What IBM's embrace of OpenStack really means

IBM becomes new de facto leader of OpenStack project after announcing all its cloud products will be built around core OpenStack bits

When IBM announced last week that all of its cloud offerings would be built around OpenStack, the open source cloud operating system, it was a triumph for the OpenStack Foundation and its large community of supporters.

"We dreamed that one day IBM might get involved and do for OpenStack what they've done for Linux and other open source communities in the past," Mark Collier, COO of the OpenStack Foundation, told me. "They're actually committed fully to OpenStack for being the basis for every single cloud solution they have going forward," both private and public.

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The announcement signaled that IBM would take the helm as the corporate steward of OpenStack, surpassing in importance even Rackspace -- which along with NASA gave birth to OpenStack three years ago. IBM is devoting the necessary money and resources and boasts an impressive track record of cultivating open source communities: It built Eclipse from the ground up and was highly instrumental in the success of Linux and Apache.

Unlike Rackspace or Red Hat, IBM will not offer its own packaged version of the OpenStack bits, said Angel Diaz, IBM's vice president of software standards, open source, and cloud labs. Instead, he told me, "We want this to be like the Apache HTTP Server was for WebSphere. Every modern-day application server has Apache HTTP code in it. So that's what we want [OpenStack] to be for cloud."

The first product to bundle OpenStack is IBM SmartCloud Orchestrator, now in beta, which enables customers to compose cloud services using a drag-and-drop interface.

Working behind the scenes
Before talking to Diaz, I had no idea how much influence IBM had already exerted on the development of OpenStack. The company is the No. 3 code contributor to the project and, in particular, added quite a bit to the Folsom release last fall.

According to Diaz, as a starting point for those development efforts, IBM drew on its existing private cloud software, dubbed SmartCloud Foundation, which offered much the same functionality as OpenStack. "In fact, it was architected in a very similar way. What we did was kind of teased out, and we tried to contribute what we thought was really good and would help OpenStack back into OpenStack."

IBM essentially donated functionality from its SmartCloud Foundation product to the Folsom release of OpenStack -- and going forward, all future versions of SmartCloud Foundation will be built around OpenStack. Over and above the core OpenStack bits, Diaz says, SmartCloud Foundation adds management, security, orchestration, and more.

This arrangement may a little sound self-serving, but I doubt IBM is trying to bully the OpenStack community to go in a certain direction. "You don't get rid of the meritocracy," Diaz told me. "IBM can't go in and say, 'You do what I say.' That would just stifle innovation."

Rackspace, for one, applauds the IBM announcement. In an interview last week Scott Sanchez, director of strategy for Rackspace's private cloud, told me, "I think it's great. The more traction, the more validation, the more people that are out on the market with OpenStack solutions, the faster it becomes the only choice."

Making workloads portable
But IBM doesn't intend to stop at HTTP-like standardization of private cloud management. As Diaz made clear, the company is also working toward making workloads portable from cloud to cloud -- which is key to avoiding cloud lock-in, perhaps the primary inhibitor to public cloud adoption.

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