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Cloud Computing and Open Source

Cloud Computing and Open Source

Vinayak Hegde's Blog

The web moved from static HTML pages to Web 2.0. Software is increasing moving away from the delivery to the “hosted” model. Computing resource acquisitions is moving from buying to renting. This has given rise to new paradigms of delivering software such as Software-as-a-Service or SaaS and Cloud Computing. Open source software has been one of the key enablers of these new revolution alongwith open standards (HTML, HTTP, CSS, XML etc). Whether it is Linux or Apache or Firefox or Python.

Open Source developers contribute code for a variety of reasons:

  1. To scratch an itch - fulfill a particular current need and release it to the world hoping that someone finds it useful.
  2. To contribute back to the community they are part of or has helped them in the past.
  3. Some contribute it because they enjoy writing code and feel altruistic because they help the world.
  4. Some release code to help it get widespread adoption (marketing strategy by companies) so they can charge for premium support and build a community of committed contributers.

These varied motivations are visible in the multiple licenses in the Open Source community. The most popular licenses are GNU GPL, GNU LGPL, BSD, MIT and Apache Licenses. The relationship between these open source software (OSS) licenses is illustrated below:

Relationships between popular Open Source Licenses
Attribution: David Wheeler [http://www.dwheeler.com/essays/floss-license-slide.html

Software was earlier delivered via floppies then CDROMS and now software downloads. Enter the internet and the web. They have completed changed the way people work and communicate. The web moved from static html pages to Web 2.0. Software is increasing moving away from the delivery to the “hosted” model. Computing resource acquisitions is moving from buying to renting. This has given rise to new paradigms of delivering software such as Software-as-a-Service or SaaS and Cloud Computing.

Open source software has been one of the key enablers of these new revolution alongwith open standards (HTML, HTTP, CSS, XML etc). Whether it is Linux or Apache or Firefox or Python. As mentioned above the GPL which is by far the most popular Open Source licence. When the GPL was written, the modes of software delivery were either through physical media or by downloading from a FTP server (GPL v2 was written in 1991 when the web was in it’s infancy). The GPL has a strong copyleft clause (called as tit-for-tat by Linus Torvalds) which was crucial to the success of Linux, GCC and MySQL - three of the building blocks of much of the SaaS and Cloud Computing infrastucture. It has given the programmers who contributed to it the confidence that their work would benefit the whole world and remain free for distribution, rather than being exploited by software companies that would not have to give anything back to the community. This ethos is central to the motivation of many of the programmers who contribute to open source software (OSS).

However the GPL has some “loopholes” which Application Service Providers (ASPs) exploit. Since the distribution clauses of GPL v2 (and now GPL v3) do not govern the software whose functionality is accessed over a network (mostly the Internet), ASPs and SaaS companies were able to make changes to OSS and not give them back to the community. The license that fixed this loophole was the Affero GPL v3. This has a clause that governs the usage of a software over the Internet.

13. Remote Network Interaction; Use with the GNU General Public License.

Notwithstanding any other provision of this License, if you modify the Program, your modified version must prominently offer all users interacting with it remotely through a computer network (if your version supports such interaction) an opportunity to receive the Corresponding Source of your version by providing access to the Corresponding Source from a network server at no charge, through some standard or customary means of facilitating copying of software. This Corresponding Source shall include the Corresponding Source for any work covered by version 3 of the GNU General Public License that is incorporated pursuant to the following paragraph.

Notwithstanding any other provision of this License, you have permission to link or combine any covered work with a work licensed under version 3 of the GNU General Public License into a single combined work, and to convey the resulting work. The terms of this License will continue to apply to the part which is the covered work, but the work with which it is combined will remain governed by version 3 of the GNU General Public License.

This clause is important to all Cloud Computing and SaaS vendors as any modifications they make to the software licensed under Affero GPL will have to be released to the users who use that software at nominal or no cost. This has made atleast a few vendors unhappy


[This article appeared originally here and is republished in full with the kind permssion of the author, who retains full copyright.]

More Stories By Vinayak Hegde

Vinayak Hegde is an Architect with Akamai. He is co-founder of start-up support group Headstart and an
active member of ACM's Bangalore chapter. He works with the Analytics Team in Akamai Technologies, Bangalore,

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