How open is your cloud? Key considerations for IT Ops teams

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Christopher Null, Freelance writer, Null Media

More companies are relying on multi-cloud approaches, but getting everything to work together seamlessly requires both technology and strategy.

"Open clouds matter more now than ever," Google declared in a recent blog post. Citing research that shows that 81% of enterprises employ a multi-cloud strategy, the post goes on to say, "Open clouds let customers freely choose which combination of services and providers will best meet their needs over time. Open clouds let customers orchestrate their infrastructure effectively across hybrid-cloud environments."

IT Ops teams are at the forefront of the open cloud-shift. Here's what your team needs to know to get the technology and strategy right.

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What is the open cloud?

Despite the fawning terms in which the open cloud is usually talked about, there has long been a debate about what exactly constitutes an open cloud. But most observers agree it turns on the idea of lock-in. If locked-in IT implementations prevent customers from easily moving an application or services from one platform to another without significant labor and expense, open IT is the mitigation of these roadblocks.

"In open IT, enterprises have a complete architecture view of services," said Krishna Mohan Reddy, vice president and deputy global head of cognitive business operations for Tata Consultancy Services. An open architecture provides access through APIs, which are well-known interfaces, he explained.

That openness makes it easy for applications to move from one cloud to another and to work together. An open cloud provider "does not have a proprietary core or mechanisms that restrict interoperability, giving the organization greater control of its data and processes," Reddy added.

Pluses and minuses of open cloud

That's not to say the open cloud is automatically better or more desirable than a closed cloud service. Despite their restrictions, locked-in providers offer enterprises the comfort of knowing that the provider isn't likely to make radical changes that could disrupt their operations. That's attractive when you have application or hardware dependencies to worry about.

But for businesses looking to rapidly build and deploy new capabilities, either internally for their own business or for their customers' experience, open cloud offers a wealth of advantages. These include transparency into the technology and architecture, seamless migration, interoperability, and—chief among them—better application portability across multiple clouds.

Bernard Golden, vice president of cloud strategy at Capital One and one of Wired's top 10 cloud influencers, said open-source projects are showing the kinds of innovation that organizations want to take advantage of.

"Open source is complementary to cloud computing in the sense that you can use open source in your own environment. It doesn't have anything to do with using a public cloud provider, but it's very complementary because an awful lot of the cloud services are open source–based."
Bernard Golden

Golden said open-source licensing fits a lot better if you're operating something at scale, because organizations build some applications today that they could never afford a proprietary license for before. "So open source makes perfect sense for that as well."

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Embrace open source

The open cloud toolbox is deep, and it includes a wide range of solutions, including IaaS platforms such as  OpenStack and Red Hat CloudForms, monitoring tools such as  Zabbix, container and orchestration software like Docker and Kubernetes, and continuous integration and deployment tools such as  GitHub, Jenkins, and Apache.

Which tools you need will depend on where you want to focus your open-source efforts, Golden said. "If you want to implement your own cloud, then OpenStack and Red Hat CloudForms might be viable solutions. But a huge impetus behind using Kubernetes" comes from organizations that don't want to build their own cloud infrastructures, preferring instead to focus on the application. 

Golden added that some organizations view Kubernetes as "the magic" around open cloud.

"I can run that on my own on-premises environment, and I can run it in a public cloud. That gives me a cloud in both worlds."
—Bernard Golden

Beyond consumer: Become a contributor

But Golden urged enterprises to move beyond just being an open-source consumer and think about also becoming a contributor. One of the great advantages of open-source enterprise solutions is the thriving global communities around them. This collaborative effort allows for improvements and development of new features to be done faster than with proprietary solutions.

By participating in the community, companies can both help support open-source efforts and more easily stay on top of developments that may be relevant to their businesses down the road. 

Golden said this type of engagement tends to happen organically the more deeply embedded open source becomes in a company's strategy.

"What happens with some enterprises is they think, 'Okay, we need this codebase, but we're going to extend it a little bit, and we don't want to go through the headache and overhead of being a contributor,'" he says. "'We'll just keep our code separate and apply it ourselves.'"

That sounds really attractive until about the second time you have to reintegrate your code changes into the codebase as new versions get released. "And then organizations rethink that and say, 'Maybe we should figure out a way to contribute so that new versions show up with our stuff already in it.' That's one of the common paths toward deeper open-source engagement."

The future is open

Open cloud moves an organization's IT infrastructure from a services view to a value-driven view, Tata's Reddy said. To decide whether or not it's right for them, organizations should use a dedicated task team to evaluate the business and technology needs of the organization and the impact of change.

"The biggest challenge we see continues to be the human element," he said. Often, an enterprise that has defined a strategy and determined how it wants to use open cloud "is delayed in implementation due to a lack of internal or acquirable talent."

That said, companies shouldn't shy away from those challenges, given the significance that open source has for the future of IT.

"The notion of being open source–oriented is important. If you have ambitions to be a capable enterprise IT organization in the future, you've got to be really engaged with open source."
—Bernard Golden

Most enterprises are already using some open source, so it's not as if this will be a new concept. But in terms of that deeper involvement, Golden added, "that's something that I think organizations will need to consider and perhaps embrace as part of their technology strategy."