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May 4th, 2017

In the Depths of the Cloud, Open Source and Proprietary Leviathans Fight to the Death

Just because open source is winning in the enterprise, that doesn’t mean that the proprietary folks have given up their old tricks.

open source proprietary

Roblimo’s Hideaway

Do you think the operating system and software on your little laptop is important? It is to you, but when it comes to big business, what’s going on in the cloud is what counts, even though it’s invisible to most people.

For several decades, gargantuan software vendors including Oracle, IBM, and a host of others dominated mega-corp server rooms. As said mega-corps moved into the cloud, a movement that is still going on, the software behemoths went with them. They used the same sales pitch they had always used: “Hire us to manage your critical operation, and you’ll only need to pay a single bill every month, and we’ll give you a special telephone number you can call and get immediate help with any problem you run into.”

Do corporations have noses?

If corporations have noses, they are paying through them for all-in-one proprietary solutions. They may only get one bill a month, but it’s a monster. And, while you may not have noticed this, retailers are in trouble and are desperately trying to cut their IT expenses (and everything else) as they just as desperately try to become online retailers instead of people who own only physical stores.

So a whole slew of consultants have popped up that package, modify, and maintain open source software for big companies that have gotten tired of paying those giant all-in-one software maintenance bills.

DISCLOSURE: I am a paid editorial consultant for Grid Dynamics, which is one of these companies — and one of the fastest-growing ones, I might add.

So on one side, you have — to pick a name out of thin air — Oracle, which has dominated the multinational-scale retail and e-commerce market, with Microsoft, IBM, HP and a whole bunch of others close behind. If you look at their ads and read their brochures, after a while they blur together. Except that now, a new phrase is starting to creep into proprietary software vendors’ vocabularies:

Based on Open Source

Those are four pernicious words. They’re not saying their software products are open source, just that they may have an Apache-licensed something-or-other like Solr buried under their proprietary software layers.

Do you know what good that little bit of “based on” open source does you, as a corporate client? Absolutely none. You are still dependent on the proprietary parts of the vendor’s platform, and if you want to leave their warm embrace, you are in for a world of hurt because the software you are using is theirs, not yours, and if you stop forking over your licensing and maintenance fees, you can’t use it any more.

Oracle actually offers Linux — real, free-to-use Linux — and they have (very) no-free support contracts available for Linux, and will happily build you an entire application stack based on Linux. Will some or a lot of it be proprietary? That depends on what you want and what kind of solution they come up with for you. But it’s Oracle, and their CEO didn’t get the money for fighter jets (and many, many other expensive toys) by giving it away.

There is light all through the tunnel

I have been privy to several enterprise-scale bidding wars between open source consultants and proprietary software vendors. The open source consultants have won a majority of these battles — and battles they are, with tooth and claw and endless promises thrown like lightning bolts. I can’t go into detail due to NDAs and the fact that in some cases I know more than I’m supposed to. But the war is on, although hidden from public view, and the good guys are winning most of the battles, so I think it’s safe to predict that open source software will soon achieve (nearly) complete domination over the world’s biggest enterprise computing operations.

And now, the question of the day: What effect does this have on the desktop OS marketplace?

Should the Linux Foundation be making efforts to advance the cause of desktop Linux?

View Results

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Answer: Apparently none. When I look at the computers used by the enterprise open source people, I see a lot of Mac screens, with only a scattering of Linux and…. what’s that other operating system? Oh, right. Windows. Yep, It’s still out there, and there are people using it to develop enterprise-level open source applications.

And here’s question number two, which I’ll leave up to you to answer: Are Red Hat and The Linux Foundation doing the right thing by concentrating on Linux in the enterprise or are they abandoning their traditional user base and strongest supporters, a move that will spell eventual doom for them?

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Robin "Roblimo" Miller

Robin "Roblimo" Miller is a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief at Open Source Technology Group, the company that owned SourceForge, freshmeat, Linux.com, NewsForge, ThinkGeek and Slashdot, and until recently served as a video editor at Slashdot. Now he's mostly retired, but still works part-time as an editorial consultant for Grid Dynamics, and (obviously) writes for FOSS Force.

10 comments to In the Depths of the Cloud, Open Source and Proprietary Leviathans Fight to the Death

  • Mike

    You need another voting option: “It doesn’t matter.”

    Red Hat and The Linux Foundation can sit and spin for all I care. They don’t represent anything I care about, as they are just slaves to their corporate masters.

    Free software doesn’t need them. Individual developers will continue to make great software regardless.

  • Mike

    …although…if Red Hat continues making “contributions” to desktop linux with things like systemd, we are all better off without them.

    So maybe my vote should be ‘No’ after all.

  • …I’ve posted a pretty lengthy comment twice now and I’m not seeing it. Did it get caught in the spam filter? It didn’t have any links or profanity in it.

    (Well, it did mention systemd. Does that count as profanity?)

  • @Thad The dog must’ve eaten it. It’s not in the spam queue.

  • Okay, trying again. (I guess technically it did have mild, PG-rated profanity in it; I’ve replaced it with “heck” for this go-round.)

    Here goes, again:

    I think it’s quite clear that focusing on non-desktop markets was the right call for Red Hat, Android, and others. Gaining ground on the desktop against Microsoft was and is a tough row to hoe (Apple’s been doing it for decades, is now the biggest tech company in the world, and has still only managed to hang onto a single-digit share of the desktop market even with all those resources), whereas the enterprise was far more competitive and easier to gain a foothold in, and the mobile market was emergent and never gave Microsoft a chance to get a foothold.

    (And then there’s the educational market, where Apple droped the ball a couple of decades ago, Google is currently ascendant with its focus on dumb-terminal ChromeOS devices, and Microsoft is trying to regain some market share by introducing dumb terminals of its own. We’ll see how that goes — “Windows, but without the ability to install or run arbitrary programs” didn’t really work out so well the last time they tried it, but in an education environment you could argue that that’s a feature rather than a bug.)

    All that said, I’m not sure you’re right in lumping Red Hat and the Linux Foundation in together. While it’s true that Fedora doesn’t have the kind of backing from its corporate parent that desktop RH did back when you could buy it off the shelf in a nice glossy box, and while I understand that RH has pushed a number of projects that have created controversy in the community (GNOME3, systemd, PulseAudio, Wayland, …), it at least has a foot in the community in a way that the LF doesn’t. And while Red Hat is fine with putting proprietary software in its stack, I can’t remember any recent instances of its leadership preaching against the GPL as a risky investment.

    I don’t think either Red Hat or LF is going away in the near term. In the long term, who can say? Thirty years ago I don’t think anybody would have bet that IBM would sell its PC business to a Chinese company; twenty years ago I don’t think anybody would have predicted that Apple would use a descendant of the Newton to catapult itself to the top of the market, or that AOL and Yahoo would flame out — heck, twenty years ago Google didn’t even exist.

    I’m willing to bet that, thirty years from now, we’ll still have the GNU OS and the Linux kernel in some form. As for whether Red Hat and the Linux Foundation will still be around, I can’t say — heck, I don’t even know if big players like MS, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google will still be around by then.

  • Mike

    @Thad

    > mobile market was emergent and never gave Microsoft a chance to get a foothold

    Actually Microsoft had a huge head start in mobile back in the day, but they fumbled the ball so many times and so badly that they found themselves sitting alone in the dust. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving company.

  • Mike

    @Thad

    > Well, it did mention systemd. Does that count as profanity?

    LOL, I do believe it does.

    Or maybe that’s just the result after systemd eats your system for lunch because of some random hair-brained idea L. Poettering had.

    Check out this systemd bug thread where Poettering displays his ignorance of how rm -rf works and then locks the thread: https://github.com/systemd/systemd/issues/5644

    systemd is a clusterf*(% of the highest order.

  • Another post not showing up; trying again, and hope it doesn’t double-post:

    @Mike: Well, kinda. Even in the pre-iPhone days, MS was competing with Palm, RIM, Be, Danger, and Nokia (the last two of which MS bought, later selling Nokia and closing down Danger). It never managed to gain the kind of commanding lead that it has on the desktop.

    Dropping the ball is certainly part of it; smartphones and palmtops were very much a niche market until the iPhone broke out, and I think the obsessive focus on hardware keyboards and styluses was part of the problem. (Certainly Ballmer had to eat his words that the iPhone would never succeed without a keyboard.)

    That said, while I’m not sorry to see Microsoft fumble, I *am* sorry that the only two viable choices in the mobile market are Apple and Google — a choice between a walled garden where “your” device is owned by Cupertino, or a fragmented, Orwellian privacy/security nightmare of open-source software that won’t run without proprietary blobs. (Similarly, much as Mir was a bad move, I’m sorry to see Canonical abandon the closest thing we had to a mature GNU/Linux mobile stack. Guess I’ll just have to keep an eye on what Plasma does in the next couple of years, and hope that Sailfish matures and also pursues a more open, less Android-like licensing model.)

  • tracyanne

    I voted yes, just likr the majority of people. However While I might believe that is what they should do, I know they never will.

    Even if there was a slim chance, at one time, think sowballs in hell, that they might, that time has passed. Microsoft is now a Platinum member.

    While all of the other Platinum members more than likely neglected desktop (or user facing varaions of Linux), simply because it wasn’t of commercial interest to them (but probably would not have acted against any push to get good user facing versions off the ground), Microsoft has no interest in such versions of Linux, and will actively work to protect it’s Windows turf.

  • Mike

    @Thad

    > I *am* sorry that the only two viable choices in the mobile market are Apple and Google — a choice between a walled garden where “your” device is owned by Cupertino, or a fragmented, Orwellian privacy/security nightmare of open-source software that won’t run without proprietary blobs.

    Very much agreed.

    We need hardware solutions that don’t lock you into proprietary drivers/firmware or even worse. Unfortunately there are no real answers right now.

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