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OpenStack tops open source private cloud options, but adoption lags

Community interest and support for OpenStack remains high, but production use has been limited to the largest enterprises with budget and manpower to spare.

OpenStack has emerged as the primary platform businesses use to implement standard open source private cloud systems. However, the complexity of that task and the shortcomings inherent in the open source movement have stymied acceptance, so OpenStack has become a niche rather than widespread technology.

The open source private cloud platform sprouted as a joint project between NASA and managed cloud provider Rackspace in 2010. The two companies wanted to build a standard infrastructure as a service (IaaS) platform; one that would enable businesses as well as vendors to connect different cloud elements more easily and avoid supplier lock-in.

The movement has had many successes. Industry giants, such as Dell, IBM, Intel and Red Hat are among the 500 companies supporting the OpenStack Foundation, an ad hoc consortium designed to enhance adoption. Businesses, like Comcast, PayPal, TD Bank, NA, Yahoo!, and Wal-Mart have relied on the technology to support mission-critical applications.

The platform surpassed alternatives, such as Apache CloudStack, and emerged as the leading open source private cloud platform. Analyst firm 451 Research expects that enterprises will spend $1.7 billion on OpenStack products in 2016.

Widespread adoption lagging

But OpenStack has not been a runaway hit. While notable, the revenue garnered represents a miniscule portion of the cloud market, which generates hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue.

Complexity is one reason why OpenStack has not been more widely embraced. Cloud systems rely on a number of different elements: virtualization, servers, storage, networking resources and security that each have their own large protocol stacks. Each stack is complex; working with them all at once makes deployment exponentially more difficult.

Like Linux, OpenStack is a do-it-yourselfer's dream. Because OpenStack is open source, the customer does not have an 800-number to a key supplier available should something go wrong. Consequently, a business needs to have troubleshooting expertise in house -- and a lot of it.

"To deploy OpenStack, a customer needs an army of technical resources," said Al Sadowski, research director at 451 Research.

Missing pieces

The standard's nascent stage creates other problems. The first few versions of the standard were barebones implementations and missing functions, like networking reliability, scalability and load balancing features. The OpenStack Foundation has been working to fill in the voids. However, the additions are immature, and bugs are often found with new components.

A lack of qualified technicians is another factor stunting growth.

"It's a seller's market; OpenStack technicians are hard to find and are paid top dollar," Sadowski said.

To deploy OpenStack, a customer needs an army of technical resources.
Al Sadowskiresearch director, 451 Research

Since the technology is relatively new, its support system is evolving. In May 2014, the OpenStack Foundation launched the OpenStack Marketplace, an online portal connecting various suppliers with potential customers. The foundation developed training programs and more than a dozen organizations, including the Aptira, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the Linux Foundation, Mirantis and Red Hat offer various OpenStack certifications.

"More than 10,000 individuals have completed our OpenStack certification program," noted Kamesh Pemmaraju, vice president, product marketing at Mirantis.

Only for the rich and famous

One ripple effect from the limitations is that user acceptance has been limited to very large Fortune 500 companies, which have the budget, manpower and technical skills needed to build customized systems.

Most companies do not have such resources and struggle to deploy the technology. In fact, a study commissioned by OpenStack distribution provider SUSE found that half of the companies implementing the open source private cloud platform fail.

Rather than swim upstream, businesses are opting for proprietary cloud platforms from companies such as Microsoft and VMware.

"Deploying a proprietary cloud system is certainly easier now than building one on OpenStack," said Donna Scott, vice president, distinguished analyst at Gartner.

The proprietary system vendor designed its components to work together, so integrating and managing them becomes easier.

So, what does the future hold? Advocates note that OpenStack is a relatively new technology.

"Ten years passed before Linux gained market widespread adoption," said Sam Melehy, CEO at Zefflin, a data center consulting firm. "OpenStack is taking on a more complex challenge, so more time may be needed before it is generally accepted."

Ideally in the coming years, the OpenStack Foundation will fill out product areas, more products will emerge, higher level automation tools will arrive and technical skills will grow along with OpenStack revenue.

However, such possibilities are not definite. Proprietary vendors are working to improve their private cloud products and public cloud services. Companies are deploying these products and may be unwilling or unable to move from them once they are up and running. Consequently, OpenStack may gel too late to become the all-encompassing cloud foundation that proponents dream about. But companies will still use the technology.

"OpenStack is already becoming the de facto open source option for deploying private clouds, a market that is significant now and should remain important in the immediate future," said Gary Chen, research manager, Cloud and Virtualization System Software at IDC.

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