When open source started gaining in popularity, a lot of vendors started trying to co-opt the open source label without actually being open source. You don't see quite as much of that today, but now we're seeing vendors trying to affix the "open" label to cloud solutions that really aren't. Scott Crenshaw, vice president of Red Hat's cloud business unit, says the idea is "to lure customers in with open and then lock them in." Bad move, says Crenshaw, because the decisions companies make today about cloud will last into the next decade.

What is an open cloud? During a webcast today, Crenshaw put forward what looks to me like a pretty good definition. He says an open cloud has seven properties:

  1. Open source
  2. Viable, independent community
  3. Based on open standards
  4. Unencumbered by patents and other IP restrictions
  5. Lets you deploy to your choice of infrastructure
  6. Pluggable, extensible and open API
  7. Enables portability across clouds

It's a pretty clear definition, but one that very few vendors live up to. Many cloud providers give an open API or let you deploy the software to your choice of infrastructure. Very few are without patent restrictions or other IP gotchas, and only a handful are open source. And portability across clouds is rarer than chicken teeth.

Naturally, Red Hat's offerings do fit the definition pretty closely. (Not very surprising, since they're setting the definition.) But the "open cloud computing strategic alliance" that was announced today by VMware and EMC? When asked towards the end of the call whether VMware fit the bill, Crenshaw tried to be diplomatic but said the "baby steps" VMware is taking don't make it open. "VMware will be open the day they open source" their cloud products, says Crenshaw.

Why It Matters

Does it matter that vSphere isn't open source? Lots of companies have no intention of actually hacking the source code. But the fact that other vendors can and would offer competing solutions gives companies leverage they don't have if they adopt proprietary solutions.

Crenshaw pointed out the pricing update for vSphere last year that had quite a few customers up in arms. Because the market is still competitive and customers are still deciding which clouds to deploy, VMware had little choice to back off its unpopular pricing. That might not be the case in five years when there's a much larger installed base that is stuck with vSphere (or any other proprietary offering).

The most important decision that IT execs will make in the next decade is the choice of cloud architecture, says Crenshaw. "No other single decision will have such a large impact" on the IT department's ability to compete or innovate. Choosing an open cloud "puts you in control of your future," says Crenshaw.

VMware's Open Cloud Computing Strategic Alliance might or might not be a good deal for customers. But the choice to try to call the offering "open" when it's based around proprietary technology seems particularly cynical. VMware and partners might want to go back to the drawing board for the name, or consider actually offering open solutions.