Interview: Alan Clark, chairman, OpenStack Foundation

Alan Clark, chairman of the board of the OpenStack Foundation, talks to Computer Weekly about the future of cloud and the role of open source

Cloud will be dramatically different in five years’ time and open source cloud platforms will have  big role to play in the future of cloud computing, says Alan Clark, director of emerging standards and open source at enterprise Linux provider SUSE. Alan Clark became the chairman of the board for the OpenStack Foundation in September 2012.

OpenStack Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation set up in 2012 year to help developers, users and the cloud ecosystem to grow the footprint of public and private clouds by providing a set of shared resources.

The OpenStack Foundation manages OpenStack, the Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) cloud platform that is freely available for anyone to run, build on or submit changes back to the project.

Clark was a natural fit as the Foundation’s first chairman because of his 20 years’ experience in the software industry, particularly in the open-source segment.

During this time, he fostered the creation, growth, awareness and adoption of open source and open standards across the technology sector.  

He has been part of some influential technology consortia and open-source projects such as the Linux Foundation, the Linux Standard Base (LSB) work group, the Open Document Foundation’s technical committees and the openSUSE project.

An early adopter of new technologies, Clark also started tracking the cloud and became part of the Cloud Security Alliance, the Enterprise Grid Alliance Reference Architecture (an early predecessor to today’s cloud computing models) and the DMTF Cloud Incubator.

Open source cloud making inroads

Open source cloud is gathering steam as more enterprises are realising the benefits of free, community-developed tools and its benefits such as open standards and interoperability.  

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“Tomorrow’s cloud will be much different and will go beyond a platform that is used for just computing, storage and database functions,” Clark says.

“Cloud will be used in many more creative ways and open source will propel that change.”

According to him open cloud computing will expand the scope of the cloud because it is a community-led project which fosters innovation.

“That’s what I like the most about OpenStack – a community full of influential and enthusiastic IT professionals who come together to develop a robust open cloud platform,” he says.

OpenStack was founded in 2010 by Rackspace and Nasa. Today it has around 6,700 members which include technologists, developers, researchers, corporations and cloud computing experts. Participating suppliers include HP, Dell, IBM, Yahoo, Red Hat, Cisco, AT&T, Canonical, EMC and Cloudscaling among others. The Foundation’s board also includes European users such as Cern’s infrastructure manager, Tim Bell.

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Cern has been using OpenStack-based private cloud environment to overcome big-data challenges. The open-source cloud infrastructure has been cost-effective for Cern because the IT team just takes the free code from the community, develop it and use it, according to Bell. Cern is using OpenStack’s sixth release, Folsom.

Other prominent OpenStack users include Nasa, Wikimedia Labs, RackSpace Cloud, and HP’s public cloud among others.

Clark’s own enthusiasm for all things open source is evident from his 20-year-old IT journey. “When I started my career in IT, I began with a role in Unix,” he says. “I then moved to Linux and that’s when I learnt that open source gives you so much freedom to innovate.”

Clark has also spent some time working as a software engineer on closed or proprietary IT projects.  But his enthusiasm to collaborate with IT visionaries and communities and to jointly develop technologies meant he always went back to open-source IT.

As the top executive of the five-month old OpenStack Foundation, Clark will be responsible to get OpenStack Foundation off the ground as well as provide strategic and financial oversight of the organisation’s resources. He aims to raise about $7m in funding in 2013 which will be spent on infrastructure development, research and community development.

Although Clark is passionate about open cloud computing and hopeful about its future, he is well aware of the current market dynamics and the challenges of open-source cloud.

“Yes, Amazon Web Services has a strong market share but what’s unique about OpenStack is the variety of vendors,” Clark says. “It is not just a VMware-based or a Microsoft-based cloud platform.”

“Open-source cloud has the real ability to understand the users’ needs and tailor the platform to suit their specific requirements,” he says.

And according to him, the landscape is already changing.

“Take Microsoft for instance. It was historically a proprietary vendor but they have interest in open source and they have been strong partners of SUSE,” he says.

Microsoft is participating in open source projects but whether they will become an OpenStack member or not, we don’t know yet, but it will be good to work with them.”.

Clark is a man with a mission. He wants to dispel the misconceptions around open-source cloud computing. Many enterprises and IT executives think of open cloud as something that is good for testing and becoming familiar with cloud services but don’t use it in actual production.

“There is a general belief that open source cloud is ‘work in progress’ and that it is never complete. That is not true,” he says. “Open source cloud is just as robust, scalable and efficient as proprietary cloud platform.

“The community is constantly testing it, adding software and applications, adding certifications and hardening the ecosystem to improve the open source cloud platform even further.

“Look at Linux, 20 years ago it started small and many thought it would perish but Linux permeates everything today. Open-source cloud is going to do the same thing, it will permeate everything.”

On a larger scale, Clark is collaborating with the community to address bigger challenges around cloud computing such as ensuring high availability so users aren’t suffering cloud outages.

But he will also have to work with the community to fix open source cloud gaps such as lack of monitoring tools, business continuity applications and integration with existing user management systems.

According to him, emerging technologies such as IT consumerisation, and enterprises’ need to do more with less will shape the cloud of the future and add momentum to its development.

“Cloud is growing rapidly, but it is still a new concept,” he says. “We will see a lot of innovation and creativity around cloud and it will be used in many different ways than it is imagined today” Alan Clark says.

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