When retail behemoth Wal-Mart was looking to begin migrating to the cloud a few years back, it had real concerns about vendor lock-in. Fortunately, it had another option.
By banking on open-source OpenStack as the foundation for its private cloud efforts, Wal-Mart avoided getting locked into a contract and was still able to move its cloud efforts forward.
OpenStack was born in 2010 as a free, open-source way to create public and private clouds. The project generated excitement in the market, and soon more than 500 companies joined the non-profit organization. By 2014, demand for OpenStack engineers exceeded supply and numerous companies stated they were committed to adopting OpenStack.
But the market began to shift. In 2015, consolidation among OpenStack-oriented startups began in earnest. Then, the effort began losing support from some big-name vendors, including Cisco, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Mirantis.
Last month, reports surfaced that Intel will no longer support the OpenStack Innovation Center, a project it formed with Rackspace two years ago to increase the use of OpenStack software technology in the enterprise. Intel and Rackspace will, however, continue to contribute to and work with the OpenStack developer community.
The waning support from major vendors has some wondering if this is the end of OpenStack as we know it. But despite the headline-grabbing news about diminished support, OpenStack still has many believers.
Maturing and consolidating cloud
OpenStack currently exists in five million computing cores in production in private clouds, telecoms and public clouds around the world, and is seeing tremendous regional growth in places like Asia, Europe and Latin America, according to Lauren Sell, vice president, marketing and community services, of the OpenStack Foundation. Deployments of OpenStack also grew 56% in 2016 and the beginning of 2017 over 2015.
Recent headlines about changing levels of support for OpenStack are more indicative of changes in the cloud market overall, according to Sell.
"The cloud ecosystem is maturing and consolidating," said Sell. "The reality is that we don’t need dozens of OpenStack distributions, and having a more clear set of options is beneficial for users. The confusion is that what has primarily been a shift in vendors 'building their own distro' to a partnership or managed services strategy has been perceived as pulling support, which is not the case. It’s just a different approach and sign of the market maturing."
As OpenStack technology has matured, the focus has shifted to operating OpenStack, combining OpenStack with complementary technologies and making it accessible for mainstream enterprises.
"Rather than new distributions, we’re seeing private Cloud as a Service offerings, network function virtualization deployments, regional or industry-focused public clouds and full stack development platforms gaining steam," said Sell.
Flies in the ointment
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for OpenStack. Some say the momentum behind the technology may have waned at least a little over the last few years because of fragmentation within the community when it comes to OpenStack features. For example, people are using Ceph with OpenStack when it natively supports Cinder for Block Storage.
"This makes it difficult to set up and maintain," said Marty Puranik, founder and CEO of Atlantic.Net. "In fact, there are a number of commercial providers whose purpose was OpenStack implementations, such as Piston Cloud Computing (bought by Cisco) and Mirantis."
Perhaps by trying to fill everyone’s needs, OpenStack hasn’t done a great job at fulfilling any one need, suggests Puranik.
OpenStack is also comprised of a suite of projects rather than a single product. Each of OpenStack’s applications needs to be configured to suit the user's requirements, and that can make installation complex.
"That complexity is unavoidable to solve some infrastructure problems, but it can confuse users, many of whom resort to companies like Canonical to manage their OpenStack instances," said Chris Nicholson, CEO of Skymind.
Some issues could also center around the challenges that often arise when competing vendors attempt to work together.
"This is often the case with open source, cross-vendor initiatives. Folks get really excited up front and everyone and their brother jumps up and down on the opportunity," said Rob Enderle, president of The Enderle Group.
"Then the reality of the fact [sets in] that someone has to do the work and the folks that do the most work kind of get screwed because their competitors get a disproportional benefit from it. [Then] there is increasing push back on moving core standards and functions forward for fear any one provider will get too much benefit."
OpenStack Foundation Director Jonathan Bryce previously mentioned that moves away from OpenStack by HPE and Cisco could be an indication of how difficult it now is for those technology giants to take on Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google in the cloud. But Sell says it’s a myth that if AWS is successful, OpenStack is losing.
"It’s a multi-cloud world, and many OpenStack users also make use of AWS or hyperscale public clouds," said Sell. "Smart organizations are setting up a hybrid cloud portfolio and getting more sophisticated about where to place their workloads based on cost, compliance and capabilities."
The cloud market is also fragmented and competitive, according to Nicholson. "There are a lot of offerings out there and a lot of noise. And enterprise clients have idiosyncratic needs, which means you have a hard matching problem between vendors and clients, and every cloud product gets pulled in a lot of different directions."
What it all ultimately means for OpenStack remains to be seen. But while OpenStack may not live out the big role tech companies once envisioned for it, that doesn't mean it's the end of OpenStack altogether. Sell says user diversity among OpenStack users is expanding across geographies and organizational sizes.
"The world’s largest power company in China with 1.5 million employees is running OpenStack at the same time as an animal health company in the Netherlands is tracking chips in the hooves of cows," said Sell. "The fact that OpenStack can be deployed for so many different applications is precisely what makes it resilient and popular. Users can do many different things with the software, adapting it to their needs, not adapting their needs to fit their cloud."