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OpenStack enterprise adoption still awaits full embrace

OpenStack in the enterprise is more likely to see continued adoption via vendor distributions and managed services, not the raw code of big-name customers, such as PayPal.

Maybe OpenStack won't help enterprises reach private cloud ecstasy after all.

OpenStack continues to struggle in its attempts to broaden appeal beyond core customers among service providers and telcos. For most, OpenStack enterprise adoption will most certainly involve some hand-holding -- if these customers can be wooed at all by promises of lower cost or improved interoperability.

OpenStack still has a long way to go to win over large-sized enterprise customers beyond the technology and academic vertical markets. Traditional enterprises, such as manufacturing, retail, consumer goods and energy, account for less than 10% of OpenStack adoption in the OpenStack Foundation's most recent user survey. Leading the pack are companies in the IT industry, but that includes many vendors that sell their own distribution and run managed OpenStack private clouds, as well as other OpenStack-oriented products.

Some of OpenStack's prominent reference customers are web-scale. PayPal is a typical example: It's generally unburdened by legacy gear, and it has deep resources to realize the desired savings by going it alone with OpenStack.

Most enterprises, however, don't have such resources or access to top tech talent -- OpenStack engineers earn $40,000 more annually that their non-OpenStack counterparts -- or fear that if they train staff in OpenStack, they'll lose them, said Lauren Nelson, private infrastructure-as-a-service cloud analyst at Forrester Research.

The greatest value of OpenStack is from large organizations that don't use distributions -- paying for managed services for parts of the stack -- but end up building a private cloud with minimal cost, Nelson said.

Managed OpenStack, where's the payback?

For many enterprises, converged infrastructure and hosted private clouds based on OpenStack can be easier and provide a set cost, versus the cost and complexity of deploying the platform themselves. Even then, OpenStack enterprise adoption can be a bumpy road.

Isa Berisha, director of global platform engineering at HedgeServ Corp. in New York, looked at three vendors -- Mirantis Inc., Metacloud and Piston -- when he began a search last year for a vendor distribution of OpenStack. The latter two are now owned by Cisco.

His initial installation was a professional services engagement with Mirantis, which got up and running without incident, but shortly after ran into some trouble. Examples of problems included VMs ceasing to power up, a vanishing cache that resulted in some VMs going down, an imbalanced system with Nova compute, poorly functioning orchestration features and a sluggish Cinder driver, which took a long time to go online.

"Every one of those critical area points -- image placement, compute distribution and load -- are fundamental things you figure would just work," Berisha said.

Ultimately, Berisha decided on a managed services engagement with VMware Integrated OpenStack.

Whether it is a vendor distribution or managed OpenStack cloud, the financial benefits of the open source cloud computing software might not always pan out, because the vendor distributions that eliminate the complexity may also diminish the anticipated cost savings.

"A lot of these distros are incredibly expensive," Forrester's Nelson said. She pointed to a recent request for proposal for 30,000 VMs that required $4 million for software licensing.

"If you look at the per-VM cost, it is very hard to meet the return on investment," she said.

Too many distros

To fully leverage the financial benefits of open source, some enterprises have tried to use upstream and self-supported open source code. However, the majority use commercial distributions, said Gary Chen, research manager for cloud and virtualization system software at IDC.

But Chen said he sees the commercial distribution marketplace sifting out over time, because it won't be able to support numerous distributions. He compared the open source shakedown to the evolution of the Linux operating system, which had a much bigger footprint than OpenStack, but has come down to three major, commercial distributions -- SUSE Inc., Canonical Ltd. and Red Hat.

The OpenStack vendor distribution market has started to whittle away -- some have dropped out, some have gone out of business and some were bought out. For example, Nebula, a top code contributor to Essex and Folsom releases in 2012, went under last year. This consolidation will likely continue, and it will include other OpenStack consumption models, such as bundled hardware and software products, Chen said.

And two leading vendors in OpenStack distribution -- Mirantis and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) -- recently cut staff around their OpenStack programs.

HPE made a huge initial commitment to OpenStack, but its contributions have waned in recent releases. It dropped from its spot as top contributor for each of the two releases in 2015 to fourth in the October 2016 release, Newton. The company appears to be right-sizing its staff to better reflect where OpenStack is and where it is going, IDC's Chen said.

For Mirantis, the company will focus on services and sell a managed version of OpenStack. This means it will shift from chiefly providing hardened versions that customers do on their own to something more akin to public cloud. The company said its layoffs reflect a need for staff with more operational skills versus engineering skills.

The road ahead for enterprise OpenStack

Making OpenStack more usable and easier to upgrade should be a top focus of the software, said Cole Crawford, who played a part in founding OpenStack and is now CEO at Vapor IO, based in Austin, Texas.

It's maturing, but OpenStack enterprise adoption continues to be burdened by a quest to add new features versus doubling down on the existing features. 

If people see VMs as yesterday's technology and containers as tomorrow's technology, and OpenStack is associated with VMs, OpenStack is quickly going to become legacy stuff, rather than future stuff.
Gary Chenresearch manager, IDC

As an example, Crawford pointed to the Apache Mesos-based DC/OS, which has a clear and tightly integrated service fabric, whereas OpenStack has always been a loose project that was supposed to work well together, he said.

But there are still reasons to be excited about OpenStack's progress, Crawford said. He pointed to CERN's OpenStack rollout of 100,000 cores or more -- though deployment by a major European scientific research organization underscores its current niche appeal, not its resonance for enterprise IT customers.

Another significant long-term question about OpenStack, largely thought of as VM technology, is whether it can find a way to work with containers. All next-generation applications will be container-based, and the key will be to show the benefits of OpenStack for an enterprise that wants to use containers.

At this point, it's unclear if containers will be a separate stack that runs alongside OpenStack or if they become integrated with OpenStack, Crawford said.

But IDC's Chen added that most of the containers efforts with OpenStack are not in use by most customers, and some of the modules are immature, Chen said.

"At the end of the day, if people see VMs as yesterday's technology and containers as tomorrow's technology, and OpenStack is associated with VMs, OpenStack is quickly going to become legacy stuff, rather than future stuff," he said.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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