New OpenStack member AT&T has developers on the mind

AT&T (s t) has decided to build another cloud, this one focusing on developers and, ultimately, incorporating elements of the open-source OpenStack project. AT&T officially signed on as an OpenStack contributor today. It’s an ambitious undertaking as AT&T tries to prove it can hang with the big boys in delivering cloud infrastructure to the masses.

AT&T has been offering cloud Infrastructure-as-a-Service for years under the Synaptic Hosting moniker, but those services largely targeted enterprise customers. With the new service, called Cloud Architect, AT&T is targeting small businesses and individual developers, presumably the same audience AT&T expects to use the spate of mobile-app-development tools it also announced today.

Steve Caniano, AT&T’s VP of hosting, application and cloud services, told me Cloud Architect will most likely be available within the next two weeks and “[I]t’s fair to say you’ll see the elements of [Cloud Architect] move in [the OpenStack] direction over time.” Such a move would let Cloud Architect users leverage the open APIs and shared core architecture that make OpenStack so appealing from an interoperability standpoint.

Additionally, Caniano said, AT&T is building its own OpenStack-based private cloud to run the company’s new API Platform, and there will be some synergy between that platform and Cloud Architect as well. AT&T acknowledged it was building an OpenStack private cloud back in May.

However, AT&T faces two big challenges as it tries to expand its cloud computing business: effectively distinguishing its enterprise offerings from its developer offerings, and convincing developers to choose AT&T over Amazon Web Services(s amzn), Rackspace(s rax), Microsoft(s msft), Heroku(s crm), Joyent or any of a number of other cloud providers. The latter challenge might be the hardest, as these providers have been courting developers for years and have reputable cloud services. IT giants HP (s hpq) and Dell (s dell) also are planning developer-focused cloud services, both based atop OpenStack. AT&T, for its part, comes into the game with the notoriety of being everyone’s (including, no doubt, some iPhone-toting (s aapl) developers’) least-favorite wireless provider.

On the other hand, when AT&T competitor Verizon (s vz) wanted to get serious about cloud computing, it bought Terremark and CloudSwitch. CenturyLink (s ctl) bought Savvis. These acquisitions suggest the buyers understood two important things: their strengths are not in building and delivering cloud infrastructure services, and enterprise customers are their bread and butter.

As for differentiating its multiple cloud offerings, even Caniano acknowledges there are some areas of overlap in terms of what services are being offered and how they’re procured. However, he explained, AT&T’s Synaptic services are far more complementary to the company’s virtual private network and other enterprise-centric offerings, whereas Cloud Architect will be a truer commodity-style, credit-card cloud like AWS or Rackspace Cloud Servers. Perhaps this distinction will be clearer when Cloud Architect becomes available.

AT&T has undertaken a risky strategy, one that keeps it competitive with Verizon (S VZ) and CenturyLink (s ctl), but also with a whole world of IaaS and PaaS offerings targeting web and mobile developers. AT&T has the resources to pull it off if it can get its technology, business model and messaging right, but it won’t be easy.

Image courtesy of AT&T.