Richard Stallman's Cloudy Vision

Stallman argues that cloud computing causes users to cede too much control of their tools, their data, and their privacy to vendors.  But this claim can only be evaluated relative to the likely alternatives.   What Stallman has in mind -- what he has advocated with admirable consistency for over 30 years -- is a world in which every user maintains maximal control over his own computing environment, using open source software and personal vigilance to maximize freedom from the agendas of big companies and governments.

Richard Stallman, never shy with his opinions, has recently weighed in on cloud computing: he's against it.  I have a lot of respect for Richard and his contributions to the industry, but, not for the first time, he's erred by seeing black and white where the world is a more subtle shade of gray.

If you've embraced  his preferred alternative, you're undoubtedly running some open version of UNIX (Linux, BSD, etc.) on all of your computers.  You, or someone in your organization, are facile with the UNIX administrative commands and procedures that keep your system running smoothly, without recourse to tools provided by such vendors as Microsoft, Apple, or Oracle.  You don't blindly load vendor security patches, but instead follow some of the many streams of information about UNIX security tools and patches.  In short, you're a hard-core geek, and more power to you.  You're also one in a thousand.

More likely, however, you're thoroughly locked in the embrace of one or more vendors today, and although you may sometimes grumble, you don't seriously consider moving to Stallman's path.  Perhaps you're even aware that you've chosen an IT technology path that constrains your freedom more than is strictly necessary, but you accept that choice in exchange for the simpler administration that comes with vendor lock-in.  If your company is 90% geeks, you may be largely Linux-focused, but if your company views IT as a means to an end, you've probably embraced a few vendors as the simplest way to minimize your effort on IT, so that you can focus on your real business.

If that's who you are today, then Stallman is wrong because he has misindentified your priorities.  If your goal is to use IT as a resource, cloud computing is the next logical step.  It replaces a vendor-provided infrastructure with a vendor-managed exostructure.  Moving from a vendor-centered environment to an open source enviroment will inevitably increase the effort you need to devote to IT administration.  Moving to cloud computing will decrease it.  It's really that simple.

Stallman is right in pointing out the price you pay.  You accept a certain amount of vendor lock-in when you choose any cloud computing vendor, as you do when you choose an operating system or database vendor.  (You can minimize the lock-in with contractual arrangements and diligent oversight, but it will never be as easy as you'd like, just as switching operating system vendors will never be painless.)

Computing for the masses is evolving towards a utility model, like so many other technologies before it.  Today, the odds are overwhelmingly high that your business gets its electricity by simply outsourcing the infrastructure for its generation and maintenance to a utility company.  Only if you have special needs do you accept the cost of doing more work yourself:  a large data center will maintain an emergency generating infrastructure, and a laboratory may maintain special power conditioning equipment.  You probably need neither.

Similarly, in the future most businesses will be able to outsource most computing needs, accepting a relatively standardized service from a single vendor in exchange for freedom from understanding the details of how it works.  Meanwhile, some vendors -- those with specialized needs and/or expertise -- will value the other kinds of freedom Mr. Stallman advocates highly enough to follow his advice and maintain their own infrastructure.

In short, Stallman's analysis of cloud computing's tradeoffs is on the money, but his estimation of how to make those tradeoffs is skewed heavily toward users who resemble... Richard Stallman.  As a long-time open source advocate, UNIX geek, and Linux contributor myself, my heart is with Stallman's message.  But as a businessman who understands how little most people understand technology, and how incidental technology details are to most businesses, my head tells me most people should choose the opposite path.  If cloud computing at its worst entraps users with golden handcuffs, open source computing at its worst drowns users in technical details.   Most people view the selection of IT infrastructure as a pragmatic choice, not a political one, and will choose the path that makes it easiest to get their job done.  More and more, that will lead them to choose cloud computing.