OpenStack software distributions: Is it time for enterprises to ditch the distro?

There are a variety of deployment methods open to OpenStack users


As more traditional enterprises get to grips with OpenStack, there has been growing use of software distributions aimed at easing the pains of managing the notoriously tricky cloud platform.

Many vendors operating in the OpenStack open source ecosystem have released their own distro in recent years - from large players such as HP, IBM and Rackspace to startups such as Mirantis and Platform9.  In total there are 27 individual distributions currently on the OpenStack MarketPlace.

OpenStack logo credit openstack

However, not all members are convinced that the software distribution will play a key role in widening adoption among enterprises in the long run as they stand up private clouds.

“Distributions are not the future of OpenStack,” said Jesse Proudman, chief technology officer at Blue Box, an OpenStack startup acquired by IBM earlier this year. “Service providers are the future of OpenStack, whether that is service providers from a public cloud perspective or from a private cloud perspective. That is what will make the most material impact into the wide scale adoption of OpenStack.”

He added: “People want to consume OpenStack without actually having to touch it.”

According to Proudman the problem with distributions is that, despite having added features, they continue to place large demands on the engineering teams of those creating clouds in-house. This has been one of the reasons for numerous reports of failed OpenStack projects in the past.

"Operations are a huge challenge," he says. "Installing the cloud, that is a solved problem to a large extent now - anybody can go and install OpenStack - but it is the ‘Sunday morning at 3am problem’ when that cloud falls over, that really is the painful part.”  (See also: What you need to know before considering OpenStack)

Access to skills

While this might not be as much of an issue for some of the high profile adopters of OpenStack, such as the likes of Yahoo, which may have access to legions of experienced staff, for most organisations this is a struggle.

“Some organisations have solved this and they are rolling their own clouds - the things that CERN is doing and Walmart, PayPal, Target. These organisations are building big engineering teams to focus on their installations. And for those companies building that infrastructure is a differentiator for the business.” (See also: Walmart eyes Open Compute as OpenStack investment scales)

“But you look at many organisations that are saying ‘ultimately all I want to do is deliver business value - I want to be able to build applications, I want solutions powered by my software that run on infrastructure and I don't want to worry about that infrastructure’.”

He added that it is not that distributions themselves do not ever work - highlighting some of the products of others in the open source community - but OpenStack users have to be realistic about what their internal capabilities are, and when to get a third party to manage the private cloud for them.

“You have to think 'do I have the expertise and capability to actually fix and operate that environment when it fails," he says. "And we have seen a growing number of organisations are looking for an alternative - that managed model.”

See also: OpenStack Foundation addresses skills shortage with cloud admin certification

Outsourcing cloud control

Speaking to ComputerworldUK, HP’s SVP for Cloud Engineering, Mark Interrante, agreed that the demand for greater control can depend on the size of the company, with larger engineering teams often keen to take on more of the work.

However, he says that the managed service model may not suit enterprises which demand greater control of their infrastructure.

“If there is an issue the CIO is going to say 'who is running this, and how do we make sure it happens', [infrastructure teams] are not going to say 'they [the service provider] did it’,” he says. “CIO's don't like the 'they did stuff' kind of comment. They want to hear 'we did'. So people are going to want to make sure that it is ready on their time and their time cycle."

Another consideration for business deciding to rent OpenStack private cloud ‘as a service’ can also be the cost.

According to analyst firm 451 Research’s recent Cloud Index report, with such a fragmented market of service providers, the price variations can be “huge”, with the cheapest average price per VM/hour cost “being just $0.10 per hour and the most expensive being seven times that figure”.

“In fact, some quotations for managed private cloud were far cheaper than public cloud,” the report states, adding that the range “reflects the large variation in the service and capability provided by managed service providers”, with many offering additional management, resiliency, features or services as part of their standard product set.

Ultimately it comes down to what level of control and support an individual organisation is willing to pay for, and what they are willing to provide themselves.

“A more expensive provider might be worth the additional cost if the features and support it offers are beneficial,” the report authors write. “As with everything in life, price is what you pay; value depends on your personal experience.”

See also: OpenStack ‘more costly’ than VMware and Microsoft for private clouds

Consolidation of distros?

What is clear is that the fast evolving OpenStack ecosystem means that there will continue to be different ways to consume the software, with hyper converged offerings and appliances gaining more interest.

Going forward, BlueBox’s Proudman believes that the boom in demand for distros will subside in place for other delivery models, such as private cloud 'as a service'.

”At the end of the day the distribution model didn't convince. I am not convinced that distributions are the right way,” he says.

“A few distros will exist - maybe two or three - certainly not ten or twenty five that we have today. It is somewhat like the Linux distributions in its early days when we had this huge fracturing of the distribution and each one had its own special thing, but ultimately the market collapses onto a few options and those options have differentiated value.

“You see that today between what is in Ubuntu or Red Hat or SUSE.

“Business models will continue to evolve. We saw the creation of 'do it yourself', the creation of the distribution, the creation of the appliance, the 'as a service' model. There will be future models that come out to help customers adopt and use OpenStack. That is exciting.”

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