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

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It's the kind of public spat that seems inevitable with an initiative of such enormous scale. According to both Citrix and its critics, the company pushed to replace Nova with the compute kernel from, which it purchased in July 2011 for more than $200 million. But the software was written in Java, not Python, and OpenStack wasn't having any. So -- pick your hypothetical motive -- Citrix pulled out, burning bridges along the way.

OpenStack itself is a product of this kind of technology feuding. It was Eucalyptus that pioneered the idea of an open source cloud computing stack; the company's offering is now mature enough to have working production implementations to brag about. Before the Rackspace partnership, an attempt was made to integrate Nova with Eucalyptus, but incompatibilities in technology and culture led to failure and finger-pointing.

Now OpenStack faces another crossroads. For the past two years, Rackspace has provided most of the code and leadership. Sometime this year, an independent entity called the OpenStack Foundation will spin off from Rackspace and take the reins, presumably with a more open leadership structure -- which critics have been demanding for some time. But will that help or hinder OpenStack's quest to deliver a production-ready cloud operating system that can be widely adopted?

Momentum vs. adoption
Back on stage, Ubuntu's Mark Shuttleworth does a sweet demo during his portion of the keynote. When he starts his spiel, he kicks off an OpenStack installation on a remote server rack using Ubuntu's Juju deployment project. When his speech ends, 30 minutes later, there's a working private cloud deployed in the rack. Impressive.

Kemp's Nebula and another NASA alum-led startup, Piston Cloud Computing, have a similar mission: Make OpenStack deployments as easy as possible. They go about it in different ways; Nebula uses a dedicated hardware management appliance, and Piston opts for a USB-based CloudKey that can turn a rack into a cloud in 10 minutes or less. Both Kemp and Piston's CTO, Christopher McGowan, explained that their technologies are possible only by limiting the options in in a typical deployment.

Later, when I got McGowan on the phone, he told me that CloudKey works only on a specific kind of server sold by Piston. "There's no other way at this stage," said McGowan. "We can only manage this kind of simplification by reducing the number of variables, and part of that is limiting hardware options." He explained the company will expand those options in the future.

Real live OpenStack customers are hard to find, but I was able to interview one early evaluator who gave OpenStack a try and was left nonplussed. "We don't know what happened," Father Ballecer grumped on a phone call. He's the National Director of Vocation Promotion for the Jesuit Conference and the "Digital Jesuit" founder of TheTechStop; he's heavily involved in IT decision-making for the Catholic Church.

"We're testing these guys for things like moderate scalability, price-performance, maintenance capabilities, and long-term relevance," said Ballecer. "But when we ran workloads across our OpenStack test bed, we crashed the whole stack. That's not even supposed to be possible in a cloud model. We still don't know whether it was something in the code because it's beta or whether we set something up wrong."

Ballecer's misadventure is not terribly surprising -- and not just because OpenStack is early-stage technology. OpenStack is a basic set of services. If you want to make OpenStack work in the real world, you're best advised to go for a precooked solution like that provided by Piston Cloud or Nebula. Otherwise, be prepared to write your own code around those services.

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