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Interview: Rackspace CTO John Engates on why hybrid cloud matters

As businesses opt for a combination of public and private cloud applications, chief technology officer John Engates says Rackspace's aim is to remove complexity and make it easier for customers to deploy cloud technology

There is no single cloud. Businesses typically have some applications deployed on physical server hardware, some are virtualised, while others might be accessed as services on a public cloud such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure.

With organisations beginning to see the benefits of infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS) in the public cloud, the definition of a private cloud has changed. It is no longer about a bunch of virtual machines (VMs) in the datacentre.

Now customers want to run applications in multiple clouds, according to John Engates, CTO of Rackspace. “Our business is to make it easy for our customers to deploy technology,” he says.

Among the complexities that IT departments are currently facing is that as more IT is commissioned and run by other parts of the business, these new systems are not deployed in the company’s datacentre.  

“A company may hire a digital agency to build a new mobile experience which will only run on AWS. At the same time, the CIO’s world includes Microsoft Azure because he bought a bunch of Microsoft Enterprise licences and he has an ageing datacentre where those applications are being used. At Rackspace, we are embracing the idea of multiple clouds in the enterprise,” says Engates.

Build a digital experience

Many companies are writing their own software to differentiate their digital experience, he says. Logically, it makes sense to run these new applications on the public cloud, but security concerns and regulatory requirements impose restrictions.

Our business is to make it easy for our customers to deploy technology
John Engates, Rackspace

“The customer wants to have some control. They may want to run it in their own datacentre because the public cloud is not always right for every application. Private clouds enable organisations to gain some of the advantages of the public cloud without the perceived risks.

In this private cloud space, OpenStack is often compared to VMware. But, according to Engates, if you are a software developer writing a modern web or mobile application, you are much more likely to perceive OpenStack as a real cloud than VMware. Why? Engates argues that VMware was initially positioned as technology to virtualise physical hardware, while OpenStack is for the developer who needs an application programming interface (API) for automating his application deployment process.

According to Engates, developers want an AWS-like experience for their applications – in other words, programmable DevOps.

OpenStack is not easy

Among the challenges for OpenStack is that it is regarded as complex technology.

“The early adopters of cloud have been smaller companies with a lot of technical acumen, says Engates. “They roll up their sleeves and figure it out for themselves without a manual or service provider.

But the cloud is applicable to businesses of all sizes, from startups to the largest enterprises, so there is an opportunity to make OpenStack easier.

Certification is an important step in the adoption of a technology, as is the case with Cisco, EMC and Microsoft certifications. “All these big companies know they need a lot of trained professionals to help organisations implement [the products] and make the adoption easier.

Engates welcomes the Certified OpenStack Administrator (COA) certification programme, unveiled at the recent OpenStack Summit in Tokyo, which aims to bridge the OpenStack skills gap.

Arguably, the idea of businesses employing a team of certified engineers was a model that worked well 20 years ago. But a private cloud is not a product that ships in a box. It represents a service.

“Rackspace is trying to change the way people adopt OpenStack, says Engates. We knew implementing it would be challenging. Rather than selling a distribution of OpenStack, he says it has turned it into an as-a-service product where you can get private cloud as a service or public cloud as a service”.

So OpenStack at Rackspace represents private cloud as a service. “Customers do not have to think about training the experts or hiring them. Instead, he says, they get a turnkey private cloud that is ready to use. This is Rackspace’s managed cloud. That said, Engates believes certification plays an important role in providing a baseline of expertise.

Legacy chains

Legacy IT holds many organisations back. This is not necessarily a mainframe, warns Engates – it may be a VMware deployment or Oracle, around which organisations will have hired and built expertise.

Rackspace is trying to change the way people adopt OpenStack by turning it into an as-a-service product
John Engates, Rackspace

Building and deploying new applications is a lot easier than legacy systems. Such systems can be engineered as cloud native to take advantage of the automation and scaling available through OpenStack. But what about older systems that were deployed in a pre-cloud era.

He says organisations need to look at where best to deploy their custom applications. “Rackspace lets you move these applications ‘as is’ to the cloud and run them in a VMware environment or on bare metal. You are getting out of the datacentre business and IT infrastructure business faster than if you held on to all those assets.

“A lot of complexity has built up over the past 20 to 30 years, but people are starting to move away, such as using Box instead of a file server. The tools we used to use for our daily jobs resided on-premise, now they are cloud-based.

Moving to the cloud is a journey. For Engates and Rackspace, this journey begins with a managed service for hosting bare metal servers, which is what the company is known for. These can then be joined by some VMware instances or an OpenStack private cloud, along with AWS and Azure support for public cloud deployments.

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