Red Hat announced plans Monday to release an enterprise-grade version of the OpenStack open-source cloud framework. The full commercial release is not expected until early 2013, but the company has posted a free, unsupported preview edition to familiarize users with OpenStack deployment, solicit feedback, and ensure that customers' concerns are addressed before the retail version is made available.
Red Hat has been a longtime contributor to OpenStack, ranking third (behind Nebula and Rackspace) in lines of code submitted, according to a recent survey released by project leaders. In April, it became a founding member of the OpenStack Federation, the community governance body established after OpenStack co-founder Rackspace sought a more vendor-agnostic leadership structure. Red Hat--along with HP, Canonical, IBM, AT&T, Nebula, Rackspace, and SUSE--signed on as a Platinum Member, which denotes the highest level of support and carries a $500,000 annual investment.
Given this history, Red Hat's move could be seen as an inevitable development. Nevertheless, the announcement is considered significant because it positions Red Hat to enter the market of full-service OpenStack vendors ahead of many competitors. It also accelerates the platform's already-impressive momentum, which, according to a running count on the openstack.org homepage, includes support from almost 3,400 programmers and over 185 companies.
"Time-wise, [the announcement] makes a lot of sense," said Lauren Nelson, an analyst with Forrester, in an interview. She pointed out that Red Hat is not the only vendor working toward a pre-packaged OpenStack service. Rackspace, for one, is also building products around the open-source infrastructure, and Nicira, fresh off its $1.26 billion acquisition by VMware, revealed earlier this month that eBay is using Nicira's Network Virtualization Platform to build an R&D cloud in the OpenStack environment.
OpenStack has fomented excitement as a potential alternative API to Amazon Web Service's (AWS) proprietary tools, which currently lead the cloud computing industry. Vendors hoping to establish a foothold in this emerging market may be feeling "some pressure," Nelson suggested, to show their respective hands. "Everybody is making their bets accordingly," she said.
According to an FAQ on Red Hat's website, the preview release will run on top of Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6, the company's flagship Linux distribution. The current build is based on the Essex release of OpenStack, but the retail version will use the upcoming Folsom release, due in September.
Despite high interest from developers and vendors, OpenStack releases from Essex backward have lacked the stability and out-of-box functionality to meet enterprise demands. The expectation that Folsom will be a major step forward has been running high and has grown to a fever pitch as the release date nears. "People are getting ready for it," Nelson said. "Vendors are making big bets by becoming a sponsor." She said optimism is justified, but that "it's unlikely they'll get there for everything," suggesting that the prioritization of certain components, such as storage, will naturally leave other areas less fully polished, with lingering gaps to be addressed subsequent to the release.
Red Hat's move signals that the Linux powerhouse feels Folsom functionality will pass muster, and, indeed, the FAQ makes the point explicitly: "We believe that the Folsom release will be the first release that has the baseline feature set and hardening needed for everyday enterprise usage." The document notes that after the "upstream release of OpenStack Folsom, Red Hat will update the preview release to a Folsom based distribution."
Even so, Red Hat has not pinpointed a final release date, a decision that Nelson links to the uncertainties surrounding exactly what OpenStack Folsom will offer. "Pre-packaged solutions need to figure out release dates," she said. "Everybody that adopts early will figure out where it doesn't meet their needs and everything that's missing, and they'll go into writing code. If the new release includes those features, then all their work can cause errors when they make their change." She noted that OpenStack's somewhat incipient development cycles still contrast heavily with those enjoyed by AWS users, who benefit from almost perpetual updates.
"Who is gonna do a better job?" she asked, referring to not only Red Hat but also all the other vendors who are hoping to make an early splash in the OpenStack enterprise world. "If they add functionality, how much worth does it add, and how much do they have to sacrifice the OpenStack code and the OpenStack solution?" That is, if developers have to insert missing functionality, will they do so in a way that preserves customer flexibility and open source ideals? Or, will the solutions create de facto proprietary services, creating the sort of lock-in that many OpenStack proponents see as a drawback to AWS's products?
"Right now, [OpenStack support] is all vendor-driven," Nelson said, and, indeed, much of the attention surrounding the project involves the number and prestige of contributors, not businesses that have deployed the infrastructure and its related products into their daily operations. This relative vacuum is what made the recent eBay announcement so newsworthy. To graduate from hyped project to a legitimately useful platform, OpenStack Folsom needs not only improved functionality and a better user interface--the Essex UI is "not pretty," Nelson said. It also needs "a lot more interest from customers," she added.
Expertise, automation, and silo busting are all required, say early adopters of private clouds. Also in the new, all-digital Private Clouds: Vision Vs. Reality issue of InformationWeek: How to choose between OpenStack and CloudStack for your private cloud. (Free with registration.)