• 12/05/2013
    10:06 AM
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Don't Give Up On OpenStack

Analysts may be bad mouthing OpenStack, but all the open-source cloud platform needs is a well-defined technology roadmap to become a contender in the enterprise.

During the past year, Gartner has given several negative critiques of OpenStack -- the open-source cloud platform supported by large tech companies including Rackspace, HP, and AT&T. Criticisms include lack of transparency, vision, and long-term differentiation. And because of this, Gartner analysts believe that OpenStack will fail to gain traction in enterprise IT environments.

There are a few reasons that I'm not willing to give up on OpenStack penetration of enterprise markets just yet. While there are serious issues hampering OpenStack from reaching the next level, all the components are there to make a cloud platform that will rival current commercial offerings.

As is the norm with many technologies, a product's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. OpenStack's strength is its open-source roots. This allows for customers to utilize any hardware they choose to run their OpenStack architecture. In many cases, users can run OpenStack on legacy hardware that's already installed in a production infrastructure. In addition, OpenStack supports multiple types of virtual machine hypervisors. In many cases, a cloud platform operates more efficiently in a multi-hypervisor environment because some tools run better in one hypervisor over another.

But like all open-source platforms, OpenStack is community driven -- which leads to a lack of long-term vision. There are major infrastructure leaders involved, as well as individual users that want to make OpenStack a better architecture. Ultimately, you end up with too many cooks in the kitchen. This is Gartner's primary complaint about the software. As Research Director Alessandro Perilli noted on the Gartner blog, "Enterprises need to understand the long-term viability of technologies they consider for adoption. An unclear business model doesn't help."

I couldn't agree more with this statement. At this point in the game, OpenStack is too fluid for many enterprises. These organizations need to understand what OpenStack is today, and what it will look like a decade down the road.

Much of the misdirection has come from putting too much focus on add-on and differentiating features. Andrew Shafer, a former but now disillusioned OpenStack leader, recently published a plea to the community in which he said the following:

OpenStack wants to differentiate with features going up the stack, but has still not solved the foundational infrastructure and is busy furiously discussing what should be considered core. Projects that prove to be unreliable and a poor experience for operators and users ultimately damage the OpenStack 'brand.'

Shafer and Perilli are talking about the same thing, but looking at it from different perspectives. Essentially, both are making the point that the foundation needs to focus on core technologies first in order to create a world-class platform. Once the basic technology is nailed down, all the bells and whistles can be added after the fact. Without a well-defined and documented platform, enterprise organizations won't gamble on OpenStack.

Still, I hold out hope that OpenStack will come out on top and become a force in enterprise networks. The sheer amount of players and money that have gone into its development shows that OpenStack is a platform that won't disappear overnight due to a bit of mismanagement. I believe that one of the major vendors will ultimately take the lead and solidify a strategy -- including a well-defined roadmap. Once a plan is in place, the rest will follow. And in the end, OpenStack will be able to stand toe-to-toe with other enterprise-class, proprietary solutions.


Recognizing the stakeholders

I agree that we shouldn't give up on OpenStack, but let's not underestimate the magnitude of the change that's required. As I blogged recently 

OpenStack APIs (and, in some less well defined sense, the code) are intended to become a de facto standard. In the public cloud space, while Rackspace, HP, IBM and others will compete on price, support, and added-value services, they are all expected to offer services with binary API compatibility. This means that their customers, presumably numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands, are all users of the OpenStack APIs. They have a huge stake in the governance and quality of those APIs, and will have their opinions about how they should evolve.

How are their voices heard? What role do they play in making the decisions?

Today, the answers are "they're not" and "none". Because that's not how open source projects work. As Simon Phipps wrote" source communities are not there to serve end users. They are there to serve the needs of the people who show up to collaborate."

The hardest thing for an open source project to establish is a way of saying "no" to contributors, whether they be individual True Believers in Open Source, or vast commercial enterprises seeking an architectural advantage over their competitors. The impulse is always to do things which increase the number of participants, and it is assumed that saying "no" will have the opposite effect. In a consensus-driven community, this is a hard issue to resolve.


Re: Recognizing the stakeholders

I couldn't agree more @geoffarnold. The balancing act between keeping both product users and developers happy is a real challenge. Dev's interested in open source don't really like guidelines and restrictions.  But if they are serious about taking OpenStack to the next level, that's exactly what's needed. 

Re: Recognizing the stakeholders

The dynamics of open source software have always seemed at odds to me. Is there any opportunity to align with a very established organization like the IEEE or the IETF to get some objective oversight? I know the IEEE is working on the "OpenStand" initiative to drive more open global standards beyond internet protocols.