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Is OpenStack Cloud Computing Rocket Science?

NASA Nebula Becomes the Cornerstone for the OpenStack Initiative

There’s a real explosion of cloud platforms and management tools, it seems you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one these days. In the commercial proprietary solutions space you have – CA’s 3Terra Rackspace Champion's Open Source CloudAppLogic, Enomaly, Nimbula, RightScale. In open source there are, Open Nebula and Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud. There are a bunch more that I failed to mention. It makes you wonder do we really need another one? How much different can they be? I am not sure but the newest one appears to be rather significant.

Today Rackspace has thrown their hat in the ring with their new OpenStack initiative in collaboration with NASA — as in rocket scientists, smartest guys in the world. Unlike Amazon’s EC2 which preaches open APIs, Rackspace is working to develop an open source platform that compliments their hosted cloud offering. They also have a strong open source partner in NASA who has been working on their own cloud computing platform, NASA Nebula. NASA Nebula will now become the cornerstone for the OpenStack initiative.

The goal of OpenStack is to allow any organization to create and offer cloud computing capabilities using open source software running on standard hardware. The project boasts both a compute and storage component. OpenStack Compute is software for automatically creating and managing large groups of virtual private servers and is available as a developer’s preview with a release target of October. OpenStack Storage is software for creating redundant, scalable object storage using clusters of commodity servers to store terabytes or even petabytes of data. Also available as a developer preview the OpenStack Storage project expects to release a production ready version in mid-September.

Adding the Rackspace hosting model to a strong open source project makes this approach to cloud computing especially interesting. Giving private cloud users a logical migration path to public cloud use. The question effect will this initiative have to truly drive open cloud computing standards.

OpenStack, A Foundation for Hybrid Clouds?
This initiative while founded on open source is not necessarily the cure for lock-in but it does go much farther than anyone else offering a fully accessible reference architecture available as open source. The closest comparison I see is Eucalyptus that is mimicks the Amazon EC2 cloud compute architecture (though not AmazOpen Stack - Open Source Cloud Computingon S3), though Amazon and Eucalyptus don’t seem to share a commonly agreed upon road map but rather a leader-follower relationship.

OpenStack’s formula is more coordinated and with a respectable user to champion it, NASA. The U.S space agency has one of the most compelling publicly documented private cloud computing stories.  NASA has gone so far as to package their solution in small footprint shipping containers to distribute among NASA research centers. These portable data centers are a model that many organizations looking to build private clouds are watching with interest.

I like that private clouds built on the OpenStack reference architecture should be fully compatible with Rackspace hosting services. Giving users the choice to run their own cloud or host or adopt a hybrid model. It’s not unlike open source adoption models were users download a free software version that has compatibility with a commercially supported version.  Plus this is not Rackspace’s only foray into open source distributed computing as they support the Apache-hosted Cassandra project, a highly scalable distributed database, and have been showing their support at numerous cloud and open source events.

OpenStack Web Interface


The strong message accompanying the launch is one of open standards and prevention of cloud lock-in. Lew Moorman, President, Cloud and CSO at Rackspace states this clearly that OpenStack wants to prevent vendor lock-in:

“We are founding the OpenStack initiative to help drive industry standards, prevent vendor lock-in and generally increase the velocity of innovation in cloud technologies.”

This is not unlike VMware who echoed that sentiment with an announcement this spring to collaborate with Google AppEngine.  VMware’s CTO Steve Herrod stated that they too were committed to open standards and preventing login:

“Our shared vision is to make it easy to build, run, and manage applications for the cloud, and to do so in a way that makes the applications portable across clouds. The rich applications should be able to run in an enterprise’s private cloud, on Google’s AppEngine, or on other public clouds committed to similar openness.”

Does Open Source Prevent Cloud Lock-in?
I don’t know whether Rackspace’s OpenStack will truly prevent cloud lock-in but it does seem to be well-intentioned. Though I  believe the following things need to happen to insure cloud lock-in doesn’t become a rampant problem:

  • Virtualization Portability – At a very simple level users need to be able to move from virtualization technologies including those hosted in the cloud need to be able to migrate seamlessly, that includes VMs running in VMware , Xen, HyperV and KVM. Then once in the cloud they need to be able to move across clouds both public and private unencumbered — Amazon, Rackspace, Eucalyptus, Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud and others. Adoption of a widespread virtualization standard like Open Virtualization Format (OVF) could help (OpenStack does seem to already support OVF, a good sign).
  • Data Portability – Just as compute environments move so should data, but not only move but be accessible across network and cloud infrastructures with high fidelity.  Security of that data goes without saying but adds another layer of complexity.
  • Cross Environment Tools – Finally, the tools to managing these environments need to manage both cloud and legacy architectures to insure that  the management of these new computing paradigms don’t make things even more complicated.

I hope OpenStack helps drive this vision. However to deliver on the true vision of true portability across cloud platforms other cloud providers and vendors other than Rackspace will have to participate.

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More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at