August 21, 2012

OpenStack, VMware, Red Hat – Will the Real ‘Linux of the Cloud’ Please Stand Up?

Tiffany Trader

A search for “Linux of the cloud” will turn up several candidates with claims staked to this honorific, among them OpenStack, VMware and Red Hat. In the race to open source cloud dominance, achieving a kind of Linux parity is the ultimate stamp of approval, but are any of these plays worthy of the bestowal?

First, VMware

VMware was just voted (in one survey) the preferred Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) provider. In partnership with Cloud Connect, Everest Group asked over 100 executives who had either purchased or planned to purchase cloud services to identify their preferred cloud management platform. VMware led the pack at 34 percent, followed by OpenStack (14 percent), IBM’s SmartCloud platform (12 percent), and CloudStack (9 percent). Sharing the rest of the pie were VCE, a joint venture between Cisco and EMC, (with 4 percent), and Eucalyptus Systems (3 percent).

While this is an interesting data point from a small but seemingly well-qualified survey, the vCloud platform is not VMware’s “Linux of the Cloud” candidate. That recognition goes to CloudFoundry, the developer-focused Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offering that debuted as an open source project in April 2011.

One year later, VMware CTO Steve Herrod reaffirmed the company’s commitment to its “Open PaaS” approach. In both a company webinar and a blog entry, Herrod proclaimed VMware’s intention to be the “Linux of the cloud.”

The CTO emphasized the key open cloud mantra: freedom of choice. “Customers want to have the flexibility to move from a private cloud to a public cloud, from a public cloud to a private cloud or between public cloud providers, and not be locked into any particular cloud,” he wrote.

While VMware invented and popularized x86 virtualization, the company is not exactly synonymous with open source. At least not when it comes to IaaS: VMware’s vCloud software is closed. It’s true that VMware has created some open source plays, but to be clear, this is predominately a proprietary software company that also just so happens to be the main competition for a sea of open source cloud backers.

The Case for Red Hat

Leading enterprise Linux vendor, Red Hat has also used the phrase “Linux of the Cloud,” and their move last week to fully support OpenStack does help cement the company’s cloud play. Their open source cred is not in question, but the main focus of the company is a monetized distro: Red Hat Enterprise Linux. And while Red Hat’s OpenStack distribution is currently available in an unsupported (and free) preview mode, plans are underway for a paid and supported release.

Measuring Up to Linux

If you want to be compared to Linux, you have to be like Linux, the free and open source software collaboration started by Linus Torvalds. To qualify for “Linux of the Cloud” status means meeting certain criteria. To whit: the cloud framework in question should be open source, free, and have significant community adoption/involvement: i.e., a level of popularity. It should also be a base-line operating system of sorts. Just as Linux is the foundation of your system’s software, the Linux of the Cloud should form the foundation of your cloud. It should also be stable and robust, which the upcoming “Folsom” release of OpenStack promises to be.

As for community adoption, no open source cloud play comes close to Linux’s penetration. According to Wikipedia, Linux “has been ported to more computer hardware platforms than any other operating system.” While adoption is mostly unremarkable in the desktop market, it has about a 12% server share and a 60% technical computing share. Its use in supercomputing is nearly ubiquitous (source: TOP500), and it has a strong embedded play as well.

To recap, there are at least three vendors claiming Linux of the Cloud status, except, as careful readers have no doubt already noted, despite being open source, these are three distinct animals: an IaaS-building project (OpenStack); a developer-focused PaaS (VMware’s CloudFoundry) and a soon-to-be-productized IaaS platform (Red Hat’s OpenStack distro). Since the cloud stack is comprised of multiple levels, one could get more granular on the framing of their Linux comparison. So OpenStack could become the Linux of IaaS; and Cloud Foundry the Linux of PaaS. But whether these less-streamlined “catch-phrases” will be helpful to marketing efforts is open to interpretation.

I’d also argue that if any layer of the stack deserves the unmarked “cloud” label (i.e. “just cloud”), it should be the most foundational layer of the IaaS/PaaS/SaaS stack. On this point, OpenStack and Linux are both necessary application enablers with strong community support.

And the Winner Is

Among OpenStack, VMware and Red Hat, the OpenStack-Linux comparison holds the most water. Both Linux and OpenStack are free and open source software collaborations. One is a computer operating system, while the other a cloud operating system. (OpenStack project co-founder Rackspace bills the framework as an “open and scalable operating system for building public and private clouds.”). Where the comparison begins to break down is in maturity, market share, and in established community buy-in.

In the race to elect a dominant open cloud OS, the polls are still open. While open cloud has made huge strides over the last 12 months – with real merit too, not your usual cloud-washing hype – these types of proclamations of the type “cloud player x is the new black” are still speculative.

What’s more, the OpenStack project could potentially be suffering from flavor-of-the-month syndrome. Lest anyone forget, it still faces competition from open source IaaS-builders CloudStack, Eucalyptus Systems, and the somewhat lesser-known, although by no means less-capable, European project OpenNebula. While they all fall into the open source cloud OS space, there are some major technical and philosophical differences among the camps. There are also private/public distinctions. While OpenStack and CloudStack straddle the two spheres and can thus be used by enterprise or service providers, the other two stacks enable the building of private clouds. With this in mind, it makes sense that the Eucalyptus software has Amazon-approved API compatibility for that hybrid cloud best-of-both world’s scenario – they are complementary products and thus natural partners.

Final Thoughts

When you consider their myriad distinguishing characteristics framed against the scope of global computing as more and more developing nations take their seat at the table, the case for coexisting multiple mature open cloud operating systems solidifies – so maybe there’s room for more than one Linux of the Cloud – for a while a least. Cloud is fast becoming the computing default, at least in non-HPC circles. Does the continuing commoditization of computing power combined with the inclination toward economies of scale mean we’ll see ever-larger ultra-scale clouds that grow in size as they shrink in number? Will there ever be one planetary datacenter to rule them or is there a limit to economy of scale? Perhaps end-stage cloud (and the name is unimportant) is a global utility – a natural monopoly that will have to be regulated against.