Resolving the contradictions between web services, clouds, and open source

Part 1 of the series, "What are the chances for a free software cloud?"

Predicting trends in computer technology is an easy way to get into trouble, but two developments have been hyped so much over the past decade that there’s little risk in jumping on their bandwagons: free software and cloud computing. What’s odd is that both are so beloved of crystal-gazers, because on the surface they seem

The first trend promises freedom, the second convenience. Both freedom and convenience inspire people to adopt new technology, so I believe the two trends will eventually coexist and happily lend power to each other. But first, the proponents of each trend will have to get jazzed up about why the other trend is so compelling.

Freedom is promised by the free and open source software movement. Its
foundation is the principle of radical sharing: the knowledge one
produces should be offered to others. Starting with a few
break-through technologies that surprised outsiders by coming to
dominate their industries–the GNU C compiler, the Linux kernel,
the Apache web server–free software has insinuated itself into
every computing niche.

The trend toward remote computing–web services and the vaguely
defined cloud computing–promises another appealing kind of
freedom: freedom from having to buy server hardware and set up
operations, freedom from installations and patches and upgrades,
freedom in general from administrative tasks. Of course, these
advantages are merely convenience, not the kind of freedom championed
by the free software movement.

Together with the mobile revolution (not just programs on cell phones,
but all kinds of sensors, cameras, robots, and specialized devices for
recording and transmitting information) free software and remote
computing are creating new environments for us to understand
information, ourselves, and each other.

The source of the tension

Remote computing, especially the layer most of us encounter as web
services, is offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Don’t like
Facebook’s latest change to its privacy settings? (Or even where
it locates its search box?) Live with it or break your Facebook habit
cold turkey.

Free software, as we’ll see, was developed in resistance to such
autocratic software practices. And free software developers were among
the first to alert the public about the limitations of clouds and web
services. These developers–whose ideals are regularly challenged
by legal, social, and technological change–fear that remote
computing undermines the premises of free software. To understand the
tension, let’s contrast traditional mail delivery with a popular
online service such as
Gmail, a textbook example of a web
service familiar to many readers.

For years, mail was transmitted by free software. The most popular
mail server was Sendmail, which could stand with the examples I listed
at the beginning of this article as one of earliest examples of free
software in widespread use. Sendmail’s source code has been
endlessly examined, all too often for its many security flaws.

Lots of organizations still use free software mail servers, even
though in the commercial world, Microsoft’s closed-source
Exchange is the standard. But organizations are flocking now to Gmail,
which many people find the most appealing interface for email.

Not only is Gmail closed, but the service would remain closed even if
Google released all the source code. This is because nobody who uses
Gmail software actually loads it on their systems (except some
JavaScript that handles user interaction). We all simply fire up a
browser to send a message to code running on Google servers. And if
Google hypothetically released the source code and someone set up a
competing Gmail, that would be closed for the same reason. A web
service runs on a privately owned computer and therefore is always

So the cloud–however you define it–seems to render the notion of
software freedom meaningless. But things seem to get even worse. The
cloud takes the client/server paradigm to its limit. There is forever
an unbreachable control gap between those who provide the service and
those who sign up for it.

And this is apparently a step backward in computing history. Closed,
proprietary software erected a gateway between the all-powerful
software developers and the consumers of the software. Free software
broke the gate down by giving the consumers complete access to source
code and complete freedom to do what they wanted. Amateurs around the
world have grabbed the opportunity to learn programming techniques
from free software and to make it fit their whims and needs. Now, once
again, software hidden behind a server commands the user to relinquish
control–and as the popularity of Gmail and other services show,
users are all too ready to do it.

Cloud computing is leading to the bifurcation of computing into a
small number of developers with access to the full power and
flexibility that computers can offer, contrasted with a world full of
small devices offering no say in what the vendors choose for us to
run, a situation predicted in Jonathan Zittrain’s book

The Future of the Internet

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, as part of a major
Scientific American article,

criticized social networks like Facebook
as silos that commit the
sin of hoarding data entered by visitors instead of exposing it openly
on the Internet. Ho, Sir Berners-Lee, that’s exactly why many visitors
use social networks: to share their personal thoughts and activities
with a limited set of friends or special-interest groups. Social
networks and their virtual walls therefore contribute to the potential
of the Internet as a place to form communities.

But Berners-Lee was airing his complaint as part of a larger point
about the value of providing data for new and unanticipated
applications, and his warning does raise the question of scale. If
Facebook-type networks became the default and people “lived” on them
all the time instead of the wider Web, opportunities for
interconnection and learning would diminish.

Complementary trends

But one would be jumping to conclusions to assume that cloud computing
is inimical to free software. Google is one of the world’s great
consumers of free software, and a supporter as well. Google runs its
servers on Linux, and has placed it at the core of its fast-growing
Android mobile phone system. Furthermore, Google submits enhancements
to free software projects, releases many of its peripheral
technologies as open source, and runs projects such as
Summer of Code to develop
new free software programs and free software programmers in tandem.

This is the trend throughout computing. Large organizations with banks
of servers tend to run free software on them. The tools with which
they program and administer the servers are also free.

A “free software cloud” may seem to be an oxymoron, like
“non-combat troops.” But I believe that free software and
remote computing were made for each other; their future lies together
and the sooner they converge, the faster they will evolve and gain
adoption. In fact, I believe a free software cloud–much more
than the “open cloud” that
many organizations are working on–lies
in our future. This series will explore the traits of each trend and
show why they are meant to join hands.

Next section:

Defining clouds, web services, and other remote computing

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