Last week I attended the OpenStack Summit in Hong Kong. What I saw, or what I think I saw, was so remarkable to me to be worth sharing in a more articulated way that Twitter (@a_perilli) allows me to.
Please note that being my first Summit, and being the event held in Asia, some of my observation may not reflect what I may see in a similar event in US or in Europe.
Specifically, I saw three things that merit a detailed report:
The emergence of a new class of IT organizations
The first day, during his keynote, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth asked the crowd how many were using VMware ESXi as their hypervisor of choice. Out of almost 4,000 attendees, only a handful of hands was raised. As a follow up, he asked if people preferred Open vSwitch or VMware NSX (formerly Nicira NVP). Again, very few hands raised (but truth to be told, VMware’s breakout session on the topic was very well attended). To me, it was a remarkable moment.
At Gartner, I focus on private cloud computing in the Gartner for Technical Professionals (GTP) division and in the last three years I interacted with many hundreds of large scale enterprise organizations, most in the Fortune Global 2000 group. The number of inquiries I get from this audience continues to grow exponentially, albeit most questions continue to focus on clearing up the confusion about OpenStack and understand its technical capabilities, maturity, and long term viability.
Traveling to Hong Kong, I expected to see a mixed audience, half composed of my typical enterprise audience and the other half composed of web scale companies, cloud service providers, and growing end user organizations. According to this expectation, I assumed to see a polarized audience of COTS software adopters and risk adverse large companies side by side with DIY believers and reckless organizations. It was not the case. What I saw is just the latter category, a world where VMware and many other mainstream vendors don’t have a place.
In further interactions with many people on site, my feeling grew significantly. I talked to organizations that show an attitude to risk more common in early stages startups than massive enterprises. These companies look at massive post-IPO web-scale firms like Google, Facebook, Netflix, and how they are rejecting packaged software in an unprecedented way and how they are building entirely homegrown computing stacks to become more efficient, more scalable, more competitive.
The OpenStack Summit attendees I talked to look at Facebook and how they developed their own automation stack to maintain their MySQL database, or at NetFlix and how they developed their own cloud infrastructure and management stack, or at Airbnb and how they developed their own uptime monitor system as models to follow. As result, OpenStack looks more attractive than most commercial solutions due to its inherent capability to mix and match different modules and deeply tweak the resulting cloud infrastructure stack.
The implications of a DYI approach are profound, and in some cases, organizations won’t see the impact of their choice for months, or years. While this is not the appropriate context to explore those implications (but my future research paper on OpenStack will touch on it), one point is out of question: there are a growing number of IT organizations that embrace risk in a new way and reject the established approach to enterprise software.
The question is if this new class of IT organizations will mature to a more risk adverse mindset as they grow, joining the pool of traditional enterprise companies, or if that risk tolerant mindset is here to stay. And if the latter: are vendors prepared to talk a language that resonates to this new class of IT professionals and offer them tools that can fit their needs? More on this in my third section below.
The divergence of opinions within the OpenStack community
The divergence of opinions within the OpenStack community is not news. Press, analysts (including Gartner’s Lydia Leong), and members of the OpenStack community covered this from many angles in the last three years. For example, just one day after the Summit ended, Andrew Clay Shafer, former VP of Engineering at CloudScaling (an OpenStack Foundation Gold Member), wrote a very relevant blog post on the topic.
Accordingly, I doubt I can add too much value to the chorus, but having experienced the divergence firsthand, I think it makes sense to highlight a point related to it. I saw two camps, polarized around what should be hosted on OpenStack:
- The “purist” camp, who believes OpenStack should be used exclusively to host “cloud-aware” applications (i.e., scale out, latency aware, fault tolerant, non-resilient workloads). In this camp, there are individuals who believe in, and vocally evangelize, a world where traditional multi-tier LoB applications should stay on VMware. They are telling to curious enterprises that there’s no place for traditional workloads in an OpenStack world.
- The “pragmatic” camp, who believes OpenStack can be used to host both cloud-aware and traditional applications.
Why am I calling the latter group “pragmatic”?
The emerging new class of IT organizations I mentioned in the previous section can afford to be more risk tolerant and enthusiastically embrace new, unproven technologies. That doesn’t mean that traditional large organizations wouldn’t want to do the same. An enterprise organization is subject to an enormous number of technical, organizational, political and cultural issues which bury most attempts to master the provisioning agility and operational scale seen at work in public clouds. Gartner for Technical Professionals advice (see my Field Research Actions to Take: Devising a Cloud Application Onboarding Strategy) to clients that prepare for application onboardiing in cloud environments is two-fold: focus on greenfield applications first, and develop an evangelization program to teach your developers how to think in terms of scale-out design rather than scale up. Hence, I understand where the “purist” camp comes from. However, we need to be pragmatic. The average large enterprise takes years to digest and execute the aforementioned advice. In some cases, it takes a generation change before their application portfolio starts to look how the OpenStack “purist” camp would like to like it to be. Meanwhile, these large organizations still see reasons to consider OpenStack (i.e., direct or indirect reduction of cloud infrastructure costs) as a hosting platform for their traditional LoB applications. The “purist” camp is telling this audience that OpenStack is not the product for them until they managed to develop scale-out greenfield applications, with the net result of freaking them out.
Whatever is the purpose and focus of OpenStack from this perspective, it’s time for the OpenStack Foundation to be more vocal, clarifying the message and work to align the message of participating members. The wrong message spreading too fast and too far has the only result of impacting in a negative way the perception of the industry at large being hesitant adopters, analysts, press.
The disruption within established vendors
As I briefly mentioned at the end of my first section, many established vendors may not be able to recognize the emergence of a new class of IT organizations, and many be unprepared to serve it as needed. You can tell by the legacy, tired messages that were prepared for the OpenStack Summit keynotes by too many distant, old school marketing teams. Those messages didn’t resonate to the audience and that was obvious to everybody, including the keynote speakers themselves.
And yet, during the event I talked to many talented and passionate individuals that were representing these many established vendors. Groups of people in engineering, marketing, sales, that see the emergence of a new IT world and the urgency to develop a new language and new tools. Those are the rebels within their vendor organizations. The ones that are fighting a battle against their own colleagues to change the mindset and to highlight the opportunity. It’s a difficult battle which requires a lot of political skills, determination, and time as far as I can tell.
These individuals are driving a change in their organizations but their attempts may be killed by the lack of vision and the slowness in execution. The biggest risk for vendors is to lose these talented individuals, defeated and departing to a technology startup where their skills can be put at better use. Vendors who don’t listen to their own OpenStack teams may lose the only resources they have to get in the new IT world I saw at the Summit.
Now it’s time for me to go focus back on the technology side of OpenStack and the way too many commercial distributions available on the market. A lot to be said on that too.