08 October 2009

Nebula and open-source democracy



I'm ambivalent and skeptical (ambivical? skeptivalent?) but definitely optimistic about Nebula. No, not the science fiction award (although, hey! Wouldn't it be great to win one from a novel written during November's NaNoWriMo?) or the various Messier catalog objects.   This Nebula is the US Government's entry platform into cloud computing.

I'm ambivalent because, first off: the government (inasmuch as you can attribute any unified direction to such a hydra) has been working on getting into cloud computing (under various names and models) for a long time, at least a decade. Cloud computing seems to be the soup du jour, but really we've been stirring the cloud computing pot for years now.  We just didn't call it cloud computing or even software-as-a-service back in the nineties when many of us were already building the stuff. So the gov jumping into the cloud is certainly very welcome, but to a large degree was inevitable.

I'm skeptical because, um, well, it's the government. There are some very very sharp people working in the government, do not mistake me. Unfortunately they're working for a bureaucratic and politicized organization with a history of being slow, over budget, and off the mark.

Overall, I'm optimistic. There certainly is some fawning commentary about Nebula, but to give credit where it's due, it's a great direction for the feds to go.  The high-level architecture certainly looks sound, and the claims of the kind of service improvements Nebula could make are in line with the best models for cloud computing, SaaS, and SOA.

One of the best things about the system is that it's open source.  I'm not an open-source devotee, as such; generally I believe that both open and proprietary software have their places in the market. But I firmly believe that in an open democracy the government should only use open-source software (with certain limited exceptions such as legitimate national-security concerns). There are certainly strong theoretical precedents for this, such as the fact that the US Government does not have copyright in its creative works (17 USC 105, 2007). There is legal precedent which supports the concept as well, for example courts ordering a couple years ago that the source code to breathalyzers be released to criminal defendants. These are certainly not dispositive, but at least lend moral support to the idea of democratic open source.

So the fact that it's open source, and the fact that the architecture looks reasonable are good signs. Keep your eyes on Nebula and its evolution.