July 22, 2013

Reality Check: OpenStack is Not the Next Linux

Editor's Note: This is the third article in a new series by SUSE community marketing manager Brian Proffitt for Linux.com called "Reality Check" that will take a look at Linux in the real world. For more in this series see 5 Linux Features You Want in Your Company and Defining the True Success of Linux.

Brian-ProffittLinux is wildly successful, free and open source software and represents the future of operating systems.

OpenStack is wildly successful, free and open source software and represents the future of cloud computing.

Therefore, OpenStack is like Linux.

As much as it would be nice to wrap up the OpenStack cloud computing platform in a neat little bow and offer it up to the great gods of allegory, there are key differences in the basic origin stories of OpenStack and Linux that make the comparison a little strained.

Take that second sentence above, and re-work it to reflect a little less hype and more reality:

OpenStack is burgeoning success, open source software and represents the future of cloud computing, provided it can survive against a market behemoth in the form of Amazon Web Services.

This might seem nick-picky, but it is important to distinguish where Linux and OpenStack are today and how they got here. It may not seem fair to compare the more mature Linux to the younger OpenStack, and pooh-pooh any similarities. But this is not just an issue of maturity, or how far down the path each of these technologies are. The fact is, the paths Linux and OpenStack took and are taking to achieve success are very different.

The origins of Linux are grounded in the rather organic growth of the free software Linux kernel, which was plugged together with compilers and other pieces of software to form the Linux operating system. This was a very grass-roots movement, which would only later attract the interest and resources of larger corporate players.

The origins of OpenStack, which were firmly rooted in open source licenses, are very different: Also, there is really no "core" OpenStack—the platform is a conglomeration of tools that handle tasks like compute and storage. OpenStack has also been very heavily involved with larger corporate interests almost from the very start, not the least of which was RackSpace.

Until the launch of the OpenStack Foundation, RackSpace used to catch all kinds of grief about the perceived lack of openness of the project. One company in particular was very outspoken in its criticism of RackSpace, telling Gavin Clarke at The Register in 2011:

"You see a lot of people dabbling [in the open-source cloud], but the question is: When do we get real code and real contributions from third parties? There's the OpenStack project that has a lot of people signing up, but when you talk to the people, the vast majority is the press release; a lot of people are keeping their options open."

That, by the way, was Scott Crenshaw, Red Hat vice president and general manager of Red Hat's cloud computing business unit, on the occasion of Red Hat's launch of its own cloud computing offering Aeolus.

Red Hat challenged OpenStack's open source street cred last year before the Linux vendor had decided to throw in its lot with OpenStack. At the time, Red Hat was trying to imply that this commercial management of OpenStack was automatically a bad thing.

Fast forward to today, and now Red Hat is being perceived as the knight in shining (red, of course) armor that will swoop in and bring the same level of success to OpenStack as it did Linux. Apparently, getting OpenStack more open was more about getting themselves involved in the cloud computing project rather than any sense of open altruism.

Of course, I would imagine that IBM, HP, Dell, SUSE and RackSpace might have something to say about this perceived OpenStack power play.

Red Hat's complaints two years ago highlighted the fundamental difference between Linux and OpenStack: Linux is a community-built technology that was adopted by vendors. OpenStack is a commercial project that was released to a community.

Another key difference is the uphill battle that both platforms had to face. Linux had UNIX and, to a lesser degree in server space, Microsoft Windows. But Windows was never a serious contender in the enterprise server rooms, and UNIX, while a big presence, had a big disadvantage against Linux due to UNIX fragmentation and having to run on expensive hardware.

OpenStack has its own huge arch-nemesis in cloud computing: Amazon Web Services, which is so big in the marketplace, a lot of serious people don't think OpenStack has a chance in hell of succeeding. There are advantages to using OpenStack—not the least of which is avoiding lock-in to AWS cloud computing—but AWS services are so prolific and cheap, it will be a hard row to hoe for OpenStack.

For those two reasons, I think that it is important to resist calling OpenStack the "Linux of the Cloud." I have strong reservations that this will ever happen unless a purely commercial-free version is available, for one, and for two, I think the comparison over-simplifies the real contributions both technologies have made to their respective sectors.

OpenStack is not "lesser than" Linux in any way; it has excellent qualities and just as much potential to succeed. But the path to success will have to be different than the path of Linux. They are serving different markets with different needs and different motivations.

Open source software is often painted with the same brush, but individual projects have their own journeys to success and failure to undertake.