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Will the real cloud operating system please stand up?

Recently, I read an article about a new open-source “cloud operating system” called OSv, which was written by the creator of the popular KVM hypervisor. This cloud operating system is designed to run applications in virtual machines extremely fast via a stripped down version of Linux. In other words, it is a custom operating system that runs inside a virtual machine and efficiently runs only a single application. 

If you Google “cloud operating system,” you will find an ambiguous mess with at least four distinct concepts showing up on the first page of results (not to mention an outdated and incorrect Wikipedia page that is in desperate need of disambiguation). The four different purported meanings of “cloud operating system” in the search results are:

  • Browser-based desktops. This type of software dominates the first page listings with articles like “9 cloud operating systems you can try out for free” and “8 cloud operating systems you might want to give a try.” Products in this space are JoliOSGlide OS, SilveOSZeroPC and Cloudo. The idea behind these systems is that they offer a virtual desktop, central storage of data and a basic set of typical office applications. 
  • “Roll-your-own cloud” software. OpenStack is the very first search result of this type, with the company’s home page stating that “OpenStack software delivers a massively scalable cloud operating system.” Open Stack is a set of open-source software that enables the creation of a cloud computing environment that is primarily being used to set up private clouds inside an organization. Given that a traditional operating system manages the hardware resources of a single machine, the analogy of a cloud operating system managing a set of networked machines to deliver cloud services makes sense. 
  • Marketing hype. The search result that links to Microsoft’s “cloud OS vision” is merely marketing techno-babble. On ensuing results pages there is similar marketing hype from Oracle and HP, billing their custom offerings as cloud operating systems. This form of “cloud washing” is usually counter-productive and quite pathetic. Let the buyer beware.
  • Intra-VM OS. As discussed in the opening paragraph, the latest buzz about cloud operating systems involves traditional operating systems that are tailored and customized to run more efficiently within a virtual machine, which in turn can be run in a public, private or hybrid cloud.

So, will the REAL cloud operating system please stand up? Or, in other words, what is the proper definition of a cloud operating system? 

The best way to settle this would be to use the established definition of a “computer operating system” as our baseline. A “computer operating system” is the system (or collection) of programs that enables usage of a computer’s hardware by one or more applications, which then enables usage by end-users. 

Given that, the proper definition of a cloud operating system would be the set or collection of software that enables usage of a cloud environment (or pooled computing resources) by one or more applications that in turn enable usage by end-users. In other words, just as an end-user application is not an operating system, an end-user cloud application is not a cloud operating system. 

Thus, in my opinion, the only meaning of the four above that properly deserves the moniker of “cloud operating system” is the second one (OpenStack’s definition). The other ones should change their labeling (and possibly marketing) to more accurately match their meaning. 

Overall, this type of ambiguity is an indicator of the rapid evolution of cloud computing and the consequences of that torrid pace of change. On the bright side, this is also an indicator of the high-level of interest, opportunity and innovation in cloud computing that is a harbinger of more good things to come.

Michael C. Daconta ( is the Vice President of Advanced Technology at InCadence Strategic Solutions and the former Metadata Program Manager for the Homeland Security Department. His new book is entitled, The Great Cloud Migration: Your Roadmap to Cloud Computing, Big Data and Linked Data.

Posted by Michael C. Daconta on Jan 22, 2014 at 10:31 AM

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Reader Comments

Fri, Oct 10, 2014 laraib pakistan

what about the Linux (Ubuntu) cloud OS ?? it is only available for server, i still not get an exact idea about it

Thu, Jan 23, 2014 Editor

I see your point, but the intent of the column was to highlight different approaches to cloud by setting up a simple logical exercise: take a broad consensus definition of a computer operating system and use it to compare some of the most repeated claims made about various approaches to cloud tossed out from a random Google search. In doing so, Mike settled on OpenStack as having most in common with a traditional operating system. The real message seems to be that ambiguity among the flavors of cloud is a sign of change. All in all, a useful caveat emptor to have in today's swirling cloud marketplace.

Thu, Jan 23, 2014 efivebravo

I'll be first to admit to my lack of deep technical knowledge but the fact that a VP and former program director at DHS seems vexed by cloud OS is incomprehensible. Therefore,knowing Daconta is no dummy, I must conclude that this article was written for a purpose other than to profess his idiocy, which immediately erodes his credibility. Jokers like this continuously attempt to mystify these offerings by the worlds leading cloud providers in an attempt to sell more books and keep the door open for the little guys who don't have a solid offering to compete with the likes of Oracle and Microsoft. Who, with separate approaches have both offered the world perfectly definable and viable cloud OSs. My advise, have a GCN author without an agenda or book to sell call Microsoft or Oracle and set up a briefing on the use of enterprise cloud resources. Then write an article worth reading. GCN is constantly pandering to whoever will by add space and reporting on government IT activities that anyone working in government IT knew about last week or got in their latest FedBizOps update. I must stop the madness and cancel my subscription.

Thu, Jan 23, 2014

Very narrow and almost deceptive logic in your conclusion. I can only assume you are biased toward FOSS solutions to a fault. what about VM and their cloud efforts. They have all the components of OpenStack and a lot more. Yes, the term is difficult, but it doesn't have one conclusion as you have illogically concluded

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