Clash of the clouds
Apr 2nd 2009
From The Economist print edition
A familiar-sounding industry spat breaks out over standards
CLOUD computing may be the next big thing, but its politics are as old as the mainframe. Geeks from the early years of the information-technology (IT) industry would have had no difficulty deconstructing a quarrel that has broken out among IT’s modern giants. At issue is an “Open Cloud Manifesto”, which was published on March 30th.
Even before that date, accusations were flying around online. What caused the controversy was not so much the content, which is vague enough for almost everyone to agree with it. The “manifesto” essentially calls for computing firms not to fall back on bad old habits by trying to lock in customers as computing becomes a utility, generated somewhere on the network (“in the cloud”) and supplied as a service. Since there will be many different computing clouds, the manifesto points out, customers should be able to move their data and applications easily from one to another, and “open” standards, not controlled by one company, should be used whenever possible.
Although most companies would agree on the need for openness in theory, there is room for disagreement in practice about the timing. Cloud computing is in its early days. Many technical problems have yet to be solved, and the industry has still not even settled on a definition of cloud computing. Agreeing on principles for openness and perhaps even standards at this stage would benefit some firms and hurt others. It would create opportunities for latecomers and for new start-ups, and make life easier for firms who help companies stitch together their IT systems. But it would also rein in those firms that have already built cloud-computing businesses, often using proprietary technologies developed to solve particular problems. Arguably, nailing everything down too early may also hamper innovation.
It is hardly surprising that IBM is the main force behind the manifesto. The technology giant has long been a champion of open standards—not least, many say, because it makes most of its money from its huge services arm. Among the nearly 100 supporting firms are many start-ups, including Cast Iron, Engine Yard and RightScale. Others in favour include Cisco, EMC and SAP. These heavyweights support openness because widespread adoption of cloud computing would expand the market for their products.
Just as predictably, the leaders in cloud computing are absent from the list of supporters: Amazon, an online retailer that has successfully branched out into computing services; Google, which is not only a huge cloud unto itself but has built a cloud-computing platform for use by others; Salesforce.com, the biggest provider of software-as-a-service; and Microsoft. Indeed, it was an executive at the world’s biggest software firm, Steven Martin, who first leaked the manifesto, complaining that it had been drawn up in secret. “It appears to us that one company, or just a few companies, would prefer to control the evolution of cloud computing,” he wrote in a blog.
Things have now calmed down a bit. Supporters and opponents of the manifesto met at a conference in New York this week and agreed “on a shared goal to promote the use and awareness of open and interoperable cloud computing”, as one participant put it. But if history is any guide the controversy is sure to flare up again once cloud computing really takes off. There could even be an all-out standards war. But the row has at least ensured that the question of openness in the cloud has received a lot of attention, observes Bob Sutor, IBM’s point man for standards: “People have been put on notice that they can get locked into a cloud.”