GigaOm: A progress report on OpenStack

Despite being vilified by Gartner analyst Lydia Leong, in the past few months OpenStack has consolidated its lead and seems to be heading in the right direction. It is coming off a high from a summit conference in mid-October in San Diego along with a series of big customer wins and deployments. The fall season has been more of a coming out party for the open source cloud management solution, with more maturing services announced from partners.

Anyone contemplating a move to OpenStack should carefully consider some of the alternatives, too. But let’s see where things are looking up for OpenStack.

First, Amazon isn’t standing still, but OpenStack is gaining in terms of ease of deployment, particularly for private and hybrid cloud deployments. There are some key deployment partners that have seen lots of interest, including, and Mirantis. In August, PistonCloud announced a free version that, while lacking a few enterprise features, can be set up in a matter of minutes and can run from a USB stick. This makes it akin to another operating system, albeit one that is even easier to install than some desktop version of Windows or Linux.

And Rackspace has their free version of OpenStack for a private cloud, called Alamo, which also became available this summer.

One of AWS’s early leads was in developing Elastic Block Storage, to make it easier to move large amounts of data around such as massive scale-ups of virtual machines, or when apps have to directly write to physical storage drives. OpenStack has had this feature as part of its Quantum project, as you can see from the below chart comparing services from the two, along with Rackspace’s own offerings. At the summit in San Diego, SolidFire and Canonical joined forces to deliver a production-ready deployment of OpenStack that supports block storage, still missing from the Rackspace Cloud offering.

Rackspace, being one of OpenStack’s founders, has been the primary place to make use of public cloud offerings supporting OpenStack. At the San Diego summit, it made a series of announcements, including a software development kit for PHP and Java along with sample code to get started more easily. (OpenStack has been largely Python-based to date.) It also described building its own internal business intelligence application that took a traditional SQL query more than five days to run down to about three hours, using Cassandra and OpenStack. The app is now being used by several thousand Rackspace support personnel.

Also announced at the summit, DreamHost is launching several public cloud offerings, under the label of DreamCompute. And HP has had its own cloud service based on OpenStack for most of this year. (More on that in a moment.) Having stronger alternatives is key to OpenStack’s future adoption, but it’s also a challenge just to keep track of the various projects and who’s got what pieces included.

Of course, trying to make pricing comparisons between AWS and Rackspace’s cloud services isn’t easy. Rackspace includes round-the-clock telephone support, which is an extra charge with AWS, but even taking that into consideration and Rackspace Cloud Server still ends up costing at least half as much as AWS. One alternative might be HP’s cloud which seems to be the best bargain to date.

Second, while VMware joined the OpenStack Foundation largely because of its acquisition of Nicira, their support is critical to making a more pluralist and interoperable cloud solution possible. Nicira’s developers are active in the OpenStack community in building the networking pieces and will continue to be, which is a major plus for the foundation and for end users who want to build and manage hybrid clouds that use VMware tools, hypervisors, and third-party products. The virtual networking pieces still need work, and are essential if you are going to go big with OpenStack.

Third, HP’s cloud, which as we mentioned is built on top of OpenStack, is moving forward slower than it could or should, with many of its services still in beta or feature incomplete. According to employment site Dice they have 125 openings in their cloud services department. How fast they fill these openings will be instructive in seeing where they take their own cloud, and whether HP’s cloud offering remains competitive.

Fourth, the Foundation isn’t some small collection of nerds. It has a total of 5,600 members from over 200 companies, and more than 500 active engineering contributors to its code base of more than half a million lines of code. And it is a worldwide effort with members in more than 80 countries and more than 40 active user groups from every corner of the globe, including Antarctica.

As we mentioned in our piece in September, OpenStack is tracking along a Linux-type growth path. Moving towards turnkey versions such as PistonCloud is just one aspect; another is having a well-defined series of different bundles or packages to choose from. Rackspace claims that a quarter of the Fortune 100 companies have already downloaded its free Alamo version in the first few weeks after it was available in August. That is an impressive rate of interest, even if few of these downloads have resulted in any production deployments.

Finally, OpenStack isn’t the only alternative to AWS, although it certainly is the most organized and has the most vendors and users to date. Citrix’s CloudStack and Eucalyptus are two projects that are moving along and have their own supporters too.

Here are some key takeaways for those of you considering OpenStack:

  1. Look at the free versions from PistonCloud and Rackspace’s Alamo first and see if they can deliver value to the kind of cloud you are trying to build. Neither is 100% of what you are going to need, but either can get you up and running within a few hours on a couple of spare servers to experiment with it.
  1. Watch what Nicira is doing on the various OpenStack projects they are contributing to and new announcements from VMware in this space. Because virtual networking features have lagged behind the storage and compute elements, any progress in this front holds the keys to OpenStack’s success (or failure) if it will continue to scale up and capture larger installations.
  1. Look for third-party vendors who are using Amazon’s APIs along with VMware and others to manage multi-vendor clouds. For example, enStratus or RightScale both have management tools in this space, and there will be others over time. CloudStack has its CloudBridge that provides an AWS EC2-compatible API to make it easier to use AWS tools, for example, and Eucalyptus has tried to support as much of the AWS API set as they can.
  1. Look at some of the larger cloud deployments from Rackspace as leading examples of how scalable OpenStack can be. Webex and eBay’s X.Commerce are both examples of these, with hundreds of VMs deployed in their respective private clouds. But also look at the lower end too. One of Rackspace’s customers is Canarie, a Canadian service provider that built its cloud for small high-tech entrepreneurial companies who didn’t want to build their own clouds from scratch. Canarie now has a multi-region OpenStack cloud deployment that runs on top of a high-speed university network that spans one region in Quebec and another in Alberta. Each region currently contains about 20 hosts, each node supporting about 1.5 terabytes of storage per node, and the cloud is currently capable of handling up to 400 virtual machines. Having both large and small customers covered is a good example of its maturity.
  1. How locked in are you, really? While it is great to dive into an open source project, one thing to look for is how easily can you import or export your OpenStack-based VMs into or out of the current cloud provider? Rackspace doesn’t have any current mechanism for doing this easily. Of course, AWS has had import and export features for some time now, and can even convert VMware, Hyper-V and Xen images too.

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