Open Source Software and the Cloud

Yesterday someone suggested that I think about taking my software at Print3D Corporation to the cloud and offer it as a service. While this sounds like a splendid idea, it got me wondering. The software that we offer at Print3D is actually free. We make money by building the parts that customers quote and upload using our free software. Currently customers download our free software, install it on their computers, quote their parts and order them. We charge them for the parts and not for our software. Of course, it has cost us to build all that software and will continue to cost us to maintain it but it does not cost us to serve the software to our customers. Once the software is installed on the customer’s computer, it uses the resources of the customer (processing, storage, bandwidth, etc.) and we are basically out of the picture. That is how desktop software has been all along.

But now by taking software onto the cloud, while the cost to the developer to develop and maintain the software remains more or less the same (not sure, I am guessing here), another cost comes into the picture. That of serving it to the end users. And no, here I am not referring to the cloud-side software required to manage clusters of servers (you can get something like Eucalyptus for free). I am referring to the actual servers themselves. To be precise, the money that you need to pay to buy/rent out computing power, storage space, bandwidth, etc.

So while a for-profit company like Print3D may one day actually invest in buying/renting cloud infrastructure and resources, I cannot help but wonder what the open source community will do in the future, if and when everything goes up in the clouds. For argument sake, lets take OpenOffice.org. A note on their web site says that on 28th October 2009, the one hundred millionth person clicked the “Download OpenOffice.org button” since version 3.0 of the software was announced just over a year ago. So at any given moment in time I leave it up to you to imagine how many users all over the world are using OpenOffice. I will also leave it up to you to imagine the kind of cloud computing resources and infrastructure would be required to have all those users running OpenOffice in the cloud and how much all that would cost.

Open source projects are mainly funded by donations and sponsorships. I seriously doubt donations alone would be able to achieve the kind of funding required to take these software solutions onto the cloud. I understand that the cloud is getting cheaper by the day. But just like web hosting, it will come to a point where it stabilizes. And that price point will be anything but free. After all these years I still need to pay good money for my dedicated web server in a server farm because the server itself costs money. It is not abstract like a piece of software that can be duplicated an infinite number of times at no additional cost. I am not only paying for the server hardware but also for all the redundancies associated with it like power backup, bandwidth, the cost of people (administrators) to maintain it and so on and so forth. There is nothing like open source hardware. Hardware costs money. Period.

On the flipside, let’s look at Google Docs. I am not suggesting that Google Docs is anywhere close to OpenOffice.org in terms of features. I am merely bringing attention to the fact that it is like an office suite running in the cloud. The reason it is still running is because there is a company like Google behind it. If OpenOffice.org were to one day run in the cloud, it would need to be backed by people willing to throw bags of money into a paper shredder (not sure whether Oracle would be interested in doing that). Or become heavily ad supported, which is contrary to the very concept of open source software.

The thing which keeps the open source software community going is time, not money. I am referring to the time that developers spend to develop and maintain open source software projects. You do not need a lot of money to run an open source project. And the little that you need can be easily got from donations and sponsorships. What happens when the world starts doing everything on the cloud? Will open source projects miss the bus? Will our governments and educational institutions step in and provide the funds required to take open source projects onto the cloud?

I see things moving in two opposite directions. Today a reader expressed his interest in writing a series on this blog about how he is increasingly using open source software in his business to a point that he hardly pays for any software any more. On the other hand, software vendors are increasingly talking about taking their solutions onto the cloud. So I am wondering which path users will prefer to take in the future – use free open source software and stay off the cloud or pay to use software on the cloud. Of course there is the other alternative which sounds too good to be true – use open source software on the cloud and pay nothing. But then all this is assuming that users will want to use open source software and/or move to the cloud in the first place.