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American retail giant Gap Inc deployed its first OpenStack cloud in 2013, but now the vast majority of its forward-facing e-commerce platforms now run on the open source infrastructure.

Eli Elliott, infrastructure architect responsible for private cloud at Gap, explained to Computerworld UK how the company’s close partnership with Rackspace - among other OpenStack vendors - saw it build and develop from an isolated testing pipeline to running all kinds of workloads.

“We work pretty closely with Rackspace, we're one of their more hands-on clients, I guess I’d say,” Elliott said. “I meet with them weekly at places like this, I meet with their architecture team, and tell them all the stuff I wish we had - and they tell us how quickly they can get it. It’s a nice collaboration.”

An enterprise architect spotted the potential OpenStack could have and ran a small pilot for an isolation testing pipeline. Since, the company has “literally spun up and destroyed millions of VMs over the past four or five year,” Elliott said. “The number is close to 3 million. And our e-com stack lives in OpenStack, so when you go to GAP or Banana Republic or Old Navy online and do an order or just look at stuff, you’re getting OpenStack.

“90 percent of our forward-facing applications are in OpenStack, so if you walk into a store today and they don’t have the time you want and your salesperson pulls out an iPad to complete a transaction for you, and ships something to your house, all of that happened from start to finish on OpenStack.”

Giving back to OpenStack community

By fostering a close working partnership with the different vendors Elliott and his small team of four use, he hopes they are feeding helpful suggestions back to the community, although as a retail customer they are not committing to the code itself.

“That’s my hope, because that’s the best I can do,” he said. An example happened just this week, where at the OpenStack Summit here in Boston, Elliot had a conversation with the Rackspace team.

“I told them I’ve implemented Magnum in my test cloud and my developers love it, and I want to implement it in my dev cloud,” he explained. “They said, well, we’ve only got it going for a couple of customers but we’ll do it next week.”

“And when I ask for weird things like I’d like to do scheduling with Mistral, that’s not something they get a lot of requests for, so we’re going to work with them to pilot it.”

GAP runs as much as it can on OpenStack, including its order and store platform, its reserve and store platform, e-commerce, internal applications, and an upcoming hybrid cloud model for a next generation point of sale platform. It also runs workloads on the Azure public cloud.

Elliot’s four-person team operates five clouds, two of them “next-gen” and the other three legacy, though these will be moved over. Having a team that small does bring some challenges with it.

“You definitely end up specialising,” Elliott said. “Being the one person this particular customer calls with this particular problem… we work hard to knowledge share and document, and we meet every morning. We try to do as much as we can ourselves - it’s important at least to my team that we be knowledgeable in the technology and platforms, and while we have Rackspace to back us up we go to them holistically on those bigger issues. But we want to be fingers in the pie, we want to be playing with Neutron and trying to troubleshoot, we want to be playing with everything that’s going wrong.

“So we definitely take a hands-on approach, which I think is unique among a lot of customers that are purchasing a cloud service, even if it’s in-house, they really push everything off to that vendor.”

It can be common at conferences to hear a lot from the vendors but not so much from the customers - so where does Elliott believe OpenStack is going right and wrong, between now and the last summit he attended, in Austin, Texas, around this time last year?

Well, he thinks “they’re doing a pretty good job”.

“I’m a big fan of combining the disparate APIs into one,” he said. “I wish it was going a little faster - every once in a while I’ll run across a command I think will work, and I’ll have to go back to Nova or Neutron to get the answer.

“But I’m happy with a lot of those aspects - when I run into frustrations it’s usually not the OpenStack Foundation that’s causing them, it’s usually because my customers want to be cutting edge so I want to be cutting edge.”

That’s not to say the vendors he works with are doing wrong either: “My vendors, not always Rackspace as we use multiple vendors, know that it’s too dangerous to be that cutting edge. So they’re kind of the resistance: that’s why I say I drive them nuts, because I want that service from them, and I want to know I’m buying a safe and secure and stable service, but I also want what I want, and I want what my customers want, so most contention happens there.

“They’re being smart - you can’t sell a product that’s constantly going down, so they’re doing the right thing. But since they’re my interface into the OpenStack community, the vendors are the guys I have to talk to who can go to the coders and say ‘hey guys, there’s this thing that’s really annoying’.

“As a retail company, we don’t participate in or commit to the code base, so it’s very difficult for us to give back to the community. But what we can do is partner with great vendors. At Gap we partner with Rackspace, and use their OpenStack distribution, we partner with Tesora, for their Trove distribution, we partner as much as possible with a lot of these companies that commit a lot of the code.

“And what I do is drive them crazy, because I want this, and I want that, and the industry would be really grateful if it had this. And that’s how I feel we at Gap give back, by trying to push the envelope with our vendors and make them take that next step.”