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7/23/2010
05:01 PM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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Rackspace's OpenStack: Where Do We Go From Here

There's a new kid in town when it comes to open source code in the cloud. It's Rackspace's OpenStack, based on both Rackspace's and NASA Nebula's existing cloud engines. Wasn't there already sufficient open source code in play? Why do we need this initiative on top of those already afoot? Actually, we need 3-4 such initiatives.

There's a new kid in town when it comes to open source code in the cloud. It's Rackspace's OpenStack, based on both Rackspace's and NASA Nebula's existing cloud engines. Wasn't there already sufficient open source code in play? Why do we need this initiative on top of those already afoot? Actually, we need 3-4 such initiatives.Rackspace convened a group of interested companies the week of July 12 and asked them if they would help build a stack of open source software that would power a more uniform, future cloud environment. This move had one target, Amazon Web Services EC2, which has run away with the cloud infrastructure market.

Isn't there already open source code opening up EC2? There is, from Eucalyptus Systems, which did a sterling job of duplicating basic Amazon functionality in its set of compatible interfaces. The Eucalyptus interfaces duplicate basic Amazon functionality, such as 'load this workload onto a virtual server,' and then builds them out into cloud infrastructure -- for the enterprise private cloud. Eucalyptus Enterprise Edition is a commercial product meant to capitalize on what Eucalyptus open source code created.

The Rackspace initiative is different, and Eucalyptus Systems CEO Marten Mickos said as much when he responded to an InformationWeek query. It "aims at a cloud with a million nodes. It is an entirely non-commercial initiative," he said. By "aimed at a million nodes," he means OpenStack, unlike Eucalyptus, is a code project aimed at major cloud suppliers of the future (which, of course, will be commercial initiatives). The project itself isn't aimed at producing code to be sold as a commercial product so much as providing a cloud infrastructure to be shared across many cloud suppliers. I found Thorsten von Eicken, CTO of RightScale, which front ends both Rackspace and EC2, the most zeroed in on this new development. In a July 18 blog, he said: "RackSpace has committed itself to a true open source project, meaning that it's not just source code thrown over the wall into the open, but also an open design process, an open development process and an open community."

The Rackspace-sponsored meeting lead to a session on OpenStack requirements, with Rick Clark, senior manager of software product development at Rackspace, "managing the requirements gathering very openly," wrote von Eicken. "I expect we will see a good number of companies contributing code to this project."

The companies participating at what Rackspace termed its Design Summit were: AMD, Intel, Dell, Citrix Systems, NTT Data, RightScale, Zenoss, Autonomic Resources, SoftLayer, Opscode, CloudSwitch, Cloudscaling, Cloud.com, Cloudkick, enStratus, FathomDB, iomart Group, Limelight, Nicira, Peer 1, Puppet Labs, Riptano, Scalr, Sonian, Spiceworks and Zuora.

The strength of this group is that it has the expertise to cover many bases. The weakness is that it may or may not have the ability to keep a strict focus, keep members engaged, keep code coming over a long period of time. Even if it meets those goals, it may not appeal to all cloud suppliers, who for reasons of their own may adopt a more Amazon-like approach or simply their own approach.

This is open source by and for the benefit of a group of vendors, who wish to supply components to the future cloud and know they will not be able to do so if Amazon's EC2 is the only player. That's a little different from the wide open Linux project, which attracted skilled developers whose efforts were then adopted by thousands of other skilled developers on an independent basis. Whatever OpenStack produces, there's no guarantee that a majority of open source developers, nevermind a majority of cloud suppliers, will adopt it.

But we need the OpenStack project. The open source projects keep Amazon honest, keep it innovating and pushing the cloud frontier forward rather than letting others get there first. We need an alternative to Amazon as well, lest the dominant supplier become so dominant that it can dictate the market. We need more than one alternative.

We now have Eucalyptus and OpenStack injecting code directly to the future cloud market, with different target users in mind. One way to insure we don't end up in a cloud era that resembles the age of IBM mainframe domination or Microsoft desktop domination is to create and sustain these alternatives.

"Having many fragmented cloud efforts doesn't really help build a compelling alternative to Amazon," warns von Eicken.

That's right, but in the long run, the cloud isn't just one thing. There will be many variations to the sets of services that it offers and business models that it employs. These services will be built out more rapidly if providers can share infrastructure components and customers can move with ease from one cloud to another.

By putting its weight behind this stack, Rackspace at a stroke has generated a possible basis for competition with EC2 -- a future environment shared across a wide range of providers. Whether that eventuality ever materializes remains to be seen, but I see no technical barrier standing in the way.

"The bottom line is, we believe this to be a potentially game changing event," wrote von Eicken. If the desire to produce code by this set of vendors is matched by a desire to use the code by an even broader one, then, yes, we will have just witnessed a game changing event.

For more thoughts on open source in cloud computing, see Zenoss engineer Mark Hinkle's presentation on Linux, Open Source and Socialized Software at the O'Reilly Open Source Conference in Portland, Ore.



Emerging technology always comes with a learning curve. Here are some real-world lessons about cloud computing from early adopters. Download the latest all-digital issue of InformationWeek for that story and more. (Free registration required.)

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