OpenStack 101: The parts that make up the project

OpenStack is a platform, but it's made up of pieces. Here are the big ones

openstack logo cloud

At its core, OpenStack is an operating system that builds public or private clouds. But OpenStack is a platform, it's not just one piece of software that's downloaded and installed to – voila! – build a cloud.

Instead, OpenStack is made up of more than a dozen components that control the most important aspects of a cloud. There is a project for the compute, networking and storage management of the cloud. Thereare other projects for identity and access management and ones for orchestrating applications that run on top of it. Put together, these components enable enterprises and service providers to offer on-demand computing resources by provisioning and managing large networks of virtual machines.


The code for each of these projects can be downloaded for free on GitHub and many of these projects are updated twice a year when a new release comes out. OpenStack software is available through the OpenStack Project. Most companies that interact with OpenStack will do so through a public cloud that runs on these components or through a productized version of this code distributed by one of the many vendors involved in the project. It’s still important to know the pieces that make up the project. So here is OpenStack 101.


Nova: The OpenStack compute project

OpenStack was started in 2010 when Rackspace and NASA came together. NASA contributed the compute aspect, while Rackspace contributed the storage. Today, that compute project lives on as Nova.

Nova is designed to manage and automate the provisioning of compute resources. This is the core of the virtual machine management software, but it is not a hypervisor. Instead, Nova supports virtualization technologies including KVM, Xen, ESX and Hyper-V, and it can run on bare-metal and high performance computing configurations too. Compute resources are available via APIs for developers, and through web interfaces for administrators and users. The compute architecture is designed to scale horizontally on standard hardware. New in the Icehouse release are rolling upgrades, which allow OpenStack clouds to be updated to a new release without having to shut down VMs.

Nova can be thought of as the equivalent to Amazon Web Service’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2).


Neutron: Networking for OpenStack

Neutron manages the networking associated with OpenStack clouds. It is an API-driven system that allows administrators or users to customize network settings, then spin up and down a variety of different network types (such as flat networks, VLANs or virtual private networks) on-demand. Neutron allows for dedicated or floating IP addresses (the latter of which can be used to reroute traffic during maintenance or a failure, for example). It supports the OpenFlow software-defined-networking protocol, and plugins are available for services such as intrusion detection, load balancing and firewalls.

Swift: OpenStack object storage

OpenStack has two major storage platforms: An object storage system named Swift and a block storage platform named Cinder. Swift, which was one of the original components contributed by Rackspace, is a fully-distributed, scale-out API-accessible platform that can be integrated into applications or used for backup and archiving. It is not a traditional file storage system though; Swift has no “central brain.” The OpenStack software automatically replicates data stored in Swift across multiple nodes to ensure redundancy and fault tolerance. If a node fails, the object is automatically replicated to new commodity nodes that are added to the system. That is one of the key enabling features to allow OpenStack to scale to massive sizes. Think of Swift as the equivalent of AWS’s Simple Storage Service (S3).

Cinder: OpenStack block storage

Unlike Swift, Cinder allows for blocks of storage to be managed. They’re meant to be assigned to compute instances to allow for expanded storage. The Cinder software manages the creation of these blocks, plus the acts of attaching and detaching the blocks to compute servers. The other major feature of Cinder is its integration with traditional enterprise storage systems, such as Linux Server storage and other platforms such as Ceph, NetApp, Nexenta, SolidFire and Zadara, among others. This is the equivalent of AWS’s Elastic Block Storage (EBS) feature.

Keystone: OpenStack uthentication and acccess control

OpenStack has a variety of components that are OpenStack shared services, meaning they work across various parts of the software, such as Keystone. This project is the primary tool for user authentication and role-based access controls in OpenStack clouds. Keystone integrates with LDAP to provide a central directory of users and allows administrators to set policies that control which resources various users have access to. Keystone supports traditional username and password logins, in addition to token-based logins.

openstack3 chart horizon OpenStack

OpenStack Horizon dashboard

OpenStack Horizon dashboard

This is the primary graphical user interface for using OpenStack clouds. The web-based tool gives users and administrators the ability to provision and automate services. It’s the primary way for accessing resources if API calls are not used.

openstack3 chart OpenStack

OpenStack Glance

OpenStack Glance image service

One of the key benefits to a cloud platform is the ability to spin up virtual machines quickly when users request them. Glance helps accomplish this by creating templates for virtual machines. Glance can copy or snapshot a virtual machine image and allow it to be recreated. That means administrators can set up a catalog of virtual-machine templates that users can select from and self-provision. Glance can also be used to back up existing images to save them. Glance integrates with Cinder to store the images.

OpenStack usage data and orchestration

Two of the newest projects in OpenStack are Ceilometer and Heat. Ceilometer is a telemetry system that allows administrators to track usage of the OpenStack cloud, including which users accessed which resources, as well as aggregate data about the cloud usage as a whole.

Heat is an orchestration engine that allows developers to automate the deployment of infrastructure. This allows compute, networking and storage configurations to be automatically assigned to a virtual machine or application. This allows for easier onboarding of new instances. Heat also has an auto-scaling element, which allows services to add resources as they are needed.

Other projects

There are a number of projects that are still incubating, which means they are in development and not yet full-fledged components of OpenStack.

Other OpenStack projects include Trove, which is a MySQL database as a service (think of this as an equivalent to AWS’s Relational Database Service (RDS). Another is Sahara,which is meant to allow OpenStack software to control Hadoop clusters. Ironic is a project that will allow OpenStack to manage bare metal servers.

These projects and others will continue to be developed by the OpenStack community and will most likely be integrated more fully into the project in the coming releases.

Senior Writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing for Network World and He can be reached at and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW. Read his Cloud Chronicles .  

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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