How OpenStack is coming of age and tackling its growing pains head-on

The OpenStack community of users and contributors are united in their belief in the enterprise-readiness of the open source platform, but accelerating its adoption requires some back-to-basics thinking, finds Ahead In the Clouds.

One of the downsides of growing up is the gradual realisation that, despite our parents’ promises to the contrary, it is actually really hard to be anything we want to be.

You only have to look at how the lofty career ambitions of most small children get revised down with age, as they realise that becoming an astronaut (for example) is actually quite the academic undertaking, and that vacancies in the field are few and far between.

OpenStack appears to be going through a very similar journey of self-discovery and realisation, with many of the discussions at its recent user summit focusing on the need for its community to pare back their ambitions for the open source cloud platform.

This should not be interpreted as push by the OpenStack Foundation, who oversee the development of the software, to curb the creativity of its contributors, but to ensure they’re working on meaningful projects and features that users actually want.

Clearing the cloud complexity

OpenStack started out with the goal of allowing enterprise IT departments to use its open source software  to manage the pools of compute, storage, and networking resources within their datacentres to build out their private cloud capabilities.

In the six or so years since OpenStack has been going, the community contributing code to the platform has changed massively, with some high-profile vendors down-sizing their involvement (while others have ramped up theirs). Meanwhile, the number of add-ons and features the technology can offer enterprises has ballooned.

This has created a lot of unnecessary complexity for IT directors trying to work out if OpenStack is the right technology to create a private cloud for their business. In turn, they also need to work out which vendor distribution is right for them, what add-ons to include and whether they should do everything themselves or enlist the help of a managed services provider.

As enterprise adoption of the platform has grown, the OpenStack Foundation and its stakeholders now have a wider pool of users to glean insights from, with regard to what features they do and don’t use, which is helping cut some of this complexity.

As such, the Foundation set out plans, during the opening keynote of the Spring 2017 OpenStack Summit to start culling projects and removing unpopular features from the platform to make OpenStack easier to use, and ensure the 44% year-on-year deployment growth it’s reported recently continues apace.

Back-to-basics with OpenStack

Various stakeholders Ahead in the Clouds (AitC) spoke to at the OpenStack Summit said the Foundation’s commitment to getting “back-to-basics” is long overdue, with Canonical founder, Mark Shuttleworth, amongst the staunchest of supporters for this plan.

“We’ve always been seen somewhat contrary inside of the OpenStack Community because when everyone else was saying we should do everything, I was saying we should just do the [core] things and do them well,” he told AitC.

For Canonical, whose Ubuntu OpenStack is used by some of the world’s biggest telcos, media outlets, and financial institutions, this means delivering virtual machines, disks and network, on demand with great economics, said Shuttleworth.

“OpenStack does not need to be everything as a service. It just needs to be infrastructure as a service. Focusing just on that has been very successful for Canonical,” he continued.

“We focused on just the core, and that allows people to consume [the] OpenStack private cloud as cleanly as they can consume public cloud.”

As far as Shuttleworth is concerned, scaling down OpenStack’s ambition is a sign of the endeavour’s growing maturity, and will position the private cloud technology well for future growth.

“They say a mid-life crisis is all about realising you’re not going to be simultaneously a rock star, a noble prize winner, a top surfer and a famous poet. That is exactly what is happening with OpenStack,” he said.

“It’s not a bad thing. You can call me OpenStack’s greatest fan, but it’s just I happen to think chunks of it are bulls**t.”

OpenStack comes of age

At just six years old, OpenStack is – perhaps – a little premature to be going through a mid-life crisis, but it is certainly at the right stage of life to be experiencing growing pains, as its quest to become the private cloud of choice for enterprise customers rumbles on.

Its success here heavily relies on the ability of the Foundation and its stakeholders to alter some of the negative perceptions enterprises have about private cloud.

Some of these are borne out of end-users unfairly pitting the private cloud and public cloud against each other, Scott Crenshaw, senior vice president and general manager of OpenStack clouds at managed cloud firm Rackspace, told AitC at the Summit.

“We have enough experience in the industry to understand now – at a high level – what platform works best for each application. It’s not the Wild West any more where fear, uncertainty and doubt are driving buying decisions,” he said.

“There is no longer a Pollyanna view that everything goes into public cloud and then we’re all better off. The situation is lot more nuanced than that.”

Enterprises are gradually coming to the realisation that drawing on public cloud resources to run their applications and workloads is not necessarily cheaper, and – in some situations – can actually work out a whole lot more expensive.

“If you knit all this together, what you see is private cloud and public cloud are not really in competition: they’re very complimentary technologies,” he continued.

“It’s going to be horses for courses and it’s a great thing. It’s more economical, it’s more efficient, it’ good for the economy and for the end users.”

OpenStack’s growing pains have seen some of its big-name contributors downsize or simply tweak their involvement with the community, as their bets on the technology have not quite played out how they predicted.

Shuttleworth said this process is something all open source communities go through as they mature and evolve, and OpenStack will end up stronger for it.

“It’s like the internet in 1999. The internet didn’t stop once the dotcom bubble burst, and the same applies here. The need for OpenStack continues and is bigger than ever,” he added.

The latest OpenStack User Survey (published in April 2017) certainly backs the latter point, and it will be interesting to see how the Foundation’s efforts to trim the fat from OpenStack affects the deployment rates reported in next year’s edition and beyond.