OpenStack, community, and commercialization

I wrote, the other day, about Citrix buying Cloud.com, and I realized I forgot to make an important point about OpenStack versus the various commercial vendors vying for the cloud-building market; it’s worthy of a post on its own.

OpenStack is designed by the community, which is to say that it’s largely designed by committee, with some leadership that represents, at least in theory, the interests of the community and has some kind of coherent plan in mind. It is implemented by the community, which means that people who want to contribute simply do so. If you want something in OpenStack, you can write it and hope that your patches are included, but there’s no guarantee. If the community decides something should be included in OpenStack, they need some committers to agree to actually write it, and hope that they implement it well and do it in some kind of reasonable timeframe.

This is not the way that one normally deals with software vendors, of course. If you’re a potentially large customer and you’d like to use Product X but it doesn’t contain Feature Y that’s really important to you, you can normally say to the vendor, “I will buy X if you had Y within Z timeframe,” and you can even write that into your contract (usually witholding payment and/or preventing the vendor from recognizing the revenue until they do it).

But if you’re a potentially large customer that would happily adopt OpenStack if it just had Feature Y, you have miminal recourse. You probably don’t actually want to write Feature Y yourself, and even if you did, you would have no guarantee that you wouldn’t be maintaining a fork of the code; ditto if you paid some commercial entity (like one of the various ventures that do OpenStack consulting). You could try getting Feature Y through the community process, but that doesn’t really operate on the timeframe of business, nor have any guarantees that it’ll be successful, and also requires you to engage with the community in a way that you may have no interest in doing. And even if you do get it into the general design, you have no control over implementation timeframe. So that’s not really doable for a business that would like to work with a schedule.

There are a growing number of OpenStack startups that aim to offer commercial distributions with proprietary features on top of the community OpenStack core, including Nebula and Piston (by Chris Kemp and Joshua McKenty, respectively, and funded by Kleiner Perkins and Hummer Winblad, respectively, two VCs who usually don’t make dumb bets). Commercial entities, of course, can deal with this “I need to respond to customer needs more promptly than the open source community can manage” requirement.

There are many, many entitities, globally, telling us that they want to offer a commercial OpenStack distribution. Most of these are not significant forks per se (although some plan to fork entirely), but rather plans to pick a particular version of the open source codebase and work from there, in order to try to achieve code stability as well as add whatever proprietary features are their secret source. Over time, that can easily accrete into a fork, especially because the proprietary stuff can very easily clash with whatever becomes part of OpenStack’s own core, given how early OpenStack is in its evolution.

Importantly, OpenStack flavors are probably not going to be like Linux distributions. Linux distributions differ mostly in which package manager they use, what packages are installed by default, and the desktop environment config out of the box — almost cosmetic differences, although there can be non-cosmetic ones (such as when things like virtualization technologies were supported). Successful OpenStack commercial ventures need to provide significant value-add and complete solutions, which, especially in the near term when OpenStack is still a fledgling immature project, will result in a fragmentation of what features can be expected out of a cloud running OpenStack, and possibly significant differences in the implementation of critical underlying functionality.

I predict most service providers will pick commercial software, whether in the form of VMware, Cloud.com, or some commercial distribution of OpenStack. Ditto most businesses making use of cloud stack software to do something significant. But the commercial landscape of OpenStack may turn out to be confusing and crowded.

Posted on August 15, 2011, in Industry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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