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State of OpenStack: Out of sight, but not mind, for cloud teams

Ericka Chickowski Freelance writer

OpenStack came onto the scene to solve a huge problem. Most businesses had not yet fully embraced public clouds and were battling the grip of vendor lock-in; private clouds still required VMware and Microsoft licenses for every virtual machine they spun up.

The idea of a free and open-source alternative for private-cloud computing held a lot of promise, but early on OpenStack gained a reputation for being complicated, lacking support, and requiring a significant amount of component rip-and-replace to make it work. David Linthicum, chief cloud strategy officer at Deloitte Consulting, said that reputation stymied OpenStack in the enterprise.

"There were a lot of 'un-deployments' that were going on after people saw how complex and laborious it was."
David Linthicum

In many ways, the OpenStack open-source project—released in 2010—and the products around it have matured to address these complaints. But in the past eight years, cloud deployment models have drastically changed. Some critics argue this shift threatens the relevance of OpenStack in the enterprise.

On the other hand, statistics from the OpenStack Foundation show OpenStack gaining ground as it matures and settles in to fill several use cases in the dynamic deployment landscape. 

Platform or product?

One of the early big issues with OpenStack was one common to open source: the confusion between open-source platforms and open-source products.

Roman Shaposhnik, co-founder of Zedada and a former executive at both the Linux Foundation and the Apache Software Foundation, said the issue is widespread. "This mistake is made all over the place. Folks talk the same way about Hadoop, Kubernetes, CloudStack—you name it."

OpenStack itself should never have been thought of as a product, he said.

"It is an open-source project that helps the industry figure out a common direction—via the common, shared code base—of where the private clouds are going. From that perspective, OpenStack is not as much of a disaster as people make it to be."
Roman Shaposhnik

But as a project, OpenStack continues to suffer from having too many cooks in the kitchen, pulling it in too many directions, Shaposhnik said. "It lacks both the closed-source, maniacal focus of AWS APIs and a BDFL [Benevolent Dictator for Life] leader like Linus Torvalds to actually establish a governance model that would allow it to converge to some clearly defined architectural paradigm."

Maturing into products

OpenStack-based products have matured, reducing these problems. Canonical, Mirantis, RedHat, and SUSE make technical choices in deployments that remain open to the user in the OpenStack project for the sake of flexibility.

Stefano Maffulli, director of community marketing at Scality, explained that the OpenStack project kept itself general-purpose by keeping its code and documentation "non-opinionated" in how it was deployed.

"Canonical, SUSE, and Red Hat, among others, instead have made those decisions for their customers, and they therefore ship the same OpenStack code but 'with opinions,'" said Maffulli, who has served as technical community manager for the OpenStack Foundation and as OpenStack community manager for Rackspace. They "make choices for their customers so they don't have to debate much; they certify architectures, define meaningful configuration options, and, of course, provide support."

In the early days there were dozens of software vendors, consultants, and other partners offering their own flavors of OpenStack. That's been drastically winnowed down. Some point to that as an argument against OpenStack viability. But others say that, as OpenStack passed through the kiln of vendor experimentation, some of the shine came off the brand, although the strength of the remaining deployments is much stronger now.

T.R. Bosworth, senior product manager for SUSE OpenStack Cloud, said what we're seeing is a very normal decline that happens as part of any healthy technology hype cycle.

"When it first started out, it was the new shiny thing, right? And any time you have open-source software—or even software in general—that matures, it gets less shiny over the years."
T.R. Bosworth

But he noted that the market was also unforgiving for some. Companies that were in it at the  start but didn't have a good business model are not in it anymore. "And the [ones] that tend to have a good business model in open source are still there." 

The impact of public cloud and containerization

The rub is that even as OpenStack products have matured into acceptable, stable private-cloud options, the need for these options may not be as pressing anymore, said Dan Simoes, senior director of operations for tCell.

"From my perspective, OpenStack has jumped the shark. It's not because it's not a good technical solution. Instead, it has to do with the pace of innovation of AWS services and the ever-declining—on paper—costs of public-cloud computing."
Dan Simoes

Deloitte Consulting's Linthicum agreed, explaining that many of the early security and privacy issues that hindered public-cloud deployments have now been worked out. He argues that for many organizations with immature internal security practices, a public-cloud option is safer. Similarly, feature sets are more mature in public clouds these days.

"Private clouds are falling out of favor to public clouds, just because the features and functions are head and shoulders better in the public clouds. Ipso facto, OpenStack falls by the wayside because private clouds fall by the wayside."
—David Linthicum

Meantime, the massive move toward containerization is also changing the complexion of OpenStack deployment opportunities, said Chris Ciborowski, CEO of Nebulaworks.

"The nail in the coffin of widespread OpenStack adoption is the rise of the container as the new software development and delivery artifact."
Chris Ciborowski

Before containers, the programmatic management of VMs to run applications was top of mind—which was akin to treating servers like cattle versus pets, an attitude not onboard with DevOps principles.

With containers, you no longer need the functionality of fast VM provisioning, he said, and instead can run containers on nodes of a container orchestrator such as Kubernetes or Docker Swarm. "Yes, underlying VMs are required for Kubernetes and the like, but for most shops, those deployments are long-running, not requiring the change rate OpenStack supports," Ciborowski said.

OpenStack is dead; long live OpenStack

And yet, in spite of arguments to the contrary, OpenStack is still experiencing growth. According to a November 2017 study from the OpenStack Foundation, OpenStack use increased last year by 95% compared to 2016.

It's far from the only cloud platform option today, but for many organizations OpenStack helps provide essential integrations that prop up a lot of multi-cloud strategies. According to the same survey, almost half of OpenStack users said they use their deployment to interact with another cloud.

"[It also helps you to] use new technologies so that you can deploy clouds and pick up the new shiny things and put them on top of OpenStack Cloud," said SUSE's Bosworth. "There's still a lot of relevance to it."

Even critics such as Linthicum and Ciborowski say OpenStack still has an opportunity to fulfill special use cases. One is providing an outlet for organizations that still can't leverage public cloud for a variety of reasons, such as needing locked-down, air-gapped security or for other regulatory reasons, Ciborowski said.

"OpenStack is a great choice, providing a familiar look and feel of a public cloud, but deployed on premises."
–Chris Ciborowski

OpenStack's future

Going forward, service providers and tech vendors are more likely to embed OpenStack into their offerings. For example, service providers that must run applications in VMs with complex networking and isolation requirements could use OpenStack. "For network providers who want to virtualize customer network devices, OpenStack is a great choice," Ciborowski said.

The OpenStack adoption numbers gathered in the recent OpenStack Foundation report seem to back this up. Even though OpenStack is gaining ground in certain enterprise quarters, such as financial and automotive firms, telecommunications and IT firms are far and away the two biggest segments, making up 15% and 55% of the user base, respectively.

While OpenStack might not be the enterprise powerhouse that some predicted it would be almost a decade ago, it has a sizable foothold in the enterprise. In many cases it is embedded in the fabric of enterprise application stacks, whether customers know it or not.

So don't necessarily expect OpenStack to go away—instead, expect it to become part of the plumbing.

"You'll see people embed it in their products. You'll just never see it in their advertising literature. It won't be strategic for an enterprise; it'll be in tactical applications and specific use cases."
—David Linthicum

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