OpenStack: What does it reveal about the future of open source?

What does the success of OpenStack tell us about the 21st century open source movement?

It is 25 years since the birth of Linux and in that time period open source has become more and more dominant in the enterprise. Most of the big vendors now release at least parts of their code out into the wild, and – via the careful use of APIs – all boast proudly about openness.

This week saw the new public face of this movement – OpenStack – convene in Barcelona with 5,200 very engaged developers, users and administrators. Launched in 2010, this is an open source cloud operating system that controls large pools of compute, storage, and networking resources throughout a data centre. Run by a foundation, it also has a large number of vendor partners who offer various managed packages to their clients.

The growth story has been phenomenal. Earlier this month 451 Research estimated that revenues will exceed $5bn by 2020 [PDF]. While the Summit presents a very varied range of case studies such as Santander Group, Sky and T-Systems. There is also a concerted focus on the scientific community including, CERN – roughly 90% of its compute capacity runs on OpenStack – and the Square Kilometre Array. Lower costs and agility are obviously cited as reasons for deployment along with the less tangible chance to become more competitive.

“We’re limiting ourselves constantly comparing ourselves against proprietary software,” says Annie Lai, Head of Global Business Development at Huawei who organised the first OpenStack day in China attracting more than 2,400 attendees. She believes the benefits are less about features and functions and more about the ability to innovate. 

As the Summit attests the community itself is very active and enthusiastic. Yet as one delegate tells me it is rare to see individuals in there who are not affiliated with an organisation. This may be the modern face of open source. It is less about the cliché of nerds in their garages and more about solid business sense. Open source “not a hippy communist movement,” says Mark Shuttleworth founder of Canonical the company behind Linux operating system Ubuntu used by 55% of OpenStack deployments.

As one of the founding members, Shuttleworth, says, what is interesting about OpenStack now is the “the reality check”. He says HPE has recently laid off large numbers of its OpenStack team because the focus was wrong. There are “60 different software projects on OpenStack and only six matter,” he says. These are the core components of infrastructure as a service. “That’s what CIOs want. Everything else is snake oil as a service, bullshit as a service, legacy as a service.”

But perhaps this is part of an inherent issue with any community driven-movement. If there are a lot of people involved there will inevitably be a lot of different projects running, a lot of contributors, and a lot of conflicting aims. Some outcomes will be good, some will be bad, some will just be indifferent.

“If you contributed to [the latest and 14th iteration of OpenStack] Newton please stand up,” says Mark Collier, COO of the Foundation during the first keynote. As a large number of delegates rise to their feet he says: “That’s what diversity looks like.” Newton was built with contributions from 2000 developers worldwide. The highest volume came from Asia, followed by North America, then Europe.

“Sometimes projects can get committed to death,” admits Jonathan LaCour, VP of Cloud at DreamHost. But he is very positive overall. “The community is very welcoming,” he says. This is difficult technology. It not easy to get started, the process is complicated and is hard to get a patch accepted, but the Foundation does its best to manage things. As an active member of the community he sees this as “more of a self-criticism” than anything else. 

Shuttleworth is more categorical. Some open source projects have good leadership and some have governance, he says. “Linus Torvalds lead.” He believes in open source generally “there is a hell of a lot of governance not leadership.”

Yet whatever the inherent problems of a community driven approach the real benefit is that bugs – and any fundamental problems – are more likely to get spotted and fixed quickly. No single vendor – however wealthy – has this volume of people working on any given project. The biggest threat at the moment is cybersecurity, says Peter Guagenti, CMO at NGINX. “The real reason people chose open source at a commercial level is they can inspect the code.”

This whole approach does require new skillsets though and new Rackspace research suggests the lack of skills to manage open source projects may be a problem for many organisations. CTO, John Engates talks enthusiastically about experimenting with Linux when he was at college. “Most of the top experts learnt on their own,” he says. And like the early days of Linux, the first wave on OpenStack did it all themselves, but “these are the people in extremely short supply”.

This means formal training is now getting put in place with the launch of a new certification earlier this year. Vendors like Rackspace, SUSE and Red Hat – which offer managed services – are strongly involved. Some of this comes down to individuals not feeling they have to download all the kit themselves and start from scratch. It means there is plenty of help at hand. And it presents a rapid step away from a hobbyist tool and towards a fully professional offering.

Overall open source is becoming more and more corporate in flavour and this is accelerating at a mammoth pace. It took Linux 15 years to become enterprise ready. Hypervisors took eight years. OpenStack took only five. As Dr Thomas Di Giacomo, CTO at SUSE succinctly puts it: “It is going to take less and less time.”

“I don’t think in 10 or 20 years you’re going to see many products that are not open source,” says Guagenti of NGINX. Aside from anything else “open source is the most cost effective marketing you could ask for.” Yet he does believe “the community driven model will go away”. This is because, as the Heart Bleed bug showed, this is getting increasingly difficult to fund. There will be a “shift to a commercially backed model,” he says.

OpenStack could be the blueprint for that kind of model. It has proved a huge success story so far, it is gaining customers and influence hand over fist and is gradually becoming the default architecture – or at least part of it – behind many of the cloud services we take for granted.


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