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Nerd fight 2013: The great OpenStack API debate

OpenStack APIs have become a topic of fierce argument within the open source cloud platform's community, ending in a contentious debate this week.

Denizens of the OpenStack community gathered this week to watch two members of the OpenStack Foundation duke it out over Amazon Web Services API compatibility within the open source software platform.

In one corner: Randy Bias, chief technology officer of the elastic cloud company Cloudscaling and an advocate for building out compatibility with Amazon Web Services (AWS) application programming interfaces (APIs) and architecture.

In the other: Boris Renski, co-founder and chief marketing officer of the software engineering firm Mirantis Inc., who argued on behalf of augmenting the existing OpenStack APIs.

Though both claimed during the debate that they didn't really disagree, the occasional cussing, shouts and hollers from the audience said otherwise.

I do not think you can ever really reach the cross-platform compatibility with two independent ecosystems.

Boris Renski,
chief marketing officer, Mirantis

Moderator and sometimes-debate participant Joe Arnold, chief executive officer of private cloud storage provider SwiftStack, kicked things off when he asked Bias if standardizing on someone else's API might stifle innovation within OpenStack.

"It's a little ridiculous to say that [the AWS APIs] stifle innovation," Bias said. "One, they're only one of the APIs in OpenStack. Two, they're extremely stable, so we're not talking about APIs that … break backward compatibility."

Innovation and standardization can be done simultaneously, Bias added, pointing out that it would be easier to transition customers off AWS and onto OpenStack if the two services had better compatibility.

Then there was the matter of hybrid clouds and moving workloads back and forth between AWS and OpenStack. AWS compatibility within OpenStack may not be important for IT shops building hybrid clouds today, according to Renski.

"I do not think you can ever really reach the cross-platform compatibility with two independent ecosystems innovating and building their native APIs independently," Renski said. "Anybody who is in their sane mind and is trying to run an application on top of OpenStack that is running on-premises, and then trying to burst into AWS, they will use some sort of proxy in the middle."

Comments from the audience during the debate were also passionate.

"It would be absolutely insane for the entire community to say, 'OK, carte blanche, we're going to go replicate all the APIs Amazon ever does -- they're a for-profit company trying to pursue their own interests; there's no … way they have the best interests of everybody else in mind," said one audience member. "So where would you draw the line?"

Renski conceded that an AWS flavor of OpenStack wouldn't be such a bad idea. "But I guess the point is, how much sense does it make to focus on it right now?"

Rackspace's role debatable

The debate got down to the nitty-gritty when it came to one of OpenStack's co-founders and its onetime largest contributor, Rackspace Inc.

The original API that OpenStack was built around was based on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud, but Rackspace later delivered its own version that then formed the basis for today's set of OpenStack APIs, Bias said.

"In many ways Rackspace poisoned the well on this," Bias said. "The Rackspace APIs aren't in there as an accident. It was a very deliberate move."

A different low-level API would get rid of this "inherent bias," Bias said.

"It has gone so far now that the former Rackspace API has become the native API for OpenStack," Renski countered. "I'm not saying it's a perfect API … but I disagree with the premise that … today the API is inherently poisoned."

In a separate interview with SearchCloudComputing following the debate, Rackspace chief technology officer John Engates took exception to Bias's characterization.

The Nova compute software was very immature when Rackspace came into the picture, Engates said. "It wasn't like Rackspace ripped apart this thing and put its own API in for its own reasons."

At the time, NASA was using the AWS API because it was transitioning away from Eucalyptus, Engates added. Rackspace's developers saw an opportunity to improve on it rather than "reverse-engineering Amazon and trying to copy what they had built," he said.

"On Day 1, when we announced OpenStack, the whole community started over and just started building what we thought the world needed," he said. "We were a community from Day 1."

AWS did not comment for this article as of press time.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for SearchCloudComputing. Write to her at or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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