In 2010, the OpenStack project encompassed only two projects and two organizations. What NASA and Rackspace began three years ago has now grown into the largest open-source project in the world, with more than 200 companies involved and seven top-level projects covering storage, compute, networking, provisioning, and even disk image storage. Of course, with all this fast movement, OpenStack’s biggest challenge is its almost daily growth in complexity.

The OpenStack Foundation has begun the difficult task of solidifying the core component of the platform, while still leaving room at the edges for the deep customization and differentiation work that vendors do to entice enterprises. And that customization work is a huge part of what OpenStack means now in the enterprise.

Jim Curry, member of the OpenStack Foundation board of directors, and senior vice president and general manager for Rackspace Private Cloud, said that the foundation and the project itself are seeing wide-ranging participation from both engineers and businesses. “We have an awesome board. We have a lot of different constituencies represented. We have a good mix of people from developers to vendors. We have a good mix of new blood,” he said.

“A big portion of the first nine months has been getting the setup work done, and trying to get the basics of a foundation up and running. We are tackling more thorny issues now, like the balance of OpenStack. About maintaining a common focus on the core and not competing over the core, as well as trying to define at what level the vendors connected with OpenStack should be allowed to make money.”

Curry said that the OpenStack Foundation “was set up to embrace developers. That community is healthy, and users have been the primary story for 18 to 24 months. Now, we’re getting into the vendors. We now have vendors in the community, and we’ll have to see how that plays out ultimately. If we don’t protect the rights of people contributing to the project, we’re not going to have those people contributing anymore.”

In late 2012, the OpenStack Foundation was formally created and began its work guiding the project. The OpenStack Foundation consists of representatives from AT&T, Canonical, CERN, Dell, HP and Red Hat, among others. Naturally, NASA and Rackspace both remain active in the Foundation.

Custom code
Lauren Nelson, analyst with Forrester Research, said that the name of the OpenStack game for enterprises right now is customization. “It takes a great deal of customization on top” of the so-called “enterprise-ready” OpenStack distributions, she said. “They call it enterprise-ready, and there are enterprises using it, but it does take customization to support it in the way enterprises need it to.”

This need for customization is emblematic of OpenStack’s immaturity: With or without a vendor, enterprises will have to work hard to make OpenStack work for them. “From an enterprise perspective,” said Nelson, “the only enterprises we see consuming raw OpenStack are ones that have a lot of developer manpower. Comcast and a few others like Fidelity all have significant amounts of time and developer power to support their needs. The value they see is that it’s not a pre-made solution, so they can weave it into a product and have this differentiation on it. They can also contribute back and influence the project.”

Another reason enterprises are turning to OpenStack is the possibility of saving money. Mark Baker, Ubuntu server product manager, said that OpenStack is doing to the entire data center what Linux did to the individual server: commoditizing compute.

“We looked at how Linux enjoyed enormous growth in 2002, 2003 and onwards; when it was seen as commoditizing Unix in the data center,” he said. “Clearly, for many common workloads, Linux meant you could run a Unix-like OS on Intel hardware, and it didn’t matter which Linux. Linux was that wave of infrastructure that commoditized a layer that allowed people to deliver the same services more effectively, or deliver more at the same cost.

“OpenStack is doing the same thing at a different layer. It’s commoditizing compute services. We have SaaS, PaaS and IaaS. OpenStack is commoditizing the IaaS piece. It can be public or private, but until now there have been various efforts to provide solutions in that space. Some [are] from proprietary vendors that are expensive, others [are] open-source ones have not necessarily gained traction. OpenStack has really started to move ahead because it has a very clearly defined governance model and very clear rules on how the project is put together and governed. And it’s all open-source technology. Those two things mean they’ve gained a lot of popularity.”

That popularity also means gathering complexity. With every contributor to the project working on his or her own customizations, the core APIs are often different from implementation to implementation, even if they’re only different because they’re based on different versions. OpenStack’s Curry said solidifying the core APIs so they don’t change as much, keeping them compatible across versions, is a major focus for the OpenStack Foundation.

“OpenStack needs to mean something,” he said. “Next year is when the board has to start dealing with more weighty issues because the basics are done.”

But that doesn’t mean OpenStack has no competition, just that its major competitors tend to focus on different areas of cloud hosting. Eucalyptus, for example, is a private cloud operating system based on Amazon Web Services, and can be run in conjunction with OpenStack. The Apache CloudStack Project, on the other hand, has gathered more interest than OpenStack from users who need a cloud operating system running without the need for customization.

Forrester’s Nelson said CloudStack implementations are moving at a faster pace due to the simpler path to standing up CloudStack. “OpenStack has a huge community. It’s the largest open-source effort ever, but almost every single one of the vendors that support it don’t support the APIs yet.

“If you look at CloudStack, they have a larger user base that’s based on their solution. It’s ready out of the box for enterprise usage. CloudStack is a single executable, so if one thing fails, the entire application goes down. There is a lot of talk about the strength of each solution. CloudStack is ahead in terms of out-of-the-box, but in terms of community, it’s OpenStack.”