During a mid-2010 meeting I had with Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, he predicted open source combined with cloud computing would allow Red Hat to thrive within small businesses. Whitehurst certainly didn't go out on a limb. Plenty of open source companies -- everyone from Canonical to Zmanda -- are making cloud computing moves. But will those moves pay dividends to VARs, managed services providers (MSPs) and other types of channel partners?

No doubt, platforms like Ubuntu (Linux), MySQL (database) and Apache (web server) are widely popular within the cloud ecosystem. Rackspace, for one, says Ubuntu ranks among the hosting provider's most popular platforms for partners and customers.

Plus, emerging offerings are beginning to gain traction in the cloud. A few prime examples:

Of course, established open source players like Red Hat and Novell also have big cloud ambitions. Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) includes Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization (RHEV), which is based on the KVM (kernel-based virtual machine) open source hypervisor. Together, Red Hat predicts RHEL and RHEV will provide a powerful one-two punch in the cloud computing market. For its part, Novell has been working closely with VMware to connect the dots between SUSE Linux, virtualization and cloud computing.

Can Channel Partners Profit?

Despite the anecdotes above it's important to keep open source in perspective. In the on-premise market, some open source channel partner programs have flourished. But many have struggled to find a following among VARs, MSPs and solutions providers.

The Open Source Channel Alliance, launched with great fanfare by Synnex and Red Hat in 2009, has been largely quiet in 2010. One reason: Most small VARs and MSPs grew up selling on-premise Microsoft solutions like Exchange Server, SharePoint and SQL Server. Fast forward to the present, and many of those channel partners have their hands full trying to understand Microsoft's cloud strategy and the forthcoming Office 365 cloud platform. Mixing in on-premise and cloud solutions, built atop open source, would require time and financial commitments that many legacy Microsoft partners don't have.

Meanwhile, plenty of closed-source cloud providers are gaining traction with MSPs and VARs. From online backup companies to hosted email, it seems like channel partners have dozens of well-known, established closed source platforms from which to choose.

We'll be watching to see and learn how open source and closed source battle for mind share and market share as channel partners march toward the cloud.

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