PayPal: OpenStack Won't Replace VMware In Data Center

VMware vs. OpenStack won’t be an either/or decision for PayPal. It will layer OpenStack on top of existing tech as it moves toward a software-defined data center.

Charles Babcock

September 21, 2013

6 Min Read
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PayPal is on a mission to remake its data center. It's taking it from a typical enterprise-style operation to a more agile, flexible one to better compete in offering payment methods on the Web.

Exactly what it's doing in its data centers remains somewhat under wraps. PayPal isn't eager to disclose too many details of its software infrastructure or its operations. But one thing is clear. Even though it's an implementer of OpenStack cloud software, it's still relying on VMware for core virtualization services.

That was a flaming topic in the news last March, as Business Insider and Forbes, among others, reported that PayPal was moving away from use of VMware in its data centers to OpenStack, replacing the one with the other. At that time PayPal had implemented OpenStack as a pilot project on three servers. Over the intervening six months, it has expanded its use to many more. OpenStack-equipped servers now handle about 20% of PayPal's payment processing traffic.

"We are not moving away from VMware," said Nat Rajesh Natarajan, VP of platform engineering and operations, in a recent interview. "We are leveraging our investment in VMware as we grow our capacity with OpenStack."

[ Want to learn more about PayPal and its use of VMware? See As The PayPal Vs. VMware Story Turns. ]

PayPal likes the ability to manage virtualized resources through VMware's vSphere 5 and the vCenter management console. It also likes the speedy end user provisioning and potential storage and network virtualization provided through OpenStack. OpenStack offers the KVM hypervisor by default, but PayPal will continue to use its ESX Server virtual machines. They run under the OpenStack cloud software as well.

Reading between the lines, PayPal layers OpenStack on top of its virtual environment and gets the end user self-provisioning and total resource orchestration that it's seeking. It's avoiding too much dependence on a single vendor, even though it likes that vendor's core product line. And it's giving itself breathing room to establish what may be a more flexible infrastructure for the future. That means finding APIs that are not proprietary that its developers may use to access fundamental services. OpenStack provides those APIs.

It's not a knock on VMware that PayPal has adopted this route. But implicit is a wariness and acknowledgement of how dependent their IT infrastructure could become on VMware, if PayPal merely follows VMware's lead into cloud computing. It's both a testament to the job VMware has done in virtualizing the data center and the challenge it faces in convincing the enterprise customers already in its grip that they should follow it straight into the cloud.

At the same time, Natarajan said VMware will remain its principal virtualization vendor; it has not deployed Microsoft's Hyper-V, even though it comes free with Windows Server.

"We are trying to get back to our roots. We are a startup technology company at heart and we're trying again to push the edges of what can be done," said Natarajan.

At the recent CloudBeat show in San Francisco, Saran Mandair, PayPal's senior director of platform engineering and operations, sat down to explain PayPal's OpenStack initiative in greater depth. He ticked off the immediate objectives: give developers the resources they need quickly "so they don't have to worry about IT provisioning" and gain an ability to "implement and deploy a new service quickly."

These comments speak to the sense of competition that now hovers over established electronic payment system vendors as newcomers seem to pop up every other week. In words that echoed Natarajan's, Mandair said the move to implement OpenStack reflected PayPal's need "to ensure we have the engineering muscle internally" to control its own future.

He adds, "We want to ensure we are not caught in vendor lock-in."

Asked about the dividing line between the VMware part of the data center and OpenStack's, Mandair indicated there is no hard and fast boundary. PayPal is still implementing and experimenting with some OpenStack modules to see which ones move it toward a more automated data center. The same might be said for the VMware product line.

VMware's networking team, which came with the acquisition of Nicira, is now a principal contributor to OpenStack virtualized networking. What will PayPal use as the basis for virtualized networking -- VMware's NSX platform or OpenStack's Neutron Project? The answer is PayPal will figure that out as both offerings develop and gain greater maturity.

One of the attractions of OpenStack is the way it can be engineered to work with different network management systems that plug into the Neutron platform. NSX is likely to be one of them, given VMware's involvement in the networking project. That will give PayPal a list of options rather than an either-or choice.

In addition, PayPal likes the fact that it can work with the OpenStack code, innovate something on top of it, and then contribute the code back to the community to make the cloud project more full-functioned. It did that with the OpenStack Nova compute code, when it sought features that weren't available in its scheduler. It wanted to schedule operations across multiple data centers and created the code to do so. It became part of the Grizzly release, giving PayPal a sense of how OpenStack wasn't only something new to learn but also something new that it could help shape.

It launched its OpenStack pilot 10 months ago and ran into problem using Nova. It posted a query to an OpenStack bulletin board, "and we had 10 answers in an hour. We had misconfigured the Nova scheduler on our side," Mandair noted.

The experience solidified PayPal's decision to use an OpenStack overlay in its data center. "That validated from our point of view, how many passionate community members were out there," he said.

PayPal can't develop everything itself but when it wishes to produce something new, it wants a platform on which to produce and deploy it faster than it's been able to do before. "We want to get to the software-defined data center," he said, for the programmatic control and automation that the name suggests. At the same time, PayPal wants to operate it and continue development on it in its own way and for its own purposes.

PayPal may take everything VMware has to offer as the virtualization leader. But at some point, it will set a limit and bring its own expertise to bear on how it proceeds into a combined virtualized data center and private cloud operation. Mandair calls it a "hybrid" approach but there's no public cloud component. He means joint operation of VMware proprietary code with OpenStack open source code.

It's PayPal's way of adjusting to the future. Get to the software-defined data center as fast as you can, but don't lose control of what you can do with it.

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