Is OpenStack the new Linux?

Or is this open source 'cloud operating system' just a launching pad for a million new cloud businesses? Either way, the excitement is contagious

I'm standing in the lobby of the downtown San Francisco Hyatt Regency, where the 2012 OpenStack Conference has just commenced. As with most open source events, I feel like I'm surrounded by ComicCon refugees.

It's a big change of scene for me. My last full-time job was in Windows Server product marketing, which prevented me from writing for InfoWorld or anyone else except my Redmond bosses for four years. Now I'm back in the game, laptop battery fully charged, ready to chronicle the next big thing in open source.

[ For an early take on OpenStack, check out InfoWorld Editor in Chief Eric Knorr's post, "OpenStack wants to be your data center OS." | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Open Sources blog and Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

OpenStack is an evolving mountain of Apache 2-licensed code billed as a "cloud operating system" for the data center. At the same time, OpenStack is a movement, confirmed by the high-energy jabber in the air around me. As with the early days of Linux, the buzz around OpenStack has risen to a roar, with thousands of community members flocking to conferences from Paris to Seoul. The level of interest and growth is phenomenal.

People with money are excited about OpenStack, too. Investors like True Ventures and big-name corporations like AT&T, Dell, Cisco, and HP, and IBM are jumping in the game. The conference is filled with true believers hawking OpenStack startups, developing for OpenStack startups, or just talking about OpenStack startups. It's a late-'90s gold rush in miniature.

The allure of OpenStack is clear: Like Linux, OpenStack aims to provide a kernel around which all kinds of software vendors can build businesses. But with OpenStack, we're talking multiple projects to provide agile cloud management of compute, storage, and networking resources across the data center -- plus authentication, self-service, resource monitoring, and a slew of other projects. It's hugely ambitious, perhaps the most far-reaching open source project ever, although still at a very early stage.

OpenStack is staking out a huge swath of territory in a hotly contested area. VMware is already shipping software that covers much the same ground, building on its stellar technology development in virtualization management. My alma mater, Microsoft, is moving in a similar direction with Windows Server and System Center. There are many other smaller competitors -- led by Eucalyptus, which offers private cloud software compatible with Amazon Web Services APIs.

As the crowd settles in for the keynote, I'm reminded of a big player that isn't here: Citrix, an early OpenStack supporter that exited the consortium in a flurry of destructive trash talk -- to launch its own competing cloud operating system, CloudStack. Clearly, the sky-high aspirations of OpenStack both fuel its outrageous momentum and incur the risk of overreach and collapse, as it incites all manner of competition. The promise is big, but the success of OpenStack is by no means assured.

Present at the creation
First up on stage is Chris Kemp, which is appropriate enough. Smart, self-possessed, and just 32 years old, Kemp is CEO of an OpenStack startup called Nebula, which counts as it backers Silicon Valley legends John Doerr and Andy Bechtolsheim. More to the point, Kemp is OpenStack's most compelling evangelist and a key figure in its genesis.

As the story goes, when Kemp was at NASA's Ames Research Center, he realized the agency's habit of procuring a supercomputer when it needed horsepower for a big, new project was not sustainable. Why couldn't NASA have an infrastructure more like Google's, where you could allocate compute power as needed from a massive pool of machines? Kemp and some forward-looking developers set about writing software for a private NASA cloud that supported this commodity computing goal.

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