OpenStack: Still waiting for the users

Years into the open source cloud platform's development, there are plenty of vendors but some say a lack of end users

OpenStack

OpenStack has an impressive list of corporate backers. Red Hat, Rackspace, HP, IBM and AT&T are contributing thousands of lines of code to the open source project and helping deliver an updated version of the cloud computing platform twice a year to allow for easier installation and better manageability.

Vendors such as HP, Ubuntu, VMware, Yahoo, NetApp, Juniper Networks, Cisco and Dell are all contributing to OpenStack. Even Comcast, Avaya, F5, EMC, Fujitsu, Oracle and Alcatel Lucent have given money and code to the project. OpenStack has no shortage of vendors who believe this software could play an important role in the future of open source cloud computing, and they want in on it.

OpenStack has grown from a mish-mash of code, born out of code half contributed by Rackspace and the other half from NASA in 2010, and has now turned into a force in the cloud world. Thousands of developers contribute to its code each year and vendors line up to get their sponsorships in with it.

But if the project needs one thing, it’s end users.

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Despite all that support from service providers across the technology industry, adoption of OpenStack is still so small that IDC analyst Gary Chen says the firm does not even have market share data for it. Some say this is the natural evolution of an initiative that only really got going in earnest two years ago with the creation of an independent foundation to govern the project. Others question with all the marketing and corporate backers, shouldn’t there be more end users at this point?

OpenStack in the wild

While there could perhaps be more, its not like there aren’t any OpenStack users. In the past six to eight months many big name companies like PayPal, Wells Fargo, The Gap, Ericsson and departments at universities like MIT and the University of California have all deployed OpenStack clouds to some degree. Rackspace runs a major part of its international public cloud footprint on OpenStack. But it still seems there is disconnect between the vendor hype of OpenStack and the amount and nature of end user enterprise deployments of it.

Adrian Ionel, president and CEO of pure-play OpenStack distributor Mirantis, doesn’t disagree that there is a gap between the vendors and end users but he says, “it’s closing quickly.” Mirantis is happy to list a litany of customers who are using the framework. For some customers, like PayPal, OpenStack is a key central platform to the company’s IT strategy. Other companies, like John Deere, are testing it out to determine if a larger engagement makes sense.

One of the latest big-name users to join the fold was Ericsson. Mirantis recently closed a five-year $30 million deal to evolve the mobile operator’s backend infrastructure to be managed by OpenStack - which was hailed by the Wall Street Journal as a “milestone” deal for OpenStack.

Ben Kepes, an industry analyst/pundit and blogger, recently asked, “Where are the massive Openstack deals?” In describing the Ericsson deal, he wrote: “The fact that $30M could even be claimed to be one of the larger sized OpenStack deals is a pretty sad indictment of where the initiative is at – with all the collective vendor resource being thrown at OpenStack, and with all the hype it’s generating, it’s a fairly paltry deal for something with so much promise.”

But until the past few months, it seemed that most of the OpenStack announcements were coming from service providers and vendors establishing their cloud platforms based on OpenStack, leading some to question whether the project is for end users or vendors? OpenStack backers say both.

There has been a whole wave of companies started around selling OpenStack, including Piston Cloud Computing Co., Cloudscaling and Mirantis. The Linux distribution companies, Red Hat, SUSE and Ubuntu are each attempting to package OpenStack distros as well. And companies like HP, Dell, Cisco and Rackspace are all using OpenStack in a significant way in their cloud plans. HP, for example, recently rebranded its cloud portfolio to be named Helion and announced a $1 billion commitment to developing its cloud based on OpenStack. HP will have its own distribution of OpenStack, and it’s committed to developing its public and private cloud platforms based on the open source technology.

But Forrester cloud analyst David Bartoletti says while news from HP and Ericsson are great for OpenStack, what the project really needs are enterprise end users. “Where OpenStack is right now, it’s still more about getting vendors to round out their cloud strategies than customers using it for the cloud,” he says. But, given the amount of big-name vendors involved in OpenStack, “it’s not going away.” OpenStack will be around for the long haul.

OpenStack

An architectural rending of OpenStack. OpenStack is an open source cloud computing platform that coordinates the compute, networking and storage functions needed to run a public or private cloud.

And the OpenStack community is growing. Two years ago OpenStack conference attracted about 1,200 attendees. This month more than 4,500 members of the OpenStack community met in Atlanta for one of the organization’s bi-annual meetings (they’re now held twice a year, with one being in the U.S. and another being held in an international location). At the event, OpenStack officials announced news such as the release of the OpenStack Marketplace, which is meant to be a central place for users to learn about OpenStack products, including the ability to compare various distributions and OpenStack applications.

The other main push at the summit was the trotting out of enterprise end users who spoke about their use of OpenStack. Glenn Ferguson - the head of cloud enablement at Wells Fargo Bank - said he sees great advantages to using OpenStack. He spoke about the ability to control infrastructure and bake security and compliance needs of the bank into that infrastructure layer. That allows software developers to build web-scale applications running on that infrastructure. “OpenStack is a corner-stone,” he said. But Wells-Fargo is not ditching its existing infrastructure in favor of OpenStack. Instead, Ferguson said he shared his story at the Summit to encourage his existing vendors to support OpenStack.

Many OpenStack deployments today are exploratory; others are small production use cases, community vendors and analysts have said. Many companies start using OpenStack for test and development of new products and applications, for example, or as the basis for a more rapid application development environment (devops). “There’s a lot of tire-kicking,” says Sinclair Schuller about OpenStack.

Schuller is CEO of Apprenda a .NET-focused platform as a service (PaaS) that can integrate with various underlying IaaS platforms, such as those from AWS, Microsoft Azure, and OpenStack-based clouds. “I see (OpenStack) on a lot of strategy boards of enterprises we talk to. We see it in the wild, but we’re not seeing it in production a whole lot yet.”

Linux, all over again

OpenStack backers say this progression is completely normal. Repeating an analogy many have made, Paul Cormier, president of products and technology for Red Hat, says OpenStack’s development is just like the process of building up Linux. This time the transition to a cloud-based architecture is an even bigger technological transformation than replacing proprietary operating systems with Linux. “It’s where Linux was in the beginning,” he says about OpenStack’s current status. “Linux was around for a while before it really got adopted in the enterprise. OpenStack is going through the same process right now.”  

Joshua McKenty, one of the founding fathers of the OpenStack from his work at NASA and now the head of Piston Cloud Computing, says virtualization started the same way too. Virtualization software was used first in some test and development areas. Now, by some estimates, more than half of enterprise workloads are virtualized; change is hard.

Gartner analyst Lydia Leong, one of the foremost cloud pundits, says OpenStack is currently being deployed by its first round of early adopters, which is a critical phase for the project. Only after there have been many successful deployments of OpenStack will the traditional enterprise market, the broader swath of the Fortune 500 companies and beyond explore OpenStack.

In an event titled “OpenStack: Breaking into the Enterprise,” during the opening keynote, Leong notes that private cloud in general has had slow adoption in the enterprise. And OpenStack is a sub-set of the private cloud market. As private cloud adoption grows, so too likely will the number of OpenStack clouds being managed by enterprise end users.

Even OpenStack’s biggest vendors are still in the early stages of productizing the platform. Red Hat was the leading contributor of new code to OpenStack’s latest Icehouse release and has its own distribution of OpenStack that it has been selling for about a year now. But, the company doesn’t even judge its sales staff on creating revenue from OpenStack yet, Cormier says. The goal is to turn customer proof of concept projects into production environments.

The drivers behind OpenStack are undeniable though, Cormier says. The success of Amazon Web Services in the cloud is turning heads in enterprise IT. Developers love the ability to get the scale of a public cloud in their own data centers. The benefit is fundamentally in the productivity of software developers. If the people who are making new software and applications for companies can do so faster, that is a huge advantage for businesses. Cloud infrastructure, with its ability to provide fast, easy and self-provisioned access to the IT resources needed to build new software, enables that.

Not the only cloud in the sky

The reality is that customers who want to adopt this new model of software development have choices of how to do this though. Amazon Web Services provides a public cloud service. VMware and Microsoft each allow customers to build out a cloud infrastructure in their data centers, with a matching public cloud offering.

(OpenStack is) still more about getting vendors to round out their cloud strategies than customers using it for the cloud.

— Dave Bartoletti, Forrester cloud analyst

For customers who want to use an open source platform, OpenStack is arguably a leading choice. Chen, the IDC analyst, believes that eventually OpenStack will likely end up as the open source alternative to private cloud infrastructure platforms from companies like Microsoft and VMware. For companies that want an open source cloud, or are heavy Linux users, OpenStack could be a good fit.

Customers even have other open source private cloud platforms to choose from. Eucalyptus, for example, is tightly integrated with AWS’s public cloud while CloudStack is another open source cloud platform spearheaded by Citrix.

Backers of the project couldn’t be more proud of it, but they’re also realistic about where it is in its maturity. OpenStack has grown substantially in almost four years, says Jonathan Bryce, executive director of the non-profit independent foundation that runs the project. “We’re in a really key spot now where it’s time to get operators and cloud end users to start to be more imbedded in these processes that we’ve put in place,” he said in January. “This is the time when we start to transition from early adopters and technology companies (using OpenStack and) to a broader base of adoption.”

OpenStack has had solid traction in some niche areas, such as the scientific and educational communities. The European nuclear laboratory CERN is one of OpenStack’s most prominent users, and Tim Bell, CERN’s infrastructure head, leads a recently-founded OpenStack end user committee that provides recommendations to vendors who are building new OpenStack code.

Joe Hesse is the director of technology and strategy for the University of California San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center, which houses a group of researchers who use advanced neuro imaging techniques to study diseases at the cellular level. The group formerly ran VMware to virtualize its servers but was looking for a platform for more rapidly provisioning those virtual machines the ESX hypervisor creates. He tested various platforms, including those from VMware, and explored using OpenStack. “Scientific discovery is an open source world,” he says. “We run Ubuntu and CentOS, and layer on top of that Python and MatLab code. We’re not using things like SQL Server and Exchange. OpenStack, conceptually, was a nice fit for that.” The lack of VMware licensing fees attracted him as well to the platform.

After trying out OpenStack, he decided to invest further in an OpenStack package hardened by Piston Cloud Computing Co. But OpenStack is not a be-all-end-all platform, he says. It’s good for managing clouds and cloud-based applications that have frequently changing infrastructure needs, as well as supporting rapidly provisioning of resources for creating new applications. But it’s not, at least right now, the best platform for managing fairly stable more traditional workloads - VMware is still a fine fit for those.

That fundamental premise - that OpenStack is good for some tasks, but not all - may be the reason the project is still looking to significantly ramp up its user base.

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