Will OpenStack Usher in a Cloud Revolution?

Thursday Sep 20th 2012 by Jeff Vance
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OpenStack is seen by many as the project that will, finally, make the cloud enterprise ready. Detractors don’t believe it and point to political in-fighting, domination by large vendors and a lack of maturity.

If you’re already tired of all the hype surrounding cloud computing, you’d better brace yourself for another cycle focused on OpenStack, the open-source cloud platform that’s touted as the operating system for the cloud.

The forces aligning behind OpenStack are impressive ones. The project originated in NASA, was moved along in partnership with Rackspace and is now spearheaded by the OpenStack Foundation. OpenStack is backed by 180 member companies, including biggies like AT&T, HP, IBM, Cisco, VMware and Intel.

Oh, and the Foundation has $10 million in funding. Not bad.

Despite its roster of supporters, OpenStack has plenty of detractors too. Before acquiring network virtualization startup Nicira, recently added member VMware bad-mouthed OpenStack as an “ugly sister” to vCloud (the other ugly sisters being Citrix-led CloudStack and Eucalyptus).

I should also note that while you don’t hear much out of Amazon, AWS is the 800-pound, thus far silent, gorilla in the room.

Just when you were hoping the enterprise cloud picture was getting clearer, along comes political in-fighting about whose cloud is more open and which will meet the performance standards needed for enterprise-class cloud computing.

VMware Joins – Consensus or Kiss of Death

OpenStack was originally seen as an open alternative to VMware’s proprietary dominance over data center virtualization and what would eventually turn into proprietary clouds.

Boris Renski, EVP of cloud startup Mirantis and a Gold Member of OpenStack, isn’t happy about VMware’s participation in OpenStack. On the Mirantis blog, Renski wrote:

"Subduing OpenStack is exactly what VMware did by joining the foundation. Every enterprise considering OpenStack that we ever encountered at Mirantis was primarily interested in OpenStack as an open alternative to proprietary VMware. While in reality OpenStack and VMware are different kinds of beasts, perception-wise there is no argument: enterprises see OpenStack as a substitute for VMware. Now, with VMware in the OpenStack foundation, every enterprise buyer will rightfully ask the question: 'If OpenStack is not competing with VMware, then what the hell is OpenStack?'”

Not everyone in OpenStack feels this way. “Boris was one of two board members to vote against VMware. Two out of twenty-four,” said Josh McKenty, a co-founder of OpenStack and the CEO of Piston Cloud Computing.

“Look at hypervisors, they [VMware] have 90 percent market share. Every cloud has a hypervisor in it somewhere. VMware is in best position to make all of that work, and when we talk to end users, they all tell us they want VMware in OpenStack,” he said.

McKenty added that what is good for the overall OpenStack community in this case might not work out as well for Mirantis. We’ll see.

Performance and Maturity

Other detractors point to the relative immaturity of OpenStack and performance issues.

German company Dolphin IT Services downloaded OpenStack, gave it a test run, but then abandoned it.

“It became apparent quite fast that the product was not mature enough to be deployed productively. A lot needed to be done on our side in order for it to work correctly. There were still some features we dearly needed that were not implemented yet – or not sufficiently implemented – like billing and an appealing Web front end,” said Andreas Kunter, CEO of Dolphin IT Services.

The company instead adopted the cloud platform from startup OnApp. “[With OnApp] we could basically deploy out-of-the-box. It integrated nicely with our chosen billing platform, and allowed us to grow our business without having to pay large amounts upfront,” he said.

One of the main concerns Kunter had with OpenStack is support. “Support after deployment is often underestimated,” he said. “We know a lot about virtualization and hypervisor technology, but we are still learning while maintaining our cloud. When things go wild and you need to solve it fast, it is good to have proficient support to back you up.”

Plenty of companies, Rackspace included, intend to make money supporting OpenStack. However, it will take time to build those support teams out, and to get them up to speed on all of the ins and outs of the sprawling OpenStack project.

The other two major complaints that detractors have about OpenStack are: 1) big vendors like Cisco, HP, IBM, Intel and VMware could dominate the project in ways that won’t be beneficial to the larger community and 2) OpenStack performance isn’t yet competitive with the likes of AWS.

As for complaint one, anytime you have that many big vendors working together, people will be wary of them. Would it be better for them to simply offer an array of competing products, rather than putting their proprietary layers and services over a common core?

At the very least, the threat of vendor-lock, a very real cloud concern, is lessened with OpenStack.

Complaint two is trickier.

Cloud storage startup Nasuni has tested all the major bulk cloud storage service providers for performance, stability and scalability. “We’re neutral about OpenStack,” said Andres Rodriguez, CEO of Nasuni. “But we’re going to rigorously test any product or service we may offer to our own customers.”

Rodriguez pointed out that Nasuni didn’t specifically test OpenStack, but since Rackspace developed and uses OpenStack, Nasuni regards Rackspace Cloud as the OpenStack showcase. Based on benchmarks Nasuni set, only six out of the sixteen cloud storage providers they tested passed.

Rackspace did indeed pass, but the cloud storage test found that Rackspace lagged far behind leader Amazon in a number of key metrics, including speed, both read and write errors, and stability.

“Remember, cloud storage is all about scale, and there’s a huge gap between Amazon and everyone else, just based on scale alone. Most of Rackspace’s business is still colocation. Their cloud storage footprint is dwarfed by Amazon,” he said.

While cloud storage is new to most vendors, Amazon has been working away on this problem for the past twelve or fifteen years. “By the time they went public, they’d already accumulated seven years or so of real-world operational experience. Challengers are coming in a decade late,” he added.

The Future of OpenStack

Storage is only one part of OpenStack, and arguably one of its least mature parts. It’s premature to write it off as something that will never challenge Amazon, especially as storage demands continue to skyrocket.

And not all storage is the same. Mission-critical storage is much different than, say, backups of non-critical media files.

McKenty, the OpenStack co-founder, said that his next major step for OpenStack is to get the separate projects better joined beneath a common framework. With so many developers working independently, the projects can grow apart. “It’s a challenge to figure out how to keep the projects loosely coupled, so you don’t stifle the creativity of developers, yet linked, so everything works well together,” he said.

He believes it’ll be another release or two before they reach that goal, but when they do, OpenStack will have a single command line that will ensure interoperability at the most basic level.

“We’ve learned plenty of lessons along the way,” said Wayne Walls, one of Rackspace’s key OpenStack developers. “We quickly learned that you could have about a billion different variations of an OpenStack cloud where you tell people to download it and go run it as they see fit. But that’s very hard to support at scale.”

Walls believes that OpenStack is nearly past its awkward “immature” phase. Companies are taking OpenStack and developing products around it. If you look at some of the startups in the OpenStack Foundation, including Mirantis and Piston Cloud Computing, all of their messaging focuses on OpenStack. You would have a hard time getting much VC funding if OpenStack was a doomed science project.

“OpenStack has 550,000 lines of code today, with close to 500 developers around world contributing code,” Walls said. “This model pushes best of breed to the top. Whether it’s networking or storage or whatever else, the world’s top experts decide how things are done.”

The other key variable that Walls pointed to is the fact that no matter “how deep in the weeds” you get with OpenStack, it’s very easy to pick up your assets and move them. It’s not nearly as easy to do so with closed APIs.

Of course, this is important if enterprises are ever going to gain confidence in public clouds, but it’s equally important for private clouds. This kind of portability means an OpenStack cloud, almost by definition, is a hybrid cloud, allowing you to move back and forth between private and public environments almost at will.

That’s a competitive advantage that OpenStack is gaining that competing solutions will have trouble keeping up with.

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