Rackspace reaches for the stars

30 Jul 2010

Citigroup estimates that Amazon Web Services (AWS) will earn its owner about $650m during 2010 (about 2.5% of Amazon’s overall revenue). This probably makes it the leading provider of utility on-demand storage and computing (infrastructure as a service – IaaS).

But the market is growing fast and it is hard to tie down revenues from any vendor for IaaS and PaaS (platform as a service); see Quocirca article here for definitions. All bets are off for who or what will prevail in the long term.

Microsoft may have been late off the starting blocks with its Windows based PaaS offering Azure, but uptake will be fast, not least because Microsoft will use it as the on-going platform for all its own on-demand services.

Then there is Google’s App Engine, as well as salesforce.com’s force.com and VMforce. Add to these the less well known offerings of various sorts from most of the established vendors (IBM, HP etc.) along with many managed hosting providers (Rackspace, Savvis, Attenda etc.) and it is clear there is no shortage of choice; perhaps too much?

This is especially true if they all use different infrastructure components to build their platforms, limiting portability. Although, as Phil Wainewright argues, it is not clear how much real need for portability there is.

So does the announcement last week from Rackspace and others of a new initiative called OpenStack point to a different future for IaaS altogether, or it is just adding to the confusion?

The 20+ partners that stand behind OpenStack include Citrix, Dell, Intel and no less than NASA. The plan is to open source the software used to build and manage two of Rackspace’s own cloud offerings.

First, OpenStack Object Storage based on Rackspace’s Cloud Files (storage IaaS), which is more or less ready to go. Second is OpenStack Compute, based on Rackspace’s Cloud Servers (server IaaS), with some additional technology from NASA that is contributing parts of its Nebula cloud platform to the project. Combining the two into a single platform will delay availability for a while.

OpenStack Object Storage and Compute are designed to work closely together or independently. For example, the Compute component can use Object Storage to store virtual machine images.

But some may want to use them independently; those just providing a storage offering or those who already have a management system for servers but not storage. The storage component is available now, the server component is planned to be available in October 2010.

So what is the big deal, the cloud already seems fairly open? Open source is already common in cloud deployments – EC2 is based on the open source Xen hypervisor. Azure is based on Microsoft own server technology, the most widely used in the world. Salesforce.com has built VMforce to allow is customers to build in Java rather than its own proprietary language, APEX.

OpenStack operates at a higher level; Rackspace describes it as a “data centre operating system”. The project is hypervisor agnostic, although the initial release only has “out-of-the-box” support for the open source hypervisors Xen and KVM. Others could be supported through the OpenStack APIs and support for them added by interested parties.

As a data centre operating system, what OpenStack provides is the capability to co-ordinate the management of thousands of physical and virtual devices, provisioning power girds and handling cross data centre redundancy.

Things that any managed hosting provider must be able to do but has until now had to pay for commercial providers for the tools or assemble its own from what open source components have been available to date. The partners hope that by creating OpenStack they will make entry to the managed hosting easier and that it will help create a counter balance to the likes and Amazon, Microsoft and salesforce.com. Will OpenStack succeed?

Rackspace will of course move its own platform to OpenStack. To ensure that other potential adopters are not put off by using technology from a competitor means OpenStack must be seen to be truly independent. Rackspace says it has “setup the OpenStack team as separate from Rackspace with separate goals” (see www.openstack.org).

Quocirca believe this needs to be complete independence, as IBM did when it open sourced its Eclipse development platform. This is in the interest of the OpenStack partners too; Dell and Intel will only continue to support the project and act as reference architectures if it opens market for their hardware and that this gives them, at least in the short term, some competitive advantage. However, it should be noted that some other managed hosting providers have already become OpenStack partners, including Peer 1 and the iomart Group.

OpenStack is an interesting and welcome initiative. If Rackspace and its friends manage it right they may establish a de facto standard for managing hosting environments. Get it wrong and Rackspace may in effect be just building its own proprietary alternative to the growing range of cloud architectures. Quocirca will watch uptake with interest.

Bob Tarzey, analyst and director, Quocirca

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