Monthly Archives: April 2012

Do Amazon’s APIs matter?

For those who have been wondering where I personally stand in the brouhaha over Amazon, Citrix, Eucalyptus, CloudStack, OpenStack, Rackspace, HP, and so on, along with the broader competitive market that includes VMware, Microsoft, and the Four Horsemen of management tools… I should state up-front that I hold the optimistic viewpoint that I want everyone to be successful as possible — service providers, commercial vendors, open-source projects, and the customers and users that depend upon them.

I feel that the more competent the competition in a market, the more that everyone in the ecosystem is motivated to do better, and the more customers benefit as a result. Customers benefit from better technology, lower costs, more responsive sales, and differentiated approaches to the market. Clearly, competition can hurt companies, but especially with emerging technology markets, competition often results in making the pie bigger for everyone, by expanding the range of customers that can be served — although yes, sometimes weaker competitors will be culled from the herd.

I believe that companies are best served by being the best they can be — you can target a competitor by responding on a tactical basis, and sometimes you want to, but for your optimal long-term success, you should strive to be great yourself. Obsessing over what your competitors are doing can easily distract companies from doing the right thing on a long-term strategic basis.

That said:

Dan Woods over on Forbes has written a blog post about questions around Amazon’s API strategy, and Jim Plamondon (Rackspace Developer Relations) has posted a comment on my blog about Amazon ecosystem zombiefication.

I’ve been thinking about the implications of Amazon API compatibility, and the degree to which it is or isn’t to Amazon’s advantage to encourage other people to build Amazon-compatible clouds.

I think it comes down to the following: If Amazon believes that they can innovate faster, drive lower costs, and deliver better service than all of their competitors that are using the same APIs (or, for that matter, enterprises who are using those same APIs), then it is to their advantage to encourage as many ways to “on-ramp” onto those APIs as possible, with the expectation that they will switch onto the superior Amazon platform over time.

But I would also argue that all this nattering about the basic semantics of provisioning bare resource elements is largely a waste of time for most people. None of the APIs for provisioning compute and storage (whether EC2/S3/EBS or their counterparts in other clouds) are complicated things at their core. They’re almost always wrappered with an abstraction layer, third-party library, or management tool. However, APIs may matter to people who are building clouds because they implicitly express the underlying conceptual framework of the system, though, and the richness of the API semantics constrain what can be expressed and therefore, what can be controlled via the API; the constraints of the Amazon APIs forces everyone else to express richer concepts in some other way.

But the battle will increasingly not be fought at this very basic level of ‘how do I get raw resources’. I recognize that building a cloud infrastructure platform at scale and with a lot of flexibility is a very difficult problem (although a simple and rigid one is not an especially difficult problem, as you can see from the zillion CMPs out in the market). But it’s not where value is ultimately created for users.

Value for users is ultimately created at the layers above the core infrastructure. Everyone has to get core infrastructure right, but the real question is: How quickly can you build value-added services, and how well does the adaptibility of your core infrastructure allow you to serve a broad range of use cases (or serve a narrow range of use cases in a fashion superior to everyone else) and to deliver new capabilities to your users?

Ecosystems in conflict – Amazon vs. VMware, and OpenStack

Citrix contributing CloudStack to the Apache Software Foundation isn’t so much a shot at OpenStack (it just happens to get caught in the crossfire), as it’s a shot against VMware.

There are two primary ecosystems developing in the world: VMware and Amazon. Other possibilities, like Microsoft and OpenStack, are completely secondary to those two. You can think of VMware as “cloud-out” and Amazon as “cloud-in” approaches.

In the VMware world, you move your data center (with its legacy applications) into the modern era with virtualization, and then you build a private cloud on top of that virtualized infrastructure; to get additional capacity, business agility, and so forth, you add external cloud IaaS, and hopefully do so with a VMware-virtualized provider (and, they hope, specifically a vCloud provider who has adopted the stack all the way up to vCloud Director).

In the Amazon world, you build and launch new applications directly onto cloud IaaS. Then, as you get to scale and a significant amount of steady-state capacity, you pull workloads back into your own data center, where you have Amazon-API-compatible infrastructure. Because you have a common API and set of tools across both, where to place your workloads is largely a matter of economics (assuming that you’re not using AWS capabilities beyond EC2, S3, and EBS). You can develop and test internally or externally, though if you intend to run production on AWS, you have to take its availability and performance characteristics into account when you do your application architecture. You might also adopt this strategy for disaster recovery.

While CloudStack has been an important CMP option for service providers — notably competing against the vCloud stack, OnApp, Hexagrid, and OpenStack — in the end, these providers are almost a decoration to the Amazon ecosystem. They’re mostly successful competing in places that Amazon doesn’t play — in countries where Amazon doesn’t have a data center, in the managed services / hosting space, in the hypervisor-neutral space (Amazon-style clouds built on top of VMware’s hypervisor, more specifically), and in a higher-performance, higher-availability market.

Where CloudStack has been more interesting is in its use to be a “cloud-in” platform for organizations who are using AWS in a significant fashion, and who want their own private cloud that’s compatible with it. Eucalyptus fills this niche as well, although Eucalyptus customers tend to be smaller and Eucalyptus tends to compete in the general private-cloud-builder CMP space targeted at enterprises — against the vCloud stack, Abiquo, HP CloudSystem, BMC Cloud Lifecycle Manager, CA’s 3Tera AppLogic, and so on. CloudStack tends to be used by bigger organizations; while it’s in the general CMP competitive space, enterprises that evaluate it are more likely to be also evaluating, say, Nimbula and OpenStack.

CloudStack has firmly aligned itself with the Amazon ecosystem. But OpenStack is an interesting case of an organization caught in the middle. Its service provider supporters are fundamentally interested in competing against AWS (far more so than with the VMware-based cloud providers, at least in terms of whatever service they’re building on top of OpenStack). Many of its vendor contributors are afraid of a VMware-centric world (especially as VMware moves from virtualizing compute to also virtualizing storage and networks), but just as importantly they’re afraid of a world in which AWS becomes the primary way that businesses buy infrastructure. It is to their advantage to have at least one additional successful widely-adopted CMP in the market, and at least one service provider successfully competing strongly against AWS. Yet AWS has established itself as a de facto standard for cloud APIs and for the way that a service “should” be designed. (This is why OpenStack has an aptly named “Nova Feature Parity Team” playing catch-up to AWS, after all, and why debates about the API continue in the OpenStack community.)

But make no mistake about it. This is not about scrappy free open-source upstarts trying to upset an established vendor ecosystem. This is a war between vendors. As Simon Wardley put it, beware of geeks bearing gifts. CloudStack is Citrix’s effort to take on VMware and enlist the rest of the vendor community in doing so. OpenStack is an effort on the part of multiple vendors — notably Rackspace and HP — to pool their engineering efforts in order to take on Amazon. There’s no altruism here, and it’s not coincidental that the committers to the projects have an explicit and direct commercial interest — they are people working full-time for vendors, contributing as employees of those vendors, and by and large not individuals contributing for fun.

So it really comes down to this: Who can innovate more quickly, and choose the right ways to innovate that will drive customer adoption?

Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets.

Citrix, CloudStack, OpenStack, and the war for open-source clouds

There are dozens upon dozens of cloud management platforms (CMPs), sometimes known as “cloud stacks” or “cloud operating systems”, out in the wild, both commercial and open source. Two have been in the news recently — Eucalyptus and CloudStack — with implications for the third, OpenStack.

Last week, Eucalyptus licensed Amazon’s API, and just yesterday, Wired extolled the promise of OpenStack.

Now, today, Citrix has dropped a bombshell into the open-source CMP world by announcing that it is contributing CloudStack (the Amazon-API-compatible CMP it acquired via its staggeringly expensive Cloud.com acquisition) to the Apache Software Foundation (ASF). This includes not just the core components, which are already open-source, but also all of the currently closed-source commercial components (except any third-party things that were licensed from other technology companies under non-Apache-compatible licenses).

I have historically considered CloudStack a commercial CMP that happens to have a token open-source core, simply because anyone considering a real deployment of CloudStack buys the commercial version to get all the features — you just don’t really see people adopting the non-commercial version, which I consider a litmus test of whether or not an open-core approach is really viable. This did change with Citrix, and the ASF move truly puts the whole thing out there as open source, so adopters have a genuine choice about whether or not they want to pay for commercial support, and it should spur more contributions from people and organizations that were opposed to the open-core model.

What makes this big news is the fact that OpenStack is a highly immature platform (it’s unstable and buggy and still far from feature-complete, and people who work with it politely characterize it as “challenging”), but CloudStack is, at this point in its evolution, a solid product — it’s production-stable and relatively turnkey, comparable to VMware’s vCloud Director (some providers who have lab-tested both even claim stability and ease of implementation are better than vCD). Taking a stable, featureful base, and adding onto it, is far easier for an open-source community to do than trying to build complex software from scratch.

Also, by simply giving CloudStack to the ASF, Citrix explicitly embraces a wholly-open, committer-driven governance model for an open-source CMP. Eucalyptus has already wrangled with its community over its open-core closed-extensions approach, and Rackspace is still strugging with governance issues even though it’s promised to put OpenStack into a foundation, because of the proposed commercial sponsorship of board seats. CloudStack is also changing from GPLv3 to the Apache license, which should remove some concerns about contributing. (OpenStack also uses the Apache license.)

Citrix, of course, stands to benefit indirectly — most people who choose to use CloudStack also choose to use Xen, and often purchase XenServer, plus Citrix will continue to provide commercial support for CloudStack. (It will just be a commercial distribution and support, though, without any additional closed-soure code.) And they rightfully see VMware as the enemy, so explicitly embracing the Amazon ecosystem makes a lot of sense. (Randy Bias has more thoughts on Citrix; read James Urquhart’s comment, too.)

Citrix has also explicitly emphasized Amazon compatibility with this announcement. OpenStack’s community has been waffling about whether or not they want to continue to support an Amazon-compatible API; at the moment, OpenStack has its own API but also secondarily supports Amazon compatibility. It’s an ecosystem question, as well as potentially an intellectual property issue if Amazon ever decides to get tetchy about its rights. (Presumably Citrix isn’t being this loud about compatibility without Amazon quietly telling them, “No, we’re not going to sue you.”)

I think this move is going to cause a lot of near-term soul-searching amongst the major commercial contributors to OpenStack. While clearly there’s value in working on multiple projects, each of the vendors still needs to place bets on where their engineering time and budgets are best spent. Momentum is with OpenStack, but it’s also got a long way to go.

HP has effectively recently doubled down on OpenStack; it’s not too late for them to change their mind, but for the moment, they’re committed in an OpenStack direction both for their public developer-centric cloud IaaS, and where they’re going with their hybrid cloud and management software strategy. No doubt they’ll end up supporting every major CMP that sees significant success, but HP is typically a slow mover, and it’s taken them this long to get aligned on a strategy; I’m not personally expecting them to shift anytime soon.

But the other vendors are largely free to choose — likely to support both for the time being, but there may be a strong argument for primarily backing an ASF project that’s already got a decent core codebase and is ready for mainstream production use, over spending the next year to two years (depending on who you talk to) trying to get OpenStack to the point where it’s a real commercial product (defined as meeting enterprise expectations for stable, relatively maintenance-free software).

The absence of major supporting vendor announcements along with the Citrix announcement is notable, though. Most of the big vendors have made loud commitments to OpenStack, commitments that I don’t expect anyone to back down on, in public, even if I expect that there could be quiet repositioning of resources in the background. I’ve certainly had plenty of confidential conversations with a broad array of technology vendors around their concerns for the future of OpenStack, and in particular, when it will reach commercial readiness; I expect that many of them would prefer to put their efforts behind something that’s commercially ready right now.

There will undoubtedly be some people who say that Citrix’s move basically indicates that CloudStack has failed to compete against OpenStack. I don’t think that’s true. I think that CloudStack is gaining better “real world” adoption than OpenStack, because it’s actually usable in its current form without special effort (i.e., compared to other commercial software) — but the Rackspace marketing machine has done an outstanding job with hyping OpenStack, and they’ve done a terrific job building a vendor community, whereas CloudStack’s primary committers have been, to date, almost solely Cloud.com/Citrix.

Both OpenStack and CloudStack can co-exist in the market, but if Citrix wants to speed up the creation of Amazon-compatible clouds that can be used in large-scale production by enterprises trying to do Amazon hybrid clouds (or more precisely, who want freedom to easily choose where to place their workloads), it needs to persuade other vendors to devote their efforts to enhancing CloudStack rather than pouring more time into OpenStack.

Note that with this announcement, Citrix also cancels Project Olympus, its planned OpenStack commercial distribution, although it intends to continue contributing to OpenStack. (Certainly they need to, if they’re going to support folks like Rackspace who are trying to do XenServer with OpenStack; the OpenStack deployments to date have been KVM for stability reasons.)

But it’s certainly going to be interesting out there. At this stage of the CMP evolution, I think that the war is much more for corporate commitment and backing with engineers paid to work on the projects, than it is for individual committers from the broader world — although certainly individual engineers (the open-source talent, so to speak) will choose to join the companies who work on their preferred projects.

The Amazon-Eucalyptus partnership

Eucalyptus, a commercial open-source cloud management platform (“CMP”, software used to build cloud infrastructure), recently announced that it had signed a partnership with Amazon.

Eucalyptus began life as a university project to build a CMP that would create Amazon-API-compatible cloud infrastructure, but eventually turned into a commercial effort. However, like all other CMPs offering Amazon compatibility, Eucalyptus has always lived under the shadow of the threat that Amazon might someday try to enforce intellectual property rights related to its API.

With this partnership, Eucalyptus has formally licensed the Amazon API. There’s been a lot of speculation on what this means. My understanding is the following:

This is a non-exclusive technology partnership. Eucalyptus now has a formal license to build products that are compatible with the AWS APIs; at the moment, that’s EC2, S3, and EBS, but Eucalyptus can adopt the other APIs as well if they choose to. Amazon may enter into similar licensing agreements with others, enter into different sorts of partnerships, and so forth; this is a non-restrictive deal. Furthermore, this partnership is not a signal that Amazon is changing its stance towards other products/services with Amazon-compatible APIs, where it has to date adopted a laissez-faire attitude.

This is an API licensing deal, not a technology licensing deal. Amazon will provide Eucalyptus with API specifications, including related engineering specifications not provided in the public user-level documentation. However, Amazon will not be giving any technology away to Eucalyptus — this is not engineering assistance with the actual implementation. Eucalyptus will still need to do all of its own product engineering.

There is no coupling of Amazon and Eucalyptus’s development cycles. While Amazon will try to inform Eucalyptus of planned API changes so that Eucalyptus is able to release its own updates in a timely manner, Eucalyptus is on its own — if it can keep up with Amazon, fine, if it can’t, too bad. Eucalyptus is not obliged to remain Amazon-compatible, nor is Amazon obliged to ensure that it’s feasible for Eucalyptus to remain compatible.

Some people think that this deal with give Eucalyptus some much-needed life, since it has met with limited commercial interest, and its developer community has yet to really recover from the rifts created by a past licensing change.

I personally don’t agree. With people increasingly writing to libraries, or using third-party tools (RightScale, enStratus, etc.), developers tend to care less about what’s under the hood as long as their favorite tool supports it. Yes, Amazon’s API has become a de facto standard, but I haven’t seen Eucalyptus be the Amazon-compatible CMP of choice; instead, I see serious adopters choose CloudStack (Citrix, from the Cloud.com acquisition), and the vendors who want to be part of an open-source cloud project put their support primarily behind OpenStack. I’m not convinced that this licensing deal, however interesting, is going to significantly either shift buyer desires towards Eucalyptus, or improve their community support.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,849 other followers

%d bloggers like this: