Beyond the Cloud: The Comprehensive Flexibility of FOSS May Bring Clearer Skies

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

By CJ Fearnley

Last week’s InformationWeek has a good article on cloud computing, Cloud ROI: A Grounded View.  It seems that even with all the hype (or because of it?) most are not “running blindly” to adopt “the cloud”.  I must admit the cloud metaphor has a powerful poetic charm to it.  That is probably why it has grabbed the attention of so many over the past few years. Everything in our world is ephemeral, so there is an aptness to the concept of a “cloud”. Moreover, I too like and use cloud analogies. But I am now looking for clearer skies!  Here is a short list of my gripes about "the cloud":

  • What does “cloud computing” mean? It isn’t at all clear! Here is some data: CIO magazine cites a Forrester report that says "the number one challenge in cloud computing today is determining what it really is". CIO also reported on a McKinsey study that "found 22 separate definitions of cloud computing"! And that leads to my second point:
  • The word “cloud” is so … vacuous and amorphous …  ”A cloud:  it looks like Zeus!” only to transform in shape before your very eyes “Wait, now it looks like Aphrodite!” … and then its gone!  Is this the kind of model people should entrust with their business data?  It has no structural stability:  inherently:  it is just rapidly moving gases … far out of reach … away in the sky. What kind of business model is that?
  • Although RADLab (Reliable Adaptive Distributed Systems Laboratory) has put out some interesting papers, I was a little surprised when I read their acknowledgements in the CACM article A View of Cloud Computing.  It reads like a who’s who in cloud computing: Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Sun, eBay, Cloudera, Facebook, and so on. The original Berkeley paper has a shorter list of cloud companies funding their work. I’m sure they are maintaining their academic integrity, but it does show that they are not wholly independent. Remember what Kitty Foyle said:

    I’ve taught myself a lesson, or I hope I have: when I find myself thinking something I stop a minute and ask myself, Now who had it all figured out beforehand that was the way they wanted me to think?
    — From Christopher Morley’s novel “Kitty Foyle

  • Although the Berkeley papers raise a number of very interesting issues, none of them requires vacuous meaningless jargon to further obscure the subtleties and complexities of emerging technology trends! So my final gripe is that the name “cloud” tends to obscure what is really important even when I agree with “the cloud thinkers”.

Perhaps the most important issue “the cloud people” are missing is what might be called comprehensive flexibility. As a user of software technology, I want my computing functionality everywhere … in every imaginable format. For example, I’d like to be able to use the software that I’ve invested the time to learn to be available on my desktop (32-bit, 64-bit, Mac, Windows, or Linux), and I’d like it to work whether the Net is working or not, on my cell phone and other portable devices (again with network or not), in the data center (clustered or not), in the WAN (Wide Area Network, note that the Internet is our shared, global WAN), perhaps distributed among several hosting providers, and perhaps even provided by “utilities” (to save the trouble of maintenance and scaling costs). But I think software should be so flexible that it can live in each of those environments. Talk about utility computing: wouldn’t software have so much more utility if it worked everywhere instead of being beholden to whatever your software provider offers or what hardware you happen to have in front of you right now?

Fortunately this type of flexible software does exist. It is called Free and Open Source Softare (FOSS) and it is becoming ubiquitous. In fact, whether you know it or not, you are using FOSS software: Apache, the FOSS web server, runs this web site and indeed the majority of all web sites. WordPress, the blogging software we use here is also “everywhere” and you can purchase it from “cloud” utility providers or install, run, and modify it yourself. The list of important FOSS software goes on and on and this blog is dedicated to helping elucidate its importance as well as the issues involved in managing it.

So I would argue that instead of letting our heads go to the “clouds” we need to ask how can we make software that works in all environments, on all hardware, and for all people? … how can we make software that is comprehensively flexible?

Customization, Upgradeability and Eternally Regenerative Software Administration

Friday, October 16th, 2009

By CJ Fearnley

Mary Hayes Weier wrote an interesting article in this week’s edition of InformationWeek on "Alternative IT: CIOs are more receptive than ever to new software models". What is great about her article is how she captured the divergent views on IT models (such as SaaS, cloud computing, etc.) and gave nice vignettes of different organizations trying different parts of various models. I especially valued her use of cognitive dissonance to leave the reader thinking … better informed but without a firm conclusion.

There are so many parts of the article that I could blog about, but the one that touched the core of my thinking about “eternally regenerative software administration” was the quote by Bill Louv, CIO at GlaxoSmithKline, who said

"And here’s the rub: When you customize software, it’s difficult to implement future upgrades from the vendor"

Louv touched the very bane of eternally regenerative software administration! Software should accommodate both customization and upgradeability: these two elements of software administration are at the heart of my notion of eternally regenerative software administration: how to preserve customizations and provide smooth (near zero downtime with almost no glitches) upgrades through major release after major release. It is a big challenge, but in our experience the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) communities are at the leading edge in finding solutions to these conflicting objectives. Here are some of the innovative ideas from the FOSS world which should serve as models or design patterns for all software developers (if only these ideas would become commonplace!).

First, Debian (a FOSS operating system which is the root of Ubuntu, Knoppix, Xandros and many other Linux distributions) requires that their official packages, a collection of software prepared for easy administration, must adhere to a very mature policy. Debian’s policy is a marvel in the FOSS world and to a very large degree is responsible for its strong support for both customization and upgradeability. I think Debian’s reputation for stability and maintainability is almost certainly due to their decision to develop a consensus-driven policy that its software must implement.

For example, the Debian package maintainer, Luigi Gangitano, for Drupal, a FOSS content management platform, did a great job making the software both customizable and maintainable. The package supports configuration of multiple virtual hosts which can all be upgraded at once! And the Debian drupal6 package stores the look-n-feel in /etc/drupal/6/themes/ so that each site’s GUI can be customized without interfering with upgrades. If only all web applications were built to be as maintainable as Debian’s Drupal package!

Another example is the overlay support included in RT: Request Tracker, a FOSS ticket tracking system. This allows putting replacement subroutines in special files in /usr/local/share/ which overlay or substitute the upstream code. This approach is more likely to break on upgrades, but it supports minimal changes to the business logic with a decent chance that upgrades will be smooth.

There are countless more examples from the FOSS world of innovative solutions to inter-accommodate customization and upgrades in support of eternally regenerative software administration. What are some of your favorite examples?