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Beware the steep OpenStack install learning curve

One startup's failed OpenStack install highlights the challenges that remain in implementing the emerging open source cloud platform.

OpenStack continues to gain support from large vendors and enterprises, but a failed implementation at one now-defunct...

startup serves as a cautionary tale about the challenges that persist with the technology.

A 30-person company based in Massachusetts that was developing a standalone application spent several months trying to implement an OpenStack private cloud with HP Helion before being shuttered earlier this year, according to Brian Tarbox, a software engineer who worked there.

The company, which Tarbox asked not to be named, certainly didn't fail because of the unsuccessful OpenStack install, but the amount of time poured into the exercise did raise questions about the merits of using the open source cloud platform.

"It just seems like there's a lot more configurations involved and part of it may have been that we didn't have a lot of experience [with OpenStack]," Tarbox said.

Several employees at the Massachusetts startup had experience using Amazon Web Services (AWS), but weren't allowed to use it. The company was partially funded by HP, which has become one of the biggest OpenStack contributors and built much of Helion on the open source cloud platform. Tarbox claims they were given a mandate that any move to cloud had to be with OpenStack.

As a result, there was a tremendous amount of time wasted on the ultimately unsuccessful implementation, said Tarbox, a TechTarget contributor who has over 30 years of software engineering experience.

"I'm all for disrupters and so on and betting on the underdog, but if you're betting against Amazon in the current market, you better have a darn good reason," Tarbox said.

OpenStack: Don't go it alone

OpenStack is an attractive private cloud option for enterprises such as Wal-Mart and PayPal because of the potential for control with governance and security protocols. But it's best to go with an implementation partner if your IT team doesn't have OpenStack skills, said Dave Bartoletti, principal analyst for Forrester Research, Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass.

"You need consulting; you need training," Bartoletti said. "Right now, you need to have a pretty big team if you're going to do it from scratch."

Indeed, there was a steep learning curve for Helion and OpenStack, Tarbox said, but the company saw a benefit in building a cloud that could be vendor-agnostic.

I'm all for disrupters and so on and betting on the underdog, but if you're betting against Amazon in the current market, you better have a darn good reason.
Brian Tarboxa software engineer

The application the company was developing had multiple components. At least half could have been replaced with services Amazon provides, such as Simple Storage Service, Simple Notification Service, and Identity and Access Management -- support services whose equivalents aren't currently available in Helion, Tarbox said.

Because of the employees' experience with AWS, they also considered Eucalyptus, the open source private cloud service compatible with Amazon that HP acquired last year.

"That seemed like a great answer to run AWS on Eucalyptus on HP hardware, but we had no experience [with Eucalyptus] and it was very difficult to find people in HP itself who had experience with it," Tarbox said. "It seemed like a great notion, but it was hard to know how real it was."

Know what you're getting into

With the growing momentum behind OpenStack, it's no wonder IT teams want to give the open source platform a shot. A broad range of vendors offer OpenStack support, including Mirantis, VMware, Red Hat, Inc. and legacy infrastructure providers such as IBM and HP, which just launched its latest product last month to ease OpenStack deployments.

Cirba Inc., a capacity planning and performance management vendor in Richmond Hill, Ontario, recently added support for KVM environments that run OpenStack. Popular as it is, OpenStack is only part of a larger puzzle, said Andrew Hillier, Cirba's CTO and co-founder.

"People think it does a lot more than it does," Hillier said. "If you're running a cloud environment, it's just a small portion of it. It ends up being a big integration exercise to tie it into everything else."

Users need to put things around OpenStack to manage resources and determine where to put workloads, including things like IP address management and authentication systems, Hillier said.

Installing OpenStack independently might be the only option if there are specialized security and governance needs, but all things being equal, it's preferable to go with a supported distribution, said David Linthicum, senior vice president at Cloud Technology Partners, a consulting firm in Boston.

Some distributions are easier to install than others, but it takes some internal technical knowledge once it's up and running, Linthicum said.

"It's gotten better in the past couple years and we suspect it will get better as times goes on, but it's still not an Amazon, Microsoft or Google in terms of ease of getting things on board," Linthicum said.

It's important to be clear on what your expectations are going in, Bartoletti said. It will likely be harder than expected because it's not a push button technology, despite the progress that's been made.

"The core services of OpenStack are solid and they've been around long enough, but it's still a little raw," Bartoletti said. "It's an open source project that's still being commercialized."

For Tarbox, the benefits aren't worth the challenges that remain for the still emerging technology when there are more robust options available.

"It's nifty being the trailblazer," Tarbox said, "except when it's not."

Trevor Jones is the news writer for SearchCloudComputing. You can reach him at tjones@techtarget.com.

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Has your company had challenges implementing OpenStack? Are they outweighed by the benefits of using the technology?
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Why in the world does a startup deploy a private cloud?! That's an insane waste of engineering talent, regardless of the platform.
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The title should just be "private cloud is harder than public cloud". The article doesn't compare the learning curve for installing OpenStack to any other cloud that can be "installed". Instead it compares installing a private cloud based on OpenStack with using a vendor-managed public cloud. Of course the private cloud is harder.

The article also fails to mention that there are easy-to-use public clouds based on OpenStack like Rackspace or HP Public Cloud, that only Microsoft out of "Amazon, Microsoft or Google" has a private cloud your can run in your own data center (the other two only offer "virtual" private clouds) or to compare ease of installation of an OpenStack private cloud with a comparable alternative lik Microsoft Private Cloud or OpenNebula.
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