The great OpenStack conundrum: with 15,000 members, why is adoption lagging?

When most people think of open-source technology, OpenStack is often the first name that comes to mind. It has been at the forefront of the rising desire for open, collaborative development.

The platform consists of a series of interrelated projects that control pools of data centre resources, which can be managed through a web-based dashboard, RESTful API or command-line tools.

It has come a long way since its initial inception by Rackspace Hosting and NASA in July 2010, attracting more than 15,000 members and securing over $10 million in funding, with the aim of providing a ubiquitous open-source cloud platform.

But it has also had to balance its progress with challenges – no more exemplified than when NASA dropped out as an active developer citing a lack of technical progress in July 2013, the same month that Red Hat announced commercial support with the ‘Grizzly’ release.

The platform initially saw popularity as a viable alternative to either the high capex a business requires to build its own cloud infrastructure or the public cloud options from the likes of Google and Amazon Web Services (AWS), which many have perceived as inflexible and lacking data privacy and security.

‘That “closed garden” makes AWS analogous to the Apple of the cloud,’ says David Fishman, global VP of marketing at Mirantis. ‘By contrast, OpenStack is the equivalent of Android, helping organisations tailor it to their specific needs, and avoid being locked into a single vendor’s cloud solutions.’

Poor uptake

The past year has, however, seen disappointing uptake, especially considering that some of the world’s largest and most influential companies have joined the OpenStack community, which collaborates around a six-month, time-based release cycle with frequent development milestones.

For them, the benefits bring a competitive edge through shorter product development cycles, faster time to market and reduced engineering and development costs – not to mention the relationships in the community.

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‘Those relationships drive partnering and customer opportunities,’ says Alan Clark, chairman of the board at the OpenStack Foundation and director of emerging standards and open source at SUSE.

‘The large number of corporate vendors that are part of the ecosystem instills confidence, as well as the nature of the project being open source.’

But whether that instilled confidence has translated to enterprise uptake is another matter: adoption had, frankly, been expected to be better.

‘From 2013, our impression, based on customer conversations, has been that the demand for open-source initiatives has been declining – specifically for storage clouds and object storage,’ says Molly Rector, chief marketing officer at DDN.

‘Our explanation is that the companies that tried the open-source strategy for their cloud infrastructures experienced that there is a very long road to market, little support and a lot of internal engineering effort required.’

Such words stand in stark contract to some of the supposed key benefits of OpenStack – namely, rapid deployment and easier scalability – that other companies still strongly testify to.

One benefit that definitely cannot be disputed, however, is the lack of vendor lock-in.

‘It provides tremendous flexibility,’ Fishman says, ‘allowing customers to configure their infrastructure exactly to their needs and to integrate with existing systems.’

Transitioning to a standard cloud environment also promises flexibility to adopt new application workloads and greater economies of scale.

With these benefits, however, come new challenges, such as the need to control and reconfigure this hyper-dynamic environment as application workloads move into, out of and around the networking infrastructure.

Many organisations are turning to cloud orchestration solutions to overcome these issues, but proprietary solutions can in fact lead to vendor lock-in, reducing flexibility and often inhibiting the network’s ability to scale as business needs evolve.

‘These solutions can limit an organisation’s ability to achieve the very benefits the cloud offers,’ says Nick Williams, senior product manager, EMEA data centre IP at Brocade. ‘An open solution, such as OpenStack, allows end-users to gain all the benefits of cloud while also guaranteeing the flexibility they need to drive innovation and growth.’

According to the OpenStack Foundation’s latest user survey results, from November 2013, 66% of respondents were using OpenStack for on-premise private or hybrid cloud scenarios.

But while big names such as Bloomberg, PayPal, Workday, Disney and Wells Fargo have adopted, the fact remains that, despite a lot of marketing effort, enterprise adoption has been slow.

One of the key causes of this is the fact that it is updated far too frequently, and there are too many backwards compatibility breaks.

‘It’s early days for the technology, and this is all part of the necessary life cycle, much in the same way that Linux saw a flurry of activity from early adopters 15 years before levelling out and becoming more widely adopted,’ says Steve Nice, CTO at Reconnix.

‘The enterprise requires stability and assurance, and something like OpenStack is potentially too volatile at this stage, feeling like it’s very much still in the development and test phase.’

Changing tack

The enterprise has historically consumed software solutions in a way that differs from the OpenStack distribution model.

With OpenStack broken into a collection of loosely coupled projects, some enterprises face multiple challenges in its configuration and operation with existing in-house resources.

‘These differing approaches today often require enterprises to either seek additional staff with new skills better suited to consume OpenStack or outsource to consultants well versed in OpenStack,’ says Aaron Delp, cloud solutions architect at SolidFire.

With than in mind, user education is key if OpenStack is to prosper in the near future, and the OpenStack Foundation is attacking this through several efforts.

The OpenStack Training Marketplace is making it easier to discover and participate in training courses offered by technology providers in the OpenStack ecosystem. Such training not only covers the operational, administrative and developer aspects of OpenStack, but also introductory materials on cloud computing and the nature of OpenStack.

A second effort is the community itself, providing community training materials and developer and administrative guides, as well as test grounds and instructions.

Then there is the way that the OpenStack brand is being applied for commercial use. Through a series of progressive cycles, OpenStack is developing an understanding and definition of what is ‘core’.

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‘The culmination of these efforts will result in greater feature consistency between products using the brand, as well as enhanced functionality testing,’ Clark says. ‘At a high level, a better user experience.’

Increasing clarity

Outside of the Foundation, there are more efforts on how the confusion around OpenStack can be overcome.

‘One direction is to increase and tighten communication between a set of core OpenStack projects to provide common reference architectures that fit common enterprise and service provider use cases seen in the majority of organisations today,’ says Delp.

‘The creation of solution templates or reference architectures will assist in both overcoming the lack of clarity and increasing market adoption.’

Then there is also the idea to increase the number of projects and allow OpenStack to grow and become a project that solves more issues than just core infrastructure-as-a-service.

CIOs need to be assured that any technology on which they stake their reputation is at least stable.

The pace of OpenStack’s evolution, which is necessary to get the technology to where it needs to be, is proving to be a big turn-off for many.

With the culture of early-access developing, there’s a risk that early adopters are being used as beta-testers rather than valued, enthusiastic customers.

‘Developers and other fans of the platform really need to be going to management – not only with their immediate use cases, but information as to when the next step change is due,’ says Nice. ‘That way, CIOs can de-risk themselves and base a decision on more robust metrics.’

Opinions remain split on the future of OpenStack. The markets that it is addressing – compute cloud infrastructure and storage clouds – are very crowded with proprietary alternatives that offer enterprise support, ongoing feature upgrades, appliance deployment and professional services to help.

Most initiatives to commercialise OpenStack have had only moderate success. And with that in mind, on top of decreasing concerns about public cloud offerings, Rector thinks that OpenStack will remain a popular platform but won’t break through like Linux did in the 1990s.

On the other hand, Fishman is confident that OpenStack adoption will accelerate in the years ahead, moving even faster than Linux adoption in the first decade of this century.

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‘The overwhelming majority of companies building applications for strategic advantage are using cloud as a platform,’ he says.

As a result, they’re comfortable building applications that leverage cloud rather than traditional servers.

One thing is almost certain. The vast majority of infrastructure vendors recognise that OpenStack accelerates market adoption of new technologies, and as the market continues its shift to cloud, they are likely to increasingly want a piece of that. But whether that translates to enterprise adoption is, at this stage, anyone’s guess.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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