IBM OpenStack Adoption Ushers In New Cloud Era

IBM's embrace of OpenStack could hasten widespread adoption of an industry cloud standard.
9 More Cloud Computing Pioneers
9 More Cloud Computing Pioneers
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IBM's endorsement of OpenStack is both insignificant and more significant than it might have seemed on its March 4 announcement.

IBM was already behind OpenStack. It joined the project in March 2012, taking a $500,000 seat on the board of directors in November. So wasn't too surprising when IBM 'fessed up earlier this month and said, "Hey, we like OpenStack."

But as Jim Curry, the early organizer of the OpenStack project at Rackspace, said, IBM's endorsement "is exactly what we wanted to happen -- build an open cloud platform for the world." As a matter of fact, he says, "I would have liked it if IBM had gotten on the list sooner rather than later."

But IBM, like many companies, was concerned about the future of a cloud project that was under the initial control of one company, San Antonio-based managed hosting and public infrastructure provider Rackspace. Rackspace hadn't sought to end up as sole proprietor, but its founding partner, NASA, fell away from the initial July 2010 launch during the recession.

[ Want to learn more about how the OpenStack project reorganized itself with a board of governors? See Did OpenStack Let VMware Into The Henhouse? ]

IBM said that it has adopted OpenStack as the foundation for its own private engagements and SmartCloud public cloud projects. Curry was VP of business development when Rackspace management arrived and launched an OpenStack community, and he handled much of the organization to get a project up and running and able to accept code. He built and cultivated a community around the project. When OpenStack needed an initial place to meet for a design summit, Rackspace provided it, organized speakers and made sure someone was hosting events.

By March of 2012, Curry said, "IBM was happy with the progress of the code development, the evolution of the governing model and the participation of the community" -- three vital signs of any open source project. "They got involved by putting assets in the project," he added.

Unlike NASA's Nova for server compute or Rackspace's Swift for storage operation, there was no single identifiable piece of code attributable to IBM at the onset. Instead, it engaged in a more general participation. "They became very active in in-party contributions," Curry explained, giving developer time, comments and code reviews and getting acquainted with other members of the community discussing issues. "When they met with us, they wanted to learn more about the project," he recalled.

IBM's history of support for Linux and Apache suggested that IBM might be adopting the OpenStack code itself. But many observers in the early days agreed that OpenStack wasn't ready to carry inside the enterprise door with any expectation that IT managers were going to construct a private cloud from it. It was too complicated, had too many interdependent parts and was too fragile in operation.

Through Nicira's membership, OpenStack soon started taking a leadership role in software-defined networking in the cloud and determining how it would relate to other resources. Nicira was acquired by VMware in July last year, but it continued to make contributions to OpenStack.

The fact that IBM has chosen to standardize on OpenStack is very important for future acceptance of the OpenStack approach, both for public clouds and in the data center. IBM's expertise and deep experience in navigating technology transitions makes its full adoption of OpenStack a primary line of defense for those who are doing the same inside of companies with perhaps less than full support. As the scope of the project struck home, Curry said, IBM representatives told him they could see how OpenStack might one day occupy the same position on the Web as the Apache Web server, the dominant open source code and at various periods the open-source code dominating commercial Web servers.

Just as with Linux versus Sun Solaris, the success of OpenStack opens up new opportunities for skilled migrators and integrators -- count IBM Global Services -- and many existing IBM systems as well as other companies. IBM is also bringing its Cloud Orchestrator to the party, which, for a fee, will prepare workloads and move them to different clouds without requiring manual reconfiguration. Products like IBM SmartCloud Control Desk and IBM Endpoint Manager will extend customer applications running in the cloud to employees' mobile devices.

With IBM adopting OpenStack as a standard, more enterprises will be asking what OpenStack can do for them and proposing additions and enhancements. An already vigorous project is about to get busier and drive forward more cloud functionality. Clouds that maintain barriers to entry because users must "do it their way" will feel the pain of standardization.

IBM, which has watched the virtualization of the x86 world without being able to participate directly, gets an avenue back into that part of the data center through OpenStack. Observers have questioned whether VMware would face heightened competition from Microsoft. In some ways Microsoft has faced some of the same problems -- customers who liked a proprietary product line but were always able to slip away to something good and open source. OpenStack is focused on the KVM hypervisor, and in the coming months IBM will emphasize the efficiencies and capabilities of KVM with its longtime partner Red Hat.

Neither Microsoft nor VMware will have much to be grateful for when that happens. IBM's adoption of OpenStack heralds a new round of competition for the enterprise IT dollar and offers more choice and power to buyers.

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