Blog Post

When to Use Open Source in a Cloudy World

In a rapidly-changing development environment in which more and more companies are developing platform as a service (PaaS) offerings, is the allure of using open source to to build custom applications diminishing? After all, PaaS providers are looking to make customization easier for end users to achieve without having to delve into the source code.

The issue came up after open source CRM company Vtiger sent me an email in which it claimed it was the “true” open source CRM in the cloud. This line got me thinking about the role of open source in a cloud-based world, and just how much validity the open source model still has for those hoping to customize their apps.

When Richard Stallman famously went on the offensive declaring that SaaS takes away users’ freedom, he did so based on the contention that:

With SaaS, the users do not have even the executable file: it is on the server, where the users can’t see or touch it. Thus it is impossible for them to ascertain what it really does, and impossible to change it.

Stallman’s remarks need to be seen in context; he comes from a perspective that sees these issues purely in black and white: Proprietary software bad; open source good.

Unfortunately for Stallman’s thesis, the world is built in shades of grey. vtiger’s open source comments beg more questions. In the email, Vtiger was quick to say that:

Customers have been asking SaaS companies to open up and give them control to change, extend, customize their individual cloud-based CRM instance.  Customers have long wanted the power to get under the hood in their cloud-based implementations, to access their CRM instance’s source code and data and tailor them to their own business needs when necessary.

This comment would have been wholly accurate only a few years ago, when SaaS solutions played entirely at the application level. But what Vtiger and — to a certain extent — Stallman fail to appreciate is that a number of enterprise SaaS vendors are deepening their technology approach and moving down the stack into PaaS offerings.

I’ve often been regaled by open source advocates showing me how, by using an open source application, they’ve created a highly customized solution tuned to their particular requirements. In a world where SaaS providers provide a development environment, these use cases are covered without the need for open source.

As a distinct product example, one needs only to look at FinancialForce, a fully-featured accounting application built on top of the platform. FinancialForce takes core salesforce data, customizes and creates new workflows and data types, and builds an accounting application out of it all.

Examples abound: Salesforce with, Service-Now with their platform, NetSuite with SuiteCloud, Intuit with the IPP and a number of other SaaS players I’ve become aware of under NDA who have PaaS offerings under development. All of these solutions do one thing: provide end users with the ability to highly customize their applications, or even build new applications.

If you accept that part of the value open source brings is the ability to create highly customized variants of the source application, then by extension, the trend of SaaS vendors to move down the stack makes open source, at least to some extent, moot.

Contentious? Yes. Accurate? I’d be interested in your opinions.

9 Responses to “When to Use Open Source in a Cloudy World”

  1. Thank you for enabling this debate on the benefits of open source in the cloud. Not surprisingly, we agree with many of the comments that open source goes beyond PaaS in freedom and flexibility. We feel the following additional benefits are just as important.

    Flexibility for the client to move the data and the application back in-house for any reason, a need Don highlights. We strive to ensure this need does not arise for our clients, but considering the critical nature of the application and integration needs, for most clients having this option is important.
    Lower total cost of ownership – The application platform being open source will help in faster evolution of the product and keep overall costs low – a very important consideration for many clients.

    We feel that true open source in the cloud is a useful service that provides customers more choices in the cloud.

    -vtiger Team

  2. Just my 10 cents :

    Stallman’s remarks need to be seen in context; he comes from a perspective that sees these issues purely in black and white: Proprietary software bad; open source good.

    That’s not ture. Stallman works for the “free” aspect. And to my knowledge, free means : I’m free to do what I want. Free also means : I’m in control of what I do (so I do what I want, no more, no less).

    Now in this PaaS and SaaS world, the issue is the same. Freedom is reachable iff you have control over what the hardware does. And Stallman is just right about that. Rememeber, he’s always telling about the difference between convenience/usefulness and freedom. PaaS provides a good deal of freedom and a lot of usefulness (you use the service for whatever you want). But Stallman requires total freedom. A much different approach which is rooted in idealism and politics rather than day to day business.

    Fortunaltely, you used the term “open source” and I hope you did it on purpose. Because that’s the very point : open source provides convenience, not freedom (something Stallman repeats ad nauseam). So, you may be right : open source could be irrelevant because you’re right, it’s value will be diminishing (at least in the cloud space, when seen from the consumer point of view). Open source will still be relevant in the commoditisation area since it allows fluid cooperation between various entities. That’s commoditisation and it is rather orthogonal to the comsumer/cloud side of thing. But I’m sure cloud providers will be rather interested in open source (see what happens with various we hosting : what they provide is often a web hosting platform made of tons of open source tools). In between, you have probably a lot of different proposals platform made of 100% open source and platform made of “proprieatry” API’s. I dunno.

    Now, as far as freedom (in the idealist, but as far as I’m concerned, the most important view) is concerned, free software will be as relevant as ever. Because the added value is freedom. Now we can argue that free software will be marginalised because the usefulness of PaaS/SaaS won’t be matched without huge investment that the free software enthusiasts won’t be able to do (after all, web hosting, database maintenance, back ups and other “platform” pieces are easy to make but very expensive to deploy : you need real computer, networks,…)

    But well, who knows what an ideal can lead people to do ? :-)


  3. Not riled, just interested that you could miss so many issues around cloud computing and how FLOSS can help remove some of those.

    A key issue, is one that Google’s Vint Cerf (aka father of the Internet) raises, once in a cloud (SaaS) there are no accepted standards for getting off it. Your commitment is total and forever. The “capture” risk is far higher than IT vendors have ever been able to contemplate in the past. (You do back up your flickr pics/facebook content, right?)

    Also, it is highly unlikely that one vendor, such as FinancialForce, will always invent and innovate at the speed consumers require.

    So, what is the answer? Access to the software running cloud applications. At the click of the button. The SaaS models I trust are the ones with 2 buttons. The first says, “give me all my data…now” and the second “give me all the code…now”.

    That way I have the freedom to move from one cloud to another, one supplier to another and also to have developers across the world innovate on my behalf.

    It is not a new model, it has worked extremely well for the last 25 years, drove the internet, it would seem premature to throw it away now.

    • Don – as expected a well reasoned and reasonable reply. Your reasonableness makes it difficult to argue, all I would say is that there is a degree of comfort to be taken from abstracting the lower levels of the stack off to another provider – if this provider can give best of breed tools and great uptime then all the better. Personally, I’m relaxed that if I pay for a service it’s safe – I don’t back-up my Gmail or Google docs and it may be an ignorant perspective but at this point I’m OK with that….

  4. Good grief, you miss Stallman’s point completely.

    One of the underlying features in favour of open-source licensing is that you can trust the code and therefore the results it gives.

    If you rely on some kind of RPC for your data-stream, you’re not just at the company’s mercy for algorithmic errors, but for the accuracy of their data, and that it’s not been rendered inaccurate through malice rather than human error.

    Take a simple address geocoder: how can you prove that it’s always going to give you the nearest postcode/zipcode to a given latitude+longitude coordinate? Notably, not all coordinates are equally probable, e.g. if many people bookmark a particular map URL, etc. How do you guarantee that nobody will ever stumble across an easter egg?

  5. Ben,

    This has been debated and hashed out many times as recently as in OSCON. This is a propaganda made by proprietary companies who said similar things when Open Source entered the traditional software world. We have seen this happen again and again. First, without open source, cloud computing wouldn’t have taken off in such a big way. Second, PaaS doesn’t take away Open Source at all. Just ask Engine Yard how they exist while Heroku is also in the same space. Thirdly, the relevance of source code need not be at the OS or Middleware level all the time. It could be at a much higher level in the stack. All that matters is where we abstract away the need for source code. Remember, in the traditional desktop world, we abstracted away the code that drove the Microprocessors and various registers and focussed at the OS level. We can do the same in the PaaS based world. Fourth, Open Source and cloud computing has come up in such a way that the self interests of cloud vendors will ensure that open source will be relevant. I have talked about it in many posts at and also in this podcast about the same with Geva Perry and James Urquhart at

  6. Richard

    You seem to be conflating two different things – the existence of an API for custom extensions / workflows, which has been provided by proprietary applications for decades, and the concept of open source. Having an API doesn’t give a customer the flexibility and freedom of an open source application.

    • Richard – I think you’re confusing an API with a PaaS offering. The former allows data interchange between apps, the latter allows customization of apps and even creation of entirely new apps…