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Can an Open Cloud Compete?

A new foundation will promote free software as an alternative to proprietary cloud-computing technologies.

A new foundation, announced today, will attempt to promote a free, “open source” alternative for cloud computing.

The OpenStack Foundation, announced at the OpenStack conference in Boston, will maintain a suite of free software tools for building and managing a cloud-computing platform. The OpenStack software suite includes software for computation, storage, networking, and system management.

Many companies have flocked to cloud computing. It removes the need for expensive up-front investments in information technology departments, since computer power and storage can simply be leased. However, most cloud services are proprietary, and the technology used to run them is kept secret. Once a company signs up for one cloud service, it can be difficult to move to another provider.

In an address to the conference, Chris Kemp, who cofounded the OpenStack project last year, said he was leery of a cloud-computing world dominated by major players like Amazon. “By having just one major company provide infrastructure as a service, they’ve made decisions about how good is good enough, how secure is secure enough, how reliable is reliable enough, how cheap is cheap enough,” Kemp said.

The OpenStack project has had the backing of Web hosting company RackSpace, a competitor of Amazon’s. The first version of its software has been downloaded 50,000 times since it was released in October 2010. A number of successful free and open-source software projects, including the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server, are supported by similar foundations.

“OpenStack matters because it’s very hard to set up a cloud, very hard to manage a cloud, and every option out there is incompatible with each other,” says James Staten, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Among the 115 organizations already supporting OpenStack are Dell Computer, Cisco, and HP, which has built its cloud service using the technology. At least six different companies have been distributing the software.

Staten says establishing a foundation now to oversee OpenStack could increase business interest by heading off problems that have plagued other open-source products. Staten says a foundation means less risk that one company would control the code, or that the software would splinter into multiple incompatible versions known as “forks.”

On Thursday, Jonathan Bryce, founder of RackSpace’s cloud business and chair of the OpenStack project’s policy board, announced that RackSpace would donate its OpenStack trademarks and copyrights to the foundation.

OpenStack isn’t the only “open” cloud provider. Red Hat, a company that distributes free software, has been developing its own open-source cloud, called Aeolus; on Wednesday, the company bought Gluster, a startup that has contributed cloud storage code to OpenStack. Bryce has said that he hoped Gluster would continue to work with OpenStack, and noted that Red Hat was using some code developed for OpenStack.

Some other companies, including Facebook, have also been trying to encourage open-source design of the actual hardware used in large data centers, including power supplies and cooling systems. Some of the OpenStack tools need to be improved in order to compete with established platforms. Swift, which is OpenStack’s counterpart to Amazon’s Simple Storage Service, or S3, “is very basic,” Kemp said.

Kemp, who is also founder and CEO of Nebula, a startup developing a networking appliance for cloud computing, says that OpenStack’s future depends on ensuring that each component is top of the line. “If we don’t do those things well, the project will not achieve its potential. It won’t scale to the point where big telcos or enterprises can deploy it,” Kemp said. 

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