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Open source cloud tools preferred, but IT skills, standards needed

Organizations who want to do cloud at scale have turned to open source tools after becoming dissatisfied with proprietary cloud management platforms.

LAS VEGAS -- IT pros representing large organizations say the best way to do cloud at scale is to do it yourself using open source tools.

That was a common theme running through presentations here at the Cloud Connect Summit in which cloud architects representing companies including Warner Music Group, the U.S. federal government, Target and PayPal, presented on their experiences using custom tools to create large cloud computing environments.

"Git is our toolbox," said Jonathan Murray, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Warner Music Group. "If you need a solution that doesn't exist, look on GitHub."

Open source software for running clouds available on GitHub includes Netflix OSS, a toolkit that addresses availability, cloud management, infrastructure services and developer productivity, among other things. Another big fish in the cloud, IBM, is one of the biggest adopters of Netflix OSS, according to a presentation by Adrian Cockcroft, formerly of Netflix, now a technology fellow at Battery Ventures. 

In fact, scratch the surface of many proprietary vendor tools and you'll find open source underpinnings, said Mayuresh Shintre, cloud platform architect for the Target retail chain.

Shintre expressed dissatisfaction with proprietary cloud management platforms that aim to manage multiple clouds, saying they reduced the functionality available in cloud-native application programming interfaces (APIs) to about 30% of the original feature set.

"There is a tradeoff," Shintre said. Enterprise cloud architects can let end users go cloud-native via APIs and get full cloud functionality and freedom to experiment, but that leaves aside governance and risk management, he said.

"The higher up you go [in abstraction layers] you gain some benefit, but then you end up compromising the ability for a developer to fully harness the native cloud feature sets," he added.

Many proprietary cloud management platforms that purport to be multi-cloud today are also Amazon Web Services-centric, Shintre said.

Time to value, or the time it takes for IT to create cloud architectures of use to the business, is both a crucial and difficult component of delivering clouds at high scale, said Warner Music's Murray.

"With any vendor that turns up at your door and tells you they have the solution to the time-to-value problem, there's one of three things going on," he said. "The first thing is, they don't really understand the problem, the second thing is that they may understand the problem, but in order to solve the problem you've got to buy in only to their view of the world, or basically they're lying. Take your pick."

The trouble with open source cloud -- lack of standards

Customizable, open source software is all well and good for companies willing to do the work, but one consultant working for the U.S. federal government found a mess when he tried to find industry standards around cloud for his organization to implement.

There are about 65 emerging standards meant to address cloud computing, according to Michael Biddick, CEO of Fusion PPT, a strategy and technology consulting firm based in Vienna, Va.

Within that, "there's a whole universe of Internet technology and standards that can be applied to interoperability and portability," which were priorities for the government as it explored cloud computing.

"Our customers were hoping for a universal portability mechanism," he said. But such a tool does not exist.

"If you are a believer in standards, it is incumbent upon you to try to move vendors and service providers in that direction," he told IT pros here. "There is no silver bullet."

Another issue when it comes to open source software is finding the talent to work with it, which all the speakers acknowledged is a big problem in the market today.

Observers watching the presentations also asked how smaller companies could take advantage of the benefits these larger players have realized through customization of open source utilities.

That's where OpenStack comes in, according to Scott Carlson, cloud infrastructure architect for PayPal.

Most of the vendors in the IT infrastructure industry have jumped on the OpenStack bandwagon, and are "really, legitimately trying hard … we don't even have to ask any more if they support OpenStack," Carlson said. "You can find somebody to work with you."

Two representatives of a relatively small government contractor in the audience said they balance cloud development between VMware Inc.'s vCloud stack and an OpenStack cluster in the research phase.

"Open source tools have developed a lot in the last couple years," said one of the contractors, who requested anonymity. "But there's a flexibility versus time-to-value tradeoff."

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

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