Understanding the State of OpenStack

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The OpenStack Summit took place in Portland, OR this week.  As a result, we’ll see more interest and momentum behind the use of OpenStack.  This standard, and resulting public and private cloud technologies, have much of the cloud computing energy these days.  However, you still have to consider the technology objectively to find the right value for your enterprise.

There seem to be two major camps emerging in cloud computing standards.  There are those who believe that OpenStack provides a true open standard, and thus will reduce lock-in and other interoperability risks.  Then there are those who are going with the success and momentum behind Amazon Web Services (AWS).

The growth of OpenStack has been defined more by the interest from larger and sometimes new cloud providers, such as IBM, Rackspace, HP, and others, that have declared allegiance to this “Open Cloud” standard.  However, there are dozens of OpenStack-fueled startups out there as well, many of which are seeing much higher values, and even early exits, due to their use of OpenStack.

The growth and interest in OpenStack is still difficult to measure.  Many look at activities within user and developer communities for OpenStack, OpenNebula, Eucalytpus and CloudStack as a way to determine interest.  Figure 1, for example,  from CY12-Q4 Community Analysis — OpenStack vs OpenNebula vs Eucalyptus vs CloudStack, shows that OpenStack has clearly dominated the conversations since its appearance just a few years ago.

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While OpenStack clearly has the momentum, it’s not seeing a large number of installations yet, certainly not up to the levels of AWS and VMWare.  In many respects, now that we have the larger players on the OpenStack bandwagon, we have the larger PR teams in there as well, fueling public interest ahead of the actual growth.

There are two main concerns by those enterprises looking to move to OpenStack private or public clouds, including:

  • Lack of long-term commitment to OpenStack by the larger technology providers they may select.
  • The inability of OpenStack to compete effectively with AWS, and the possibility that AWS will create a winning de facto standard.

Indeed, large technology providers have a poor history of remaining confined to standards.  As the market heats up, larger players that have more resources, such as HP and Rackspace, may find it irresistible to add in their own proprietary API extensions to differentiate their public and private cloud computing offerings.

Indeed, the OpenStack organization is already concerned about the movement away from the standard.  According to IT World, OpenStack is starting to crack down on incompatible clouds, including cloud technology released by the OpenStack foundation companies Rackspace and HP.  Both have been accused of early compatibility issues, and both have denied that these issues exist.  Or, if they exist, they will be corrected.

Indeed, Rackspace wrote a blog post saying it hopes to adhere to the letter of the OpenStack standard by the end of 2013. “While we believe some variation in implementations will be inevitable, we do want to eliminate as many of these as possible to provide as much of a common OpenStack experience as we can,” wrote Troy Toman, for Rackspace.

What’s concerning here is that the standard is pretty early in the game, and if there are interoperability issues that exist now, from one of OpenStack’s founding companies, what does the future actually hold?  Over time, OpenStack could become so fragmented that interoperability is no longer a value that it brings, and thus the value of adhering to a standard drops significantly.

However, the objective of the OpenStack organization is to keep companies in-line around API compatibility.  For now, you can either take them at their word, or not.  Keep in mind that the very players that OpenStack will have to police in the forthcoming years fund OpenStack.

The other issues of viability will be up to the still emerging cloud computing market.  You can’t argue with success.  AWS is now a multi-billion dollar technology, with none of the OpenStack public cloud players even close.

Much like the growth and dominance of Microsoft in the desktop operating space in the 90s, AWS could find that they have become a standard just by wining most of the business.  There are API-compatible players, such as Eucalyptus, that provide a private cloud version with some of the AWS services.  If AWS continues their success, then others may consider the same proprietary type of approach.  It will be interesting to see how AWS responds.

So, is OpenStack a safe bet?  As this standard and the resulting distributions mature, I suspect that it will become a family of strong cloud computing technologies.  While interoperability and compatibility will continue to be a struggle, and there is bound to be some infighting among the OpenStack loyalists, this one may have some longer legs than many of the “open standards” we’ve dealt with in the past.

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