July 19, 2010

NASA, Rackspace Open-Sourcing the Cloud

Nicole Hemsoth

This morning NASA and Rackspace announced their partnership on a project called OpenStack, which is based on donated code from NASA’s Nebula cloud platform and Rackspace’s own Cloud Files and Cloud Server public cloud offerings. Although NASA’s contributions to the project won’t be felt until later in the year, the underlying provisioning engine coupled with Rackspace’s offerings will provide a highly flexible alternative to other cloud possibilities — at least once it catches on and hits critical mass. For now, however, OpenStack is relegated to the growing watchlist for potentially paradigm-shifting possibilities on the horizon and speculation is hurtling about today, as one might imagine.

Outside of it capabilities, the story for many in the community is less about jumping on board for immediate production use and more about what it means for the culture of the cloud, namely in the interoperability and proprietary versus open source sense. The official arrival of OpenStack might change the way many think about vendor lock-in fears and cloud standards, while providing some tangible benefits for Rackspace (not to mention cloud adoption overall) in the process, if only in the way of honor.

As it stands now, when it comes to cloud APIs, Amazon’s is quickly on its way to becoming the de facto standard, if it isn’t already. Whether or not the OpenStack news is going to gather enough momentum to shatter that broad opinion remains to be seen, but in the meantime, there’s a lot of work to be done. This is not production-ready code yet and still requires massive support, however with enough of that (and with the help of the 25 and counting corporate supporters who are aligned with the project’s mission to open the cloud. 

Those “corporate sponsors” of OpenStack who have vowed their support appeared on a roster following a workshop last week on the project to help it build the ecosystem of open cloud environments. Among the firms who have publicly announced cooperation are RightScale, Citrix, Intel, AMD, Dell, Opscode, and Cloud.com, but the details about the involvement of any of these companies have been shadowy at best, which does seem a bit odd.

OpenStack will feature several cloud infrastructure components, including a fully distributed object store based on Rackspace’s Cloud Files, something that is available now. However, there is a second phase of the release, which includes a scalable compute-provisioning engine based on technology pioneered by NASA for its Nebula cloud, which will be integrated later this year and once completed will be available under Apache licensing.

The NASA connection certainly goes rather far in establishing the credibility of this open source push from Rackspace and this, coupled with the fact that Rackspace’s offering to OpenStack is mature and time-tested unlike some other open source projects that lack the backing of a proven track record to speak to their success—even if they are being used in production without issues.

For now, the project is not going to change the lives of those in the small to mid-range market by any means. This news is geared toward those who could actually make the most use out of OpenStack as it stands today–large-scale enterprises and institutions. . According to Fabio Torlini, Rackspace EMEA marketing director in an interview, this is “not a code that many small and medium businesses are likely to run until they are more mature. Instead, it’s aimed at providers, institutions, and enterprises with highly technical operations teams that need to turn physical hardware into large-scale cloud deployments.” This also means that from a development standpoint, users will be able to use their experience in a domain to develop applications on an open platform that will be useful in their niche — and be able to migrate these around as needed rather than facing lock-in once they settle on a particular provider. Application portability has been a noted concern among many in HPC and while this might not solve more general data movement issues, it is a step in the right direction from a development standpoint.

The Interoperability Angle

The big news here outside of the open sourcing of its code more generally is the message it sends about interoperability and standards in the cloud. One of the greatest fears, especially for enterprise and scientific users, is that they face major hurdles if they ever hope to leave the cloud they’ve landed upon. Having an open source cloud means that concerns about moving data from one cloud provider to another might be negated, thus alleviating the often-cited fear of “cloud lock-in” which refers to the roach motel business model — where users can check in anytime they’d like but can never leave.

Torlini stated, “The open source model has been proven to promote the standards and interoperability critical to the success of our industry. The explosive growth of the internet can be attributed to open, universal standards like HTTP and HTML. The early cloud offerings have bucked this trend and are largely proprietary. No one benefits from a fractured landscape of closed, incompatible clouds where migration is difficult and true transparency is impossible…it’s critically important for the cloud to be open and many people in the industry share concern about the proprietary nature of the leading cloud platforms.”

Open Clouds for Developers

One of the other items of interest is what this means for application developers and the niche industries they serve. After all, having one stable, open platform to program to creates a much more hospitable environment for those creating the next app to fit their segment, which means that if OpenStack catches on like many predict it will, especially after NASA’s contribution is fully integrated, it will allow for a richness in application development that could only be possible with an open programming paradigm—great news for developers and very good news for the companies who depend on their innovations to remain competitive. In some senses, OpenStack could be the great equalizer of the cloud services industry—which means, of course, there will be victims. The extent to which this will have an impact on the established players is difficult to analyze at this point but as time wears on and the wide range of possible uses of this software become apparent we may see that this alters the landscape for proprietary cloud software significantly.

In an interview with CNET, Mark Collier, Rackspace VP of Business Development noted that “part of the reason this project is open source is that enterprise developers have more specific domain knowledge than service providers might and that open source provides a way for interested users to collaborate to create a better product.” Others commented on the relevance of this story for developers, including Rackspace’s Torlini, who noted that, “Software developers will also be able to program to one stable platform. Openstack will become the cloud platform of choice in the same way that Android has rapidly become the platform of choice for mobile providers”

A Changing Cloud Landscape?

If the cloud starts moving toward the open source approach, it could mean a pole shift for the entire industry. As analyst Steve Hilton noted, “large cloud companies such as HP, Amazon and Oracle were not on the list of participating companies. This could become an issue if someone in the industry builds an open source cloud, there are lots of forces — enterprise control, vendor lock-in, channel partner business models — keeping it from being adopted.”

RightScale’s CEO Thorsten von Eicken blogged about the company’s involvement with OpenStack in non-technical terms, stating “having many fragmented cloud efforts doesn’t really help build a compelling alternative to Amazon, who keeps adding incredible new features at a blazing pace. And the industry needs an alternative to Amazon, not because of some problem with AWS, but because in the long run cloud computing cannot fulfill its promise to revolutionizing the way computing is consumed if there aren’t a multitude of vendors with offerings targeting different use cases, different needs, different budgets, different customer segments, etc.”

From a distance, it’s hard to find any drawbacks to the Rackspace announcement from an eventual user perspective as it has very broad appeal, especially to the growing number of voices concerned about interoperability. Furthermore, it’s open source and to one-up that, it’s well-tested open sources versus a kind of public trial and error process since Rackspace has been divvying out this same software without complaint to a number of big name clients, including several in research and academia, for some time. Secondly, the uses for such capability are nearly limitless and are creating a new playing field for the entire cloud industry — from the massive needs of the HPC community on down to eventually have an impact on small startups.

Whether or not OpenStack becomes the great cloud equalizer or languishes over the course of the next year in development and refinement remains to be seen, but for the goals of interoperability and a truly open cloud, this is certainly compelling news.

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