The (bumpy) road to Free Software SaaS

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Free Software advocates quickly demonize SaaS as the ultimate way to take your freedom away. A lot of them dismiss the advantages of having data online highlighting (and rightly so) the fact that you may be locked out of your own data anytime. My question is: what if SaaS is in fact the way to go, the future, and just need to hurry the hell up and make sure that it's easy to install, and use, the great SaaS available under a free software license?

The cloud's advantages

I am not going to spend much of this article explaining why I believe that SaaS is great. I will however name a few reasons:

  • Simultaneous collaboration on documents. When two people in two different parts of the world are both editing a Google Documents spreadsheet at the same time, or writing a presentation together, it feels like you are watching a Hollywood movie. Except, you are not: changes happen as they are typed, and productivity (as well as fun, may I say) is sky-high.

  • Backing up. Last week, I had a full hard drive failure. It started with IO errors on my drive, which then evolved into real trouble. I have weekly backups, and recovered the most recent stuff just on time. I was lucky and able to act very quickly. Normal users normally aren't as lucky. If your data is on a server, you are fine.

  • Software updates. I believe that only the very basic system should reside on the computer: the operating system, the browser, the basic desktop, along with IO drivers etc. For all that, yes, a big bunch of packages that get updated in the background make a lot of sense. End-user software, however, should run in a browser window. Yes, you heard me right (and, before you think I am completely crazy, read on).

  • Access. You can access your applications, and your data, from anywhere you are, and from any computer. This is a huge advantage.

Arguments against SaaS

There are tons of arguments against SaaS. So many, that it's hard to list them: privacy, data control, data mobility, upgrade control, sudden account deletion, the list goes on and on. Pretty much all of them are due to the fact that, until up to now, having data in the "cloud" meant having it on some proprietary server somewhere on the planet, with a big corporation (and governments) able to spy on you.

All these arguments are real: it is insane having your corporate spreadsheets, or your tax returns, your private information, and basically your life on Google Documents. It's a recipe for disaster: one day, Google might simply cancel your account, just like that.

But... what about the benefits? Should we really give them all up, just like that?

"The cloud" is unsafe. "Your cloud" is not

I believe that the cloud as such is very unsafe. I agree with every single point ever made against it, honestly and frankly. However, I also believe in the cloud's advantages (see my earlier point: editing documents together, for example). The solution? That's in your cloud.

Ubuntu did a fantastic job creating a client-side system that anybody can install and use. Linux Mint is another great option. I believe that Ubuntu and Mint, together, cover pretty much all of the client-side, no fuss user base.

These systems are created by getting thousands of packages, testing how they work, and providing a simple installation procedure for them. Ubuntu in particular has gone a long way, with their Ubuntu Software Center as well as their incredibly friendly installation procedure.

All we need now, is the same -- but for the server.

People forget that there is, right now, a huge collection of free software that can do pretty much anything:

  • Teambox for project management
  • Collective Access for archiving
  • Zimbra and Roundcube for your email
  • Etherpad for online documents ala Google Docs (yes, interactive). How many people knew that they could set up their own shared documents system locally?

The list goes on and on. In the end, you can have enough pieces of software that you will be completely sick of trying new ones.

The short story is that if you don't trust the cloud (and you shouldn't), you can (and should) be able to create your own cloud, using your own servers.

The bonus is that you will be able to use these pieces of software wherever you are. You will be able to tick TODOs as done, create a document in real time with your colleagues, check your email and answer -- all by using your own servers.

The catch: it's hard work

Installing the pieces of software I mentioned above is hard work. Getting a server set up with just the four pieces of software I mentioned (which are just a drop in the ocean) can take a quite some time, even for an experienced system administrator.

Incidentally, the list I provided is especially complex: Etherpad is based on Node.JS, Teambox is based on Ruby, and so on. Some of them want a database server installed and configured... it really does get complicated.

Thing is, installing software was complicated as well, a while ago in GNU/Linux. You had to download the .tar.gz file, start compiling, and discover what libraries (and what versions) you were missing. Today, it's a tad easier.

What I am saying here is, it doesn't need to be hard.

A solution: a GNU/Linux SaaS distribution?

Just as GNU/Linux distributions simplified enormously the process of installing software and use it at desktop level, we need the same giant leap in terms of free software SaaS. We need a distribution that:

  • Installs a baseless server
  • Gives the means to configure this server (see: Webmin). However, administration should be basically unnecessary, or extremely simplified.
  • Gives users the ability to install/enable web services
  • Give users a "portal" where they can see exactly what services are available

This would effectively create an "application server" where the most important, free software SaaS are available at your fingertips.

Creating such a distribution is anything but easy: configuring a Webmail for example is quite involved and requires careful work. However, I remember some 20 years ago people saying that making a 100% user friendly GNU/Linux distribution was impossible because of the way Unix worked and was structured... and I am writing this while using GNU/Linux.

Before you say that I am just dreaming, and that there is no money in making a GNU/Linux distribution like this, picture this: a distribution could make all this available for free, but could then configure everything so that online backup happens seamlessly with their servers, at a small fee for more than X Gb backed up. Or they could offer pre-configured network devices (Raspberries, anybody?) with all the requires software preinstalled. Just like Ubuntu is trying to make money with Ubuntu One, there are possible business models to make this self-sustainable.

Am I dreaming?

Maybe I am dreaming. However, I can't picture a world where web software is not more and more relevant. And I don't want to imagine a world where your data is always on a corporation's server -- a corporation well intertwined with the government, and willing to disconnect you from your data without warning.

It is possible to have the best of both world. It's just a little painful -- for now. But, it's only going to get easier. Hopefully.



Bob Mesibov's picture

Hi, merc.

It's not obvious who should get excited about this. You seem to be seeing private clouds from the point of view of a self-employed person, or maybe a SOHO manager with a small, dispersed staff. Private clouds with archiving and collaboration are already very widespread in businesses of all larger sizes, e.g. as VPNs. Important online projects are run with version control systems as well. A publisher with whom I'm associated is setting up a secure framework to allow authors and reviewers and editors to all work on the same manuscript collaboratively. The software isn't new, and neither is the server underlying the new collaboration framework. So are you arguing that the benefits of the many existing private clouds should/could be made universal, so that anybody can have one? Do you expect the idea would catch on in Userland, where 90+% of people don't want to know what happens behind the keyboard, and wouldn't be prepared to hire their own rackspace, let alone set up a home, Web-connected server?

Just asking,

Tony Mobily's picture


I don't think you can put "version control" and "editing a spreadsheet together" in the same basket. One is a kludge to make it possible to work together on stored documents, but it's not easy to review revisions, previous versions, etc. Plus, it's not possible to edit something *really* simultaneously. The publisher you are associated with would probably benefit immensely by using Etherpad.

People who are used to using web applications (that is, most of them) would probably jump on the idea of having a credit-card sized computer you can just plug in that provides a spreadsheet, word processor, presentation, music manager, movie manager, tasks, and whatever else -- especially if they are concerned about privacy and especially if there is absolutely nothing to configure for them.

You don't think so?

Bob Mesibov's picture

I don't think so, but of course that's just my opinion.

1) Your 'simultaneous' collaboration sounds an awful lot like real-time online gaming. Is that really going to boost productivity in Boring Old Stuff Inc, where half a dozen wage slaves need to comment on a draft spreadsheet from Accounts 'before COB Friday'?

2) This doesn't sound all that different from where smartphones are headed, and you get voice connectivity with a phone as well.

I'm reluctant to get excited about the future of SaaS in any guise because I think it suits only a very small proportion of all computer users, and for perhaps only a fraction of their user-hours, not because I have the security/reliability worries you mention in your article.

There might be small gains in convenience from completely splitting my PC into minimal OS+browser, and everything else, but are they worth it? A split like this happened in the computer world a few years back with the introduction of the netbook: the traveller's friend. The convenience factor didn't transform the world. Instead, netbooks became small notebooks and notebooks continued to get smaller.

I think you'd need to make a very strong business+convenience+security case for your credit-card-sized computer (which plugs in where?) before you could start changing the world. Like desktop Linux (which I use exclusively) and the electric car, they're very good ideas with very limited use.

joaju's picture
Submitted by joaju on

At last I have found someone who agrees with me. Managing your data in "the cloud" truly is the way of the future, but I don't like the idea of corporations controlling my data. The public needs to be informed about the problems with traditional SaaS and proprietary software.

Yes, it will take hard work for the Free Software community to get this into the public view before people start buying their own pre-configured servers, but I don't believe it's as hard as some would have you think.

Also, I don't think Netbooks are a great comparison to cloud computing. People use cloud computing every day and they don't even realize it. Fewer people buy Netbooks because they're neither a regular laptop nor a tablet.

jamathis's picture
Submitted by jamathis on

Even if SaaS was running free software I wouldn't use it even though I exclusively use free software on my personal systems. The fact is I wouldn't be in control of my data. Using SaaS it becomes the property of the server owner. There is no way that I would trust my information to a third party in that way. SaaS is a terrible idea for those that value privacy and freedom.

Author information

Tony Mobily's picture


Tony is the founder and the Editor In Chief of Free Software Magazine