Open is Overrated

2011 September 08 10:32 AM

My previous post spurred some good discussions, both at HN and in the comments.

One line of criticism I noticed was repeated by a number of folks goes something like this. The stack powering AWS is closed. Google might not show as much developer love, but at least their code is open. This is illustrated by a comment on the post:

Google not only creates interesting products, services, and APIs all the time, but they tend to make them open and available.

Now I love open source and open platforms as much as the next engineer. Being able to debug your application down into the internals of the platform is hugely valuable. But that is a second order problem. The first problem an engineer needs to solve is how to build the damn thing at all.

It’s not that Google can’t help in this area. My startup, Wompt, is built on top of V8/Node, uses Google Analytics, and uses Google Apps for email. We also owe a lot to Chrome and its phenomenal debugging capabilities.

But there is a qualitative difference between these tools and what AWS provides. Each of the Google tools solves a core problem, but they don’t amplify the capabilities of my startup. The AWS stack acts as a huge multiple to my startup’s capacity and engineering velocity. AWS also eliminates all operational capital costs. This is hugely important for a startup. Because all of the operational costs are variable with growth, you are free to scale with reduced worry about running out of money. In fact, if you have a business model such that you can start out with revenue exceeding costs, then there is literally no limit to your potential.

Just consider Simple Queue Service. Could I just go grab something like RabbitMQ and setup a queue? Sure. But it would take time. Time that I could spend creating value in my core product. And my own implementation of the queue probably wont be nearly as reliable or performant as Amazon’s. And I would have to pay for a server.

Some folks point out that AWS isn’t free - you need to pay to use the compute power. Well duh. Even if everything in the platform was open source, you would still have to pay. Open source can’t make operational costs dissappear (yet?). I trust Amazon to do a much better job than me at ensuring basic reliablity, like keeping the power on. For the nominal cost of using their services, I get an enormous amount of value.

That fact that Amazon’s services aren’t open, as in open source, increases operational risk, but it actually only has a very minor impact on the value I recieve. And because Amazon’s services operate in a highly competitive environment, I know that if it really becomes necessary, I can move everything to another provider. By comparison, something like gmail or even Google Analytics have very high lock-in.

And truly, which is more closed: a platform that you can pay to use or a platform that, for all anyone outside the company knows, is just make believe. In that sense, petascale MapReduce is like a Unicorn, a mythical creature capable of amazing feats, but existing as nothing more than words on paper.

blog comments powered by Disqus