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Redefining OpenStack in the ‘open infrastructure’ era

The OpenStack Foundation’s inaugural Open Infrastructure Summit saw it share a series of updates on its efforts to expand its technological reach by forging closer ties with both users and adjacent open source communities

Open source communities, by their very nature, are fast-moving and dynamic places where change is often the only constant. And that is certainly true where OpenStack is concerned.

In the nine or so years since the open source cloud platform made its debut, it has undergone multiple changes, as would be expected of a product that is updated every six months.

The changes have seen new components added to the platform over time, as well as stability and security improvements made to it, that have all conspired to assure enterprises that it is a safe bet to base their private and public cloud environments on it.

At the same time, massive changes have been made over the years to how OpenStack and its accompanying community of contributors are managed and governed, with some of these landing better than others.

The largest of these changes has occurred over the past 18 months, with the OpenStack Foundation, which manages the platform, embarking on a series of initiatives designed to cater to the diversifying needs of its user base, while asserting its position as a “good neighbour” within the wider open source community.

This is all part of what the OpenStack Foundation calls its “Open Infrastructure” strategy. And at its most recent user conference in late April 2019, the organisation gave attendees a series of updates on how this work is progressing, while shining a light on some of the challenges it has thrown up.

Changes afoot at OpenStack

Formerly known as the OpenStack Summit, the event was the first of its biannual conferences to be conducted under the guise of the Open Infrastructure Summit to reflect the foundation’s changing priorities and focus.

Among them is its commitment to forging closer ties with adjacent open source communities, in appreciation of the fact that, as well as OpenStack, its user community is likely to be running other open source technologies within their IT infrastructure stacks.

But the problem, says the foundation, is that lack of collaboration means users can often run into integration issues when trying to mix and match open source technologies created by adjacent communities, which, in turn, can slow down their digital transformation efforts.  

“We have this big community and OpenStack is definitely at the heart of that, but there is no one out there only using code produced by OpenStack developers,” said Jonathan Bryce, the OpenStack Foundation’s executive director, during a media briefing at the conference.

“So, in order to help our community, what we’ve had to do is look at what other pieces are involved in an OpenStack environment.”

This is both from an underlying infrastructure perspective, and in terms of what users want to run on top of them, he said.

Speaking to Computer Weekly at the conference, Alan Clark, chairman of the OpenStack Foundation and director of industry initiatives at OpenStack distribution provider SUSE, said that as well as user benefits, the open source community as a whole stands to become more efficient by working more closely together – particularly from a duplication of effort standpoint.

“SUSE is involved with all these [open source] foundations and projects and we don't need people to recreate them,” he said. “We just need them to work well together.

“I’m very happy with the OpenStack Foundation stance of ‘let’s not reinvent and let’s collaborate’, because that’s what open source is all about.”

It would not make sense for the foundation to put its community to work on recreating products and technologies produced by other open source communities, said Clark. “We’re not going to create our own TensorFlow or machine learning tools. We want to make sure the ones that do exist work well.

“We want to make sure that machine learning and artificial intelligence work well on OpenStack, clouds, and we’ll build technologies to make sure that happens, but we’re not going to rebuild machine learning – that would be stupid.”

A problem shared is a problem halved

The foundation’s desire to collaborate with other open source communities pre-dates its Open Infrastructure push by several years, said Clark, and, on the whole, it has been warmly received.

“The response has been positive,” he said. “Some have been mixed, because that is their personalities, but what we’re doing isn’t anything new.”

As an example, Clark cited the collaboration that exists between the OpenStack Foundation and the Open Platform for Network Function Virtualisation (OPNFV) community.

“Three years ago, the default [way this worked] was that you had an engineer who participated in both communities, and expected them to have influence in both communities, and then he ended up being this communication channel between them both,” he said.

“We actually set up and started having meetings with our board and OPNFV to talk about how we can have better relations with each other, because at that time they were, and continue to be, a downstream consumer of OpenStack.

“They took OpenStack with each release, which means they were always six months behind with doing all their testing and everything on it. And we’re having trouble getting that feedback back from them, because it was always delayed. And so, working with them, we figured out better ways to open up communication channels between the two communities, so that we all benefit.”

A few veiled references were made at the show about fact that some open source entities might be more accepting than others of the OpenStack Foundation’s efforts to forge closer ties with them.

In situations where there might be some resistance, OpenStack Foundation chief operating officer Mark Collier said, during a Q&A session at the show, that the organisation will look to engage with community members directly, rather than the foundations.

“It’s the communities that matter,” said Collier. “The foundations end up in the headlines sometimes, but… that’s not really the point of it. The point is the communities – we have 105,000 members in this community from 187 countries, and the question is: how can the different open source upstream communities work together to solve the end goal of the user? It isn’t about the foundations.”

Putting users first

And when it comes to helping its own users to reach their digital transformation goals, the OpenStack Foundation has set about expanding the roll-call of projects it supports in recent years, in addition to its flagship OpenStack platform.

These include Airship, a cloud provisioning and lifecycle management tool designed to help enterprises deploy and manage containers, virtual machines and bare metal infrastructure environments across multiple sites, including edge computing environments.

The Denver Summit saw the foundation announce the project’s version 1.0 release, and two other projects, Zuul and Kata Containers, were confirmed at the show as graduating beyond the pilot stage of product development, which means they have secured the foundation’s full, long-term support.

The StarlingX platform is another of these pilot projects, which the OSF bills as a cloud infrastructure software stack that can enable organisations to stand up applications in distributed edge environments, and whose version 1.0 release made its debut in late October 2018.

Zuul is a continuous integration and delivery platform, while Kata Containers is concerned with the creation of standardised, lightweight virtual machines that can be used by enterprises concerned about the workload isolation and security risks associated with using containers.

Throughout the show, various members of the OpenStack Foundation senior leadership team, including Collier, repeatedly made the point that its expanding project list should not be interpreted as a sign of any drop-off in its support for the OpenStack platform.

“It's really not a zero sum game,” said Collier. “Just because a new set of developers says, ‘hey, I want to go over here and build some software’, and that software happens not to be part of OpenStack, that doesn’t mean that people working on OpenStack are going to stop what they’re doing, and going to stop improving it.”

Collier said there probably are OpenStack developers that might be looking for new projects to contribute to, given that the cloud platform is rapidly approaching its 10th anniversary, and the foundation has no plans to hold them back.

“Some of them probably want to go out and chase the shiny new thing, instead of OpenStack,” he said. “I believe in freedom, and people should chase what they want, but we’re going to stick with the plumbing.”

The foundation also used the show to clear up other potential misconceptions about what its change in strategy might mean for the future, with executive director Bryce declaring that the organisation will not use the number of projects it supports as a barometer of success.

“There are foundations [out there] whose orientation, organisation and goal is towards rolling out dozens of projects, and that’s not what we’re interested in doing,” he said.

Instead, the OpenStack Foundation’s role will be to champion projects that plug strategic gaps that may emerge within its users’ infrastructure estates in the years to come, he added.

“We have talked a lot about how there is so much open source now, and we’re working on use cases and integrating, and we definitely feel like part of our job is not just to spawn projects and new code, but also to think about what other pieces are missing in the open source ecosystem overall,” said Bryce.

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“The way we’ve been looking at it is by focusing on where the community has been going, and the use cases, and the types of integrations they have and workloads that users want to support. How do we find the right technology and the correct collaboration to actually make those things function for the companies that are relying on our software?”

And when it comes to working that out, the ever-changing mix of contributors to the project might make that easier as time goes on, given some recent shifts in the ratio of users to suppliers that make up its supporter ecosystem.

This ecosystem has been subject to a degree of churn in recent years, as some of its early supporters on the supplier side have downgraded their backing for OpenStack, while others – including the likes of Red Hat and SUSE – remain engaged. 

“We have 600 or so companies that are contributing to the code base, contributing to the foundation [financially] and employing developers,” said Bryce during a media briefing at the show. “It’s still a very broad base of support.”

He added: “I’d say it’s probably about 60% the same as it’s been for the last five years, and 40% is made up of new companies that are coming onto the scene, but also users who are getting really strategically involved.”

Notable examples, said Bryce, include US telco giant AT&T, which is using OpenStack and Airship to underpin its 5G network roll-out, which has already progressed to 19 cities, and gaming development studio Blizzard Entertainment.

What this serves to highlight, said SUSE’s Clark, is just how far OpenStack has come in a relatively short time, given that the platform will celebrate its 10th birthday in July 2020.

“It’s part of the maturity cycle,” he said. “Early on, you get the early adopters that are test-and-dev people, and now we’re getting the enterprise guys, and we’re getting them from all different types of markets, and those folks are coming in and expressing what they have in their particular industries.

“Our customers like to have a voice to talk about what and how they’re using our products, and using open source in general, and finding out that, under the covers, it’s not a black box. Having users engaging just enriches the whole environment.”

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