Private cloud provider places risky bet on 'openness' advantage

NASA-derived Nebula banks on data center clients' concern over openness in cloud APIs and protocols -- but not in the platform

Nebula, a new cloud infrastructure provider with roots in NASA technology, expects to "disrupt and democratize cloud computing" using open source cloud software and commodity hardware. That sounds like open source at its best, but a closer look suggests it may not be an effective way to compete with commercial providers.

Nebula hopes to simplify private cloud creation

Nebula, founded by former NASA CTO Chris Kemp, was launched at Oscon this week. Nebula borrows its name and initial technology from a project that Kemp led at NASA, and was later open-sourced by NASA into a project named OpenStack that Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and others have now endorsed.

[ InfoWorld's Eric Knorr explains why HP's embrace of OpenStack signals the start of the real battle for data centers' private clouds. | Get the key insights on open source news and trends from InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

Nebula plans to sell hardware appliances to create private clouds using your existing or new compute and storage hardware. OpenStack is used to allocate compute and storage resources to a given user or application in an elastic fashion.

Each Nebula hardware appliance is able to control up to 20 compute and storage nodes within your private cloud. If your private cloud has hundreds of nodes, as would be expected, you'll need multiple Nebula appliances.

A recent survey of 500 enterprises found that the average enterprise maintains 662 physical servers. Creating a private cloud out of these 662 physical servers would require 33 Nebula appliances, and that's before including any storage nodes into the calculations. According to VentureBeat, Kemp is quoted as saying, "You buy 10 or 100 of our boxes and plug a whole rack of servers into our boxes. It is data center infrastructure, offered as a service. This is the kind of shift that has to happen if the data center revolution is going to proceed."

Depending on the pricing, buying tens or hundreds of Nebula appliances could add up to significant costs. That said, Nebula claims to be able to help build a private cloud in minutes, not months, thereby providing time to value benefits that Nebula would seek to monetize.

Nebula's attempt to differentiate through openness

Nebula's approach is interesting and follows the growing adoption of appliances optimized for specific purposes, notably the trend of using appliances as building blocks for a private cloud platform.

Vendors such as IBM, Oracle, and VMware/Cisco/EMC already offer, to varying degrees, appliances to help build out your private cloud. Even Microsoft has spoken about an Azure appliance, although it's been delayed several times.

Nebula hopes to differentiate from better-known IT vendors by leveraging the openness of its cloud infrastructure software layer. Nebula claims that the appliance is built on the same APIs and runtime as OpenStack, but adds numerous security, management, and platform enhancements. It remains to be seen whether these enhancements will also be open source. If these extras are not open source, the system's openness would come into question.

Does an open source foundation matter in the cloud?

Nebula's product page claims the following key value propositions: open software, open hardware, dev ops compatibility, self-service, security, massive scalability, elastic infrastructure, and high availability.

The only value proposition on this list that IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, or VMware/Cisco/EMC couldn't claim equally as well is that they provide open software. I say "equally as well" because "open software" is a broad term.

Nebula's key differentiator is that its product is based on an open stack. But does that matter to buyers? Would it matter to you?

Gianugo Rabellino, the senior director for open source at Microsoft, says Microsoft's stance is that as long as the APIs and protocols for the cloud are open, customers could not care less about the openness of the underlying platform.

This view is shared by the newly launched Open Cloud Initiative. Open Cloud Initiative director Sam Johnston writes, "so long as the interfaces and formats are open, and there are multiple full, faithful, and interoperable implementations (at least one of which is open dource) then it's 'open cloud.'"

Enterprise IT vendors have a long history of cooperating on standards and competing on the basis of their implementation. This too will occur at the cloud level. And when it does, differentiation will shift toward such details as ease-of-use, interoperability with existing assets, high performance, and total cost of ownership.

Therein lies the challenge for Nebula. Its key differentiator -- openness -- isn't a sustainable advantage.

I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions."

This article, "Private cloud provider places risky bet on 'openness' advantage," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Savio Rodrigues's Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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