Full speed ahead for China Railway's Openstack private cloud

china rail wcommons
Image: CRH380A train at Shanghai Hongqiao Station. Image credit: Khalidshou/Wikipedia

China's state rail network has made use of Openstack private cloud to manage its sizeable operation of almost 3 billion passengers a year.

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China has one of the busiest train networks in the world, with the China Railway Corporation operating nearly every inch of track in the country.

Last year alone, its passenger turnover was 2.81 billion train travellers and its freight volume was 3.33 billion pounds of goods. Now the state-operated company has turned to Openstack to manage its sizeable infrastructure estate.

Speaking at the Openstack Summit in Sydney, Australia, Mr Mingxing Gao, director of technical support department at the China Railway Information Technology Center, told Computerworld UK how the organisation came to use the open source infrastructure.

"We started to use Openstack just last year," Mr Gao, who leads a 100-person infrastructure team separate to its larger applications team, explained. "We are a very traditional company and we have to make sure that our IT systems can support our applications and business stably."

In the 1990s the organisation used a mainframe and after the millennium, miniature computers. Then in 2010 it turned to x86 servers.

"We researched Openstack for many years and decided to develop our own cloud software – that was in 2014," Gao said. "Development started by the end of 2014, we released a working one in 2015, and we started using it in 2016, with many production systems running on the cloud."

Why private cloud? Simple - no vendor lock-in, and because Openstack is open source, China Railway has full control over the technology. 

Now with the help of T2 Cloud as a partner, China Railway runs its passenger management, freight management, train parking, train tracking, core infrastructure and GIS systems all on an Openstack private cloud.

"There are over a dozen applications running in production," Gao added. "At the moment we're building a new data centre, it should be put into service by the end of next year. It's 1,000 square meters. When the data centre is put into use, many applications are going to migrate to that new data centre."

He explained that there are three clear strands of value for using the open source Openstack infrastructure and these can be divided into value for today, for tomorrow, and value for the future.

Today, Gao said, Openstack cloud lowers operational costs, simplifies management, it can reduce energy consumption and it is easier to respond to the launch of new applications more quickly.

"The benefit for tomorrow – OpenStack and the cloud changed our information systems construction model, before, it was project-driven, now, it is platform-driven," he said. "That is a big difference."

A project-driven approach translates to getting approval for various strata of procedures, or waiting for the green-light on an application, or for resources to become available. Now, applications and infrastructure are platform-driven because the infrastructure is "itself a project".

"So we can increase the size of the cloud as we need, we can more quickly and better support applications," Gao said. "Now, China Railway is a very traditional company, our business is passenger and freight transport. We have to transform with digitalisation, we have to develop new business based on our core business. You have to have good compute, you have to mine business data, to find ways to cut costs and to develop new business.

"With the cloud platform, we can better support and meet requirements of users, so that's for ‘tomorrow': it helps business innovation, communication innovation and management innovation."

For the future, Gao expects private cloud will help China Rail realise a better enterprise application development model. "Because we have hundreds of applications developed by different people, different groups and different standards, it's difficult to manage in operations," he said. "With cloud management, our applications team management model is based on the cloud, so we can unify management, we can unify the architecture and standardise the hardware. That's a big change.

"So in the future, all the enterprise applications are easier to manage, and we can share many things – code, resources, procedure. I think that's for the future."

It wasn't all plain sailing. As might be expected, changing an environment from legacy applications to a new private cloud platform means learning new technologies. "The difficulty is for most coders, they have to learn new things – learn Linux, learn some databases like Hadoop," Gao said, but added that this is just a barrier you have to overcome.

This leads into where he hopes Openstack might be headed, and that's in simplifying operations and deployment for the end user.

"I think the Openstack community is improving this, with containers to deploy the control component, they are doing this," he said. "The second one is automation because when you are managing thousands of servers, you cannot do it manually. So easier for deployment, easier for operation – but I think the community is doing this."

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