VMware: OpenStack friend, foe, or frenemy?

Some say VMware's membership could doom OpenStack, but could it instead provide a more flexible hybrid cloud?

OpenStack was originally started in 2010 as an IaaS (infrastructure-as-a-service) cloud computing joint project between Rackspace and NASA. The reins have since been turned over to the new OpenStack Foundation, which is now finally official, complete with a 24-member board chaired by Suse executive and Linux Foundation director Alan Clark. The group has grown to more than 5,600 individual members across 87 countries and 850 organizations, and is financial backed by more than $10 million in funding.

The question now: Can this open source cloud project really thrive and survive in this competitive market? The community at large is watching to see how the foundation handles itself now that there are so many competing interests within its own membership -- especially with the recently added and most controversial new member, VMware.

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The OpenStack Foundation is already taking shape as a compelling force in cloud computing and has an admirable mission of enabling any organization to create and offer cloud computing services while running on standard hardware. The group had been getting early traction behind its united front for creating a competitive open source cloud stack before proprietary software vendors like VMware could swallow the market, like it had done with server virtualization.

That's why many eyebrows were raised when VMware announced it would apply to become a member of the group just as it started to get organized. VMware has been shifting its sole focus away from server virtualization as the hypervisor slowly becomes commoditized; to further that end, VMware in July acquired cloud automation and provisioning specialist DynamicOps and later paid $1.26 billion for Nicira, a startup in the network virtualization space and lead code contributor to the OpenFlow and software-defined networking OpenStack project.

Members of the OpenStack community weren't sure what the Nicira acquisition would mean for existing projects. With Nicira being such a major driving force behind the virtual networking project, some worried that VMware might use the acquisition to take a major piece off the playing board and in effect slow the progress OpenStack had been making.

VMware quickly responded to those fears by publicly announcing its intentions to continue Nicira's work and stating it planned to join the OpenStack group. But the OpenStack board did not get around to accepting VMware's application until sometime near the end of August.

As an added surprise to some, VMware became more than just another member in good standing; it was admitted as a gold member, meaning VMware ponied up its $200,000 gold membership fee and further committed to supporting developer contributions to the code. But that really shouldn't have come as much of a shock, considering Nicira's primary role prior to the acquisition. Also, $200,000 is a drop in the bucket to a company like VMware.

If VMware intends to truly embrace OpenStack, it could mean more to the cloud community than just the Nicira virtualized networking code. Together, VMware and OpenStack could help promote a more interoperable cloud infrastructure layer, thereby increasing the chance to reach cloud nirvana by allowing for better virtual machine mobility and portability, and giving companies the much needed capability of capacity cloud bursting from their private cloud environments to a public cloud for short-term needs.

But not everyone in the OpenStack community is ready to receive VMware with open arms. There's still a high level of distrust among some of its members -- with good reason. VMware hasn't always flashed its pearly whites to the community in a sign of friendship and brotherly love. Tension between these two camps may have been fueled by a blog post in April where VMware's VP of cloud services Matthew Lodge colorfully compared the open source cloud projects to the three ugly sisters in a Brothers Grimm fairytale.

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