Is OpenStack ready for prime time?

For early private cloud adopters, the answer is a qualified yes

Is OpenStack ready for prime time?

If you listen to the hype surrounding OpenStack, it's nothing less than a panacea offering fast, relatively easy, cost-efficient tools for deploying enterprise apps as cloud services. Some analysts are far less bullish, arguing that building a private cloud with OpenStack is a daunting task.

We interviewed OpenStack trailblazers from large enterprises like Walmart, Time Warner Cable, and PayPal. They say OpenStack is ready for prime time deployment in the enterprise -- as long as you understand the potential pitfalls and impediments.

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You need to have the right staff. You need to start small. And you need to be ready to handle potential issues in the areas of upgrades, scalability and ease of use.

'Building a private cloud is a very hard thing'

"I think it's a hard case to make that OpenStack has flaws that are inhibiting enterprise adoption given there are thousands of private cloud deployments. Yes, many of those are messy. Yes, there are challenges, but building a private cloud is a very hard thing,'' says Randy Bias, vice president, technology at EMC and an OpenStack Foundation director.

Randy Bias Microsoft

Randy Bias

"You are converging storage, networking, and compute, and adding a number of next-generation services such as Software Defined Networking (SDN) overlays, object storage, on-demand L4-L7 networking, and commodity switching, among many other things, and putting all of that together like Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud does in your own data center. It's very hard, requires a lot of talent, and is a huge challenge, regardless of whether OpenStack is part of the equation or not," says Bias. 

At Time Warner Cable, the OpenStack team overcame its struggles with the platform's complexity and launched private cloud services that improved the company's services to customers.

"OpenStack is now a mature cloud operating system and, in the right hands, can be used to build and support an enterprise-grade private cloud," says Matt Haines, vice president, cloud engineering and operations. "However there are challenges in getting there. Proper expertise is needed to design, deploy, and support an OpenStack private cloud and vendors are just now getting up to speed to help. If you choose to go it on your own, and you have the expertise, it still offers the best available combination of control and support."

PayPal's OpenStack team also had to jump some hurdles when it built its private cloud, encountering mismatches with existing IT infrastructure, for one. They overcame this by ramping up slowly until they had a fully functioning production environment. But it wasn't easy, says Jigar Desai, vice president of cloud and platforms.

"Certainly there are a few challenges with OpenStack adoption. It requires a ground up set up that won't necessarily work with your existing deployment. In our case, we started with a small footprint of infrastructure on OpenStack and steadily built confidence by transitioning more and more traffic over the next few years. In the process, we dealt with scalability and reliability issues and fixed them directly in OpenStack code or in the PaaS layer that sits on top of it. Today we run all of our production front and mid-tier workloads on OpenStack," he says.

Despite these examples, analysts still have their doubts as to the platform's enterprise readiness.

Lydia Leong

Lydia Leong

"OpenStack is thrown together by a lot of engineers. It's like the old saw about a thousand monkeys typing. It's also attempting to compete with the top three public cloud vendors--Amazon, Microsoft and Google--and they're all moving very fast and looking to replace much of the data center and corporate IT. As opposed to those, OpenStack isn't great for building things that are brand new," says Lydia Leong, an analyst at Gartner.

"One big issue is that people think about OpenStack like they thought about Amazon Web Services in 2008. But Amazon, Microsoft and Google have moved on to a higher level in that they build the whole platform, and have product managers. They're not built by committee. They're more focused," she says.

But for those IT execs who have committed the financing and staff, and hew to a vision of what open source private cloud services can do for their companies, especially if they're willing to cut the umbilical cord with a third-party cloud service provider, more vendor involvement isn't a bad thing.

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Walmart's ecommerce unit, WalmartLabs, uses OpenStack to build portions of its open source development products. According to Amandeep Singh Juneja, senior director, cloud operations and engineering, OpenStack's strong member community can help IT managers navigate its complexities.

"With any open-source project all the positives only are achievable with investment in talent acquisition and talent growth. A challenge many enterprise companies face is [abandoning] the comfort of having a large vendor support them through the implementation process. Recently, this issue has been improving with more and more large-scale vendors participating, contributing, and supporting OpenStack projects. This has helped enterprises get over the initial hurdle of experimenting with OpenStack," he says.

openstack cloud os

"In the first iterations, we had some issues embedding the OpenStack environment into a homegrown bare-metal infrastructure. Also, moving from a dedicated infrastructure to shared infrastructure was a big shift in the development culture. And, not having many monitoring and command-and-control tools made it even more difficult. However, once we got past this hurdle, we have only seen a reduction in the number and scale of problems. For example, our upgrade from OpenStack's Havana release to Juno was seamless with no scheduled or unscheduled outages or downtime," he says.

It's important to keep in mind that EMC, Time Warner Cable, PayPal and WalMart have money to spare on new hires and retraining of staff as necessary to implement new technologies. They have the resources to smash barriers that smaller organizations or those with less IT capital might not have. The latter might prefer sticking with or contracting a third-party vendor or service provider to run their private cloud.

The consensus is that it takes time and executive-level support to first decide to deploy a private on-premise cloud, second to make the transition from VMware or other virtual machine environments, and third to have the staff who can handle setting up, managing and running it.

For an organization the size of PayPal, however, OpenStack's benefits far outweigh its perceived or actual drawbacks.

"Our journey started more than five years ago, and we worked with and considered various merchants, as this was before the industry thought that OpenStack was ready for prime time. PayPal has more than 1,500 applications on its site, and all need to work in harmony. When you take an infrastructure that complex, you can't just make one huge lift and drop it into the cloud. You have to find your way over a period of time based on workloads that will be compatible with your system. Going from a standardized, traditional infrastructure to something that is automated from the ground up is a huge journey, not without its fair share of issues. For example, we faced issues with upgrading OpenStack without downtime. We also continue to see few reliability issues as we scaled up and down hundreds of our application services. With proper configuration, monitoring and resiliency architecture, these problems are solvable, but it does take sizable in-house talent," says Desai.

'You need to understand the nuances'

In May, Forrester Research published a report that concluded that OpenStack is ready for the enterprise, as long as users know what they're getting into. According to Lauren Nelson, a Forrester analyst, the report was spurred by the OpenStack drum-beating by its community members, as well as media coverage.

Lauren Nelson

Lauren Nelson

"There have been a million press releases and news articles that say OpenStack is suitable for the enterprise. Our report was in part an answer to those sensationalized articles. Problems such as OpenStack's scaling issues don't get as much mention. We wanted to step away from the sensationalizing. There are differences between what the OpenStack Foundation hopes to achieve and what it actually does. As I say in the report, while it may be enterprise-ready in many respects, you need to understand the nuances," says Nelson.

OpenStack users should prepare to face complexity, but help is out there. New products such as Docker and CloudFoundry, when used with OpenStack, can make private cloud development easier, she adds.

The right people for the job

Clearly, OpenStack is mature enough for deployment of an on-premise open-source private cloud. The problem is, it's very hard to find IT staffers who are up to the task. Even if existing staff are well-versed in distributed computing, to successfully deploy an OpenStack cloud, much less convert data centers and large portions an IT infrastructure to cloud services, new hires will need to lend a hand.

"Just because OpenStack is a viable cloud-development platform for large organizations, that doesn't mean it's enterprise-ready. You need those touching it to have the right skills to make it work and work well. Then, an upgrade comes along, and you don't want a static cloud. You need to adapt and integrate it in different ways, and you can't just have guys used to running VMware do this. But the maturity of the feature set is there," says Ryan Shuttleworth, CTO, Verizon Cloud.

Shuttleworth says an enterprise that has experience building cloud applications will have an easier time solving the thorny issues that can arise when they move to OpenStack.

"If you're already building distributed, elastic applications in the cloud, you'll also understand that elements of modern cloud architecture are very different from those of stacked applications. If you throw OpenStack at a team that's used to developing traditional applications, they'll be baffled. But this isn't inherent to OpenStack, it's private cloud in general," he says.

Time Warner Cable is one large enterprise that had the required background knowledge. Haines adds his own advice for those looking to move their enterprise apps to an OpenStack cloud.


Resource Type Min. Commitment
Hypervisor Operations Expert/Architect (must be able to read Python code) 2
Hypervisor Developer or Hypervisor Vendor (must be able to write Python code) 2
Storage Operations Expert/Architect (must be able to read Python and C code) 2
Storage Developer or Storage Vendor (must be able to write Python code) 2
Network Operations Expert/Architect (must be able to read Python code) 2
Network Developer or Network Vendor (must be able to write Python and C code) 2
Linux Automation Experts and Software Developers ("DevOps" folks) 4
Linux Kernel Developers (must be able to write C and troubleshoot kernel modules) 2
Quality Engineering Team 4
Dedicated OpenStack Developers (must be able to write Python code) 4
Total Cloud Development Resources 26
Randy Bias, EMC

"When considering OpenStack staff, you have to ask how you're going to deploy the cloud. Vendors will do it on your behalf--the so-called White Label vendors--and that way the cloud will be vendor supported. In that case, your staff would be minimal, like the size of a VMware team. On the other hand, one very powerful thing is that because it's open source, rather than fight vendors to put in a specific feature, you can do it yourself. Then that goes to the community. But you need the staff that can do that. At the same time, even with our large-scale OpenStack deployment, we have a team of only 20 people. A 20-person team might cost more in-house than a three- or four-person team using a vendor-supplied solution, but it's a trade-off. If you do the latter, you have to pay for licensing. Twenty well-picked people can manage OpenStack deployment," says Haines.

Also, prepare to be forced to pick OpenStack team members from a limited pool of available talent being fought over by many other companies. OpenStack requires a broad set of esoteric programming disciplines, with support staffers who possess things like knowledge of Python, SDN, distributed computing, VM, open-source software and more.

At Comcast, Muehl says collaboration and working closely with the open-source community are also key check-off items for OpenStack team members.

"Ideal teams are accustomed to working in an open source software environment. They collaborate well with the OpenStack community and participate through a variety of channels such as operators' meet-ups, mailing lists, and IRC. They also contribute to documentation, bugs, reviews and even code. By being plugged in, teams can often avoid reinventing the wheel and quickly learn what worked well for others. We've been extremely fortunate to build and maintain a team that embodies those qualities," he says.

Desai ran into similar problems when he began looking for employees dedicated to building, deploying and maintaining Yahoo's private cloud.

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