-)

  • Dave notes the difference between platform as a service (dev env) v software as a service (business logic for eCommerce or social media). The first is typically open but there appears resistence towards the latter. IMHO the difference is who pays for the NEGATIVE information. By negative information I refer to failed attempts and mistakes. Edison experimented on hundreds of filaments before settling on tungsten. If a competitor skipped all that and copied the idea directly, GE wouldn’t exist today.

    With drug design, the biopharm companies are big enough to swallow the failures as the big hits pay for the R&D of all the rest. In dev environments, it is instructive to learn from mistakes which is capitalised into the language design and libraries. With web sites ???? Here firms resort to trade secrets for profit maximisation and open sourcing it has a different economic calculus (eg IBM does it to flog their hardware and consulting services). Where the public good outweights private gains (eg voting software) then a strong case can be made for transparency but in general? Unless you address the free-rider issue, open clouds based on Affero+GPLv3 has the commercial attractiveness of a suicide pill (of course Netscape took that route after been steamrolled by IE but that was different circumstances).

    I can think of a few circumstances where open clouds with all the code and logicl is freely available (eg repeatable scientific experiments) but in general, OpenSource business models are not that easy to execute but one possibility that occurs to me is to release code X years after first deployment (where X choosen according to standard industry practice). The innovator gets a small lead time (first mover advantage), it matches the general principle of industrial design rights, and hopefully avoids long-term rent-seeking behaviour (motivate continual innovation).

  • pc

    Thanks, Derek! Agree with software is more and more a commodity nowadays – but we need specialists to teach us how they works. In East Europe “learning on the job” in the common method to learn the new software.